6 Takeaways from 20 Years in the Trenches – Andy Fisher

It was my first day on the job. I was kneeling on the perps head in side control and the hatchet he had charged at me with was lying a few feet away.

It was more luck, than chance that had made me turn when I did; a second later and it would have been too late. Maybe, subconsciously, I heard the collective intake of breath from the others who were watching the attack unfold. Maybe it was some ancient instinct that told me shit was going down. All I know was that I turned back from writing on the whiteboard to see all the other kids in the class staring open-mouthed, while Mike pranked the trainee teacher.

It was almost the end of a beautiful career – I sent for the Deputy Principal, ignored Mike’s wails of protest and continued my lesson on the use of the semi-colon without the photocopied worksheets that were sitting on my desk. Even though the hatchet was, it turned out, a blunt prop from the Drama department, I was pretty sure that this kid was about to be expelled and I was going to be applauded for my courage and restrained use of force. Instead, I was reprimanded, had to arrange a meeting with Mike’s parents to apologise and was told in no uncertain terms that the remainder of my placement would be contingent upon not assaulting any more of the students in my care!

That was my introduction to the world of teaching back in 1995 and, against all the odds, I am still in the trenches and trying to make a difference. It is a job I love and, while some days it feels like I am trying to pass kidney stones while running through a stand-up routine and completing my tax returns between sets, I wouldn’t trade for any other career on the planet.

Teaching matters and a good teacher does far more than beat the finer points of grammar into future generations. If you want to do the job well it is a demanding, exhausting and unforgiving career which takes a lifetime to master. There is a reason why those in education must undertake postgraduate training before they can teach in their subject of expertise. You can be the world’s best doctor, gymnast or martial artist, but that doesn’t mean you will automatically be a great teacher too. Teaching is a craft which requires more than lip service, and that’s why I get a little pissed off when I see half-assed dojo delivery or Grandmasters preening their egos, without the first clue of how to inspire their students to realise their own potential.

If self-protection instructors were to invest just a fraction of the time into developing their skills as a coach, as they do in perfecting their combative techniques, the industry would be so much better off. Students would progress faster and enjoy their training more, while instructors would have more faith in their curriculum and provide learning opportunities congruent with their professed reasons for teaching in the first place.

So, what pearls of wisdom have I gleaned from more than two decades as a front-line educator? Well, let’s assume that we are starting from a position of subject matter expertise, rather than open that can of worms! Here are some of the considerations I try to transpose from the classroom to my own self-protection seminars and training classes.

Be the Guide on the Side

First, aim to be the ‘Guide on the Side’ rather than the ‘Sage on the Stage’. Just because an expert is able to demonstrate a skill and lecture in granular detail about the finer technical points needed to replicate it, it does not follow that anything has been learned. This is the fundamental flaw I see in poor coaching – the assumption that we learn by being shown; in reality we learn by doing, experimenting, playing and refining from experience. There will, of course, be a phase of instruction that will be didactic but as a rule of thumb, the learning occurs once the teacher stops talking and the students try to meet the drill objectives – assuming they know what they are!

Fail to plan, Plan to Fail

Unless a coach has a clearly defined set of goals, objectives and a lesson outline that will allow them to meet those objectives, the training will always be sub-optimal. The reason teachers find planning so frustrating is because it is bloody hard! It requires a real clarity of thought and a toolbox of training methodologies. The reason why McDojos have their students march up and down in rows, mindlessly repeating paint-by-number motor-patterns is because that is the fast food equivalent of a nutritious educational experience. It is easily replicated, requires little explanation and looks like work is being done. If the objective is to get a little fitter, learn to obey authority unquestioningly and earn a new belt every few months, the training protocol is entirely fit for purpose, otherwise it’s just empty calories and clever marketing.

Use the Right Framework

A decent teacher doesn’t adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach because we are not all one size…or one build, one height…you get the idea. In truth, the best teaching model I have come across is 1:1 Socratic mentoring, but this is not a business model that scales. Instead a decent self-protection instructor needs to find an approach that doesn’t just produce lines of clones who will succeed to the degree that their attributes happen to mimic their sensei. For those of you familiar with motor-learning pedagogy, you may have picked up the buzz of ‘constraints-led coaching’ and ‘principle-based learning’? While I haven’t the time or space to outline these methodologies here, I would encourage you to look into them if you are not already using them in your practice.

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