Being a Serious Beginner

Back in late 2014, I received an award which was, at the time, the highest form of recognition for fencing in the SCA’s Middle Kingdom (Indiana and the states surrounding it). It was and still is a deeply humbling honor, but one that came with a certain weight of responsibility. This feeling can best be summarized with two witticisms offered by a couple of dear friends. One said, “Congratulations, you’re a serious beginner now,” and the other said, “Watch what you say, people might actually listen to you now.”

I freely admit that I obsess over statements like these, because there’s an almost contradictory subtext to them. On the one hand, as a student myself, I was now under a greater degree of scrutiny from my peers not to rest on my laurels. At the same time, there was a new expectation to present myself as an authority figure, with an implication that I’d best hide any doubts in my own competence.

I’ve come to think of this latter expectation as one of the reasons I’ve encountered some fairly bad teachers over the years. After all, there’s a lot of pressure on martial artists who teach: you have to be good at what you do, you have to know why you’re doing it, and you have to be good at conveying it to others. Those or three totally different skill sets, and they don’t always go together.

If you’re not used to teaching, getting in front of a crowd and guiding them through structured exercises and to help them improve or learn a new skill set is a lot like fencing itself. You get out there, and you tell yourself you’re going to do your best, and one small mistake can totally take you out of the game. No matter how much you practice, you’re going to make mistakes, but just as the best fencers shrug off their bad days and learn from their errors, good teachers possess the honesty and self awareness to learn via trial and error. It’s the perseverance that counts.

Students are only accountable for the art they study, but teachers are accountable for furthering their own studies as they learn martial arts pedagogy. In a way, that makes teachers students twice over, providing them with twice the opportunity to fail and twice the room to grow. I’ve found that if you add writing about teaching to that, you ge a third layer altogether. But I digress.

Longsword Training 2015There are a lot of martial arts instructors who feel the need to appear infallible before their students. Normally, I write this off as the ego poisoning so common among competitive athletes, but also think that there’s a generally accepted notion that to display any sign of a lack of confidence is to undermine one’s own teaching authority. I don’t see it that way at all.

To me, no matter how much more experience I may have than my students, we’re both doing our best to learn and grow through these arts, and we’re doing it together. This is why I choose to run The Edge of the World as a study group leader, not a martial arts instructor. I made a living teaching martial arts for a while, and I didn’t enjoy it, so there’s no good reason to ruin my free time with the same facade.

One way I put this approach into action in my regular classes, is that I often present new material a bringing something cool I want to explore to the group, and we work through it together. Sometimes, we’ll work through a technique I thought I understood perfectly, only to discover that something I’m doing is fundamentally linked to a personal attribute, rather than technique. Those are the best learning opportunities, since my students get to experience the discovery process for themselves, and I get to help them take ownership for their learning.

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that, while confidence is important, I don’t see the place for exaggerated ego in the role of the instructor. This is why learning to conquer your ego as a student in the first place is such an important part of eventually becoming a good instructor. When it comes to exploring martial arts, the greatest gift we can give one another is the opportunity to err and the support we need to learn from the experience.

Written by Phil Selman

Known as Warder Philipp Reimer von Wolfenb├╝ttel in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Phil is a lifelong historical fencer and martial arts instructor. He specializes in I.33 sword and buckler and avidly enjoys late-period Italian rapier (primarily Giganti).