Thoughts on Teaching and the Constant Striving towards Emptiness and Excellence
By Chungsanim Betty Sze
One of the biggest gifts from Sabumnim that I've received over the past 21 years of martial arts is the practice of teaching. You might think I mean as an instructor, but from my first time working with a white belt to current times leading my own class as a senior instructor, I knew that my martial arts understanding deepened when "teaching." As someone who did not (and sometimes still doesn't) pick things up quickly, teaching is an excellent way to embed a technique or form, or sometimes, even more importantly, to make me realize when I actually don't know what something is.
Because of this, teaching is also a great exercise in humility. There's nothing like demonstrating a technique on someone and realizing that it doesn't quite work as well as I thought it would. Trust me when I tell you that many of us black belts are still polishing Basic Defense. Something that Sabumnim told me a long time ago that still resonates is that I needed to work my techniques so that I can do any of them on anyone at anytime. Teaching is a wonderful way to do that by constantly working with new people.
Teaching makes you revisit/rework forms or techniques that you may think you know well. Recently I worked with a high red belt on ropestick form and fixed something in my own footwork for one of the steps with which I've been having a problem. The martial artist you are today is different from the one you were a year ago and will be different from the one who you will be a year from now. Hopefully, future you will be better than the you of today because you are constantly polishing your basics.
Teaching is an excellent way to work on your communication skills and to learn how to read people. From working with many students, I realized that if someone was not getting a form or technique, that it's a good test to approach it from a different angle. Teaching has taught me patience and empathy. Being uncoordinated for much of my early martial arts years has given me an ability to connect to those who may be challenged when they first start to practice. It's definitely easier to teach a 20 something, physically coordinated and flexible athlete. Now if you can work with the uncoordinated, inflexible person who doesn't "get" things easily (like me at the start of my martial arts journey), you're at that next level in your martial arts. It’s also so rewarding to see them progress. Constantly revisiting basic forms and techniques also lets you develop an efficient way of communicating about them. Just like speaking French over and over improves your fluency, when you teach over and over, you pick up nuances in the forms and techniques that will not only help the student but will help you.
Make sure you embody what you teach. While Sabumnim may ask you to teach something that you learned just the day before, realize that's a rare occurrence. What will serve you is to practice something dozens of times before attempting to teach it. “Drilling the skill” and "Drilling the form" are crucial parts of teaching. If you don't know what that is, please feel free to ask me or any of the other senior instructors.
Knowing the curriculum is extremely important. Sabumnim is so generous with his knowledge but there's a reason that the curriculum is the way it is. It is structured that way to help the students grow as martial artists safely, quickly and confidently. Every so often you'll see Sabumnim have a white belt learn a higher level technique but he knows what is safe for that student. For everyone else, we should be mindful of working with lower belts on what they need to achieve their next level. Our duty as teachers (whether you're a blue belt working with a yellow belt or a senior black belt working with an orange belt) is always to take care and provide a safe environment for the students to flourish.
Teaching under Sabumnim is definitely a practice of constantly emptying one's cup, especially in learning the grand HapKiDo lesson that change is a part of life. Just when I think I "know", he surprises me about something. One thing that doesn't change, though, is his emphasis on the basics, the building blocks for a long and fruitful martial arts life. The recent April and May promotion tests made it clear that a number of the highest ranks (black belts/bodans) have forgotten this as they pursue some of the more advanced curriculum. Sabumnim told me that just in this last year, he has taught 14 forms and over 400 techniques in the black belt class and he is constantly still correcting basics.
To be ready for the next black belt test, there definitely needs to be a refocus back on basics which is best achieved by working with the lower ranks. What will be a fun exercise for the month of June is for the black belts/bodans/redbelts to work with the lower belts every time they come in. Even if it's just for 10 minutes--for example, revisiting grab behinds or outside sweeps or basic kick one steps--it will be invaluable for both the teacher and the student. Sabumnim let me know that if anyone needed coaching on teaching, to contact him. He also feels strongly that higher belts teach and assist as much as they can.
Sabumnim has said that there are those who can do, there are those who can teach, but the ideal is to be someone who can do AND teach. This is something that we should all strive for, to be like him in that regard. Some days I fail, some days I succeed, but part of being a martial artist is never giving up when I fail and to remain humble when I succeed. I may not always have the highest kick or sharpest form but when I work with people, I definitely feel like my own martial arts and my understanding of it improves.
I have left for last the best thing about teaching. It is so rewarding to be a part of other people’s journeys and helping even in a small way to change their lives for the better. With everyone’s busy schedules, there’s not much time and there’s few places where we can contribute so directly to other people’s lives and help them realize their power and potential. You can see the love and passion for teaching Sabumnim has and how he has passed that down from him to the Chungsanims, Kyosanims, and other senior instructors.
The practice of teaching has helped me grow, not only as a martial artist but as a human being. My hope for all students is to realize the priceless gifts that Sabumnim gives to us, and that we are much more than just another martial arts school, but a community that wants everyone to be the best they can be for themselves and their loved ones.