Lately, I’ve been asked by a few individuals who liked my writings to not only write something more about learning and studying, but also to write something that focus more on teaching aspects. So far I have written a whole lot about learning (like this post) and how to become a good practitioner. But teaching is something that I have always been reluctant to write about. First, teaching is something very individual and I don’t like to preach about how others should do it. As students are all different and different types of students need different types of teaching, there is no real point in telling people about what is bad or about who can’t teach. But still, teaching is an interesting subject which is hard to completely disregard.
But also, before getting starting with trying to verbalize my thoughts on how to be a great teacher, I should be honest about that, as a teacher, I don’t consider myself as anywhere near great. Nowadays, I only teach in private sessions to individual students, or for small groups not larger than 3 or 4 persons. I teach in my own way, and only things that I like myself, so there are a lot of things I won’t teach, and because of this my teaching is limited and not suitable for everyone. Maybe the people who like me and the things I do might consider it fun and rewarding to learn from me. But they don’t expect me to teach “like everyone else“.
So here are my dos and don’ts regarding teaching, and what to do to be a great teacher. If you want to fill in the gaps with things I have forgotten to mention, object, or if you have ideas related to these things, please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.
Don’t try to earn a living on teaching
Just let’s face it, there are already very few people who get a liking for tai chi enough to consider practicing it, and even fewer who are really serious and want to dig deeper into the art. If you want to earn your living on teaching Tai Chi, the income will always be more important than the content of teaching. You can’t really get around this. Then you need to arrange your school, classes and teaching in such a way that you will make sure you can have an income that you could live on. This would mean that you would always need to deliver what people expect.
If you teach Tai Chi as a martial art, you would probably at least consider some kind of grading system, some standard types of clothing or uniforms, or maybe print your logo on T-shirts. You would need to teach using a standard curriculum which everyone has to follow. If you want to develop your school into several classes, or even more schools, you would need to build up Some sort of hierarchy, which is something maybe not every serious practitioner would find an easy thing to accept. But you would really need to do this as senior students could take over your classes and teach their own classes.
It would take time to build up a larger organization, but it’s not an impossible thing to do, not even with Tai Chi Chuan. But every step you take in this direction would have to be more about building up a brand while figuring out what people want and expect, rather than about teaching Tai Chi as it was supposed to teach or even what Tai Chi could be if presented through it’s full potential. So obviously, the quality of your teaching, and what you teach, will have to suffer in one way or another if building up a big organization to secure an income is your main goal. There’s just no way to get around this problem.
So if you are going to focus only at being as a great teacher as possible, it is likely that you would not be able to earn much on teaching. But of course, if you are a great practitioner who has developed some rare skills people are looking for to learn, you might have people paying big money to learn from you. However, this would more likely be through smaller classes and private sessions, because teaching larger classes is the second thing you should not do if you want to become a great Tai Chi teacher.
Keep the classes small
Think about it for a while, think about how different types of classes are usually taught in music, arts and handicrafts. The real good teachers who teaches the most gifted students and produce the most high quality students always teach only very small groups or in private. Of course you would want to rather hire a great private teacher for your kid‘s piano lessons than put him or her in a public class. You would get full attention every single minute of those private classes. Learning and developing would go much faster. For a gifted student, there is often no other way to continue to develop further than to find a great private teacher.
Now, think about professional magicians, how they actually teach their students or disciples who really learns the art and the methods that are always hidden away from the public. The illusionist as a teacher usually only has one or two, or maybe a handful of students. This is how the art of professional magic is transferred from teacher to student, through a close relationship. This might be the modern type of teaching that comes closest to traditional Chinese martial arts teaching.
In the older days, teachers in the Chinese martial arts would mostly teach only through their own blood line, like someone in older days who dealt with pottery for a living, who learned from his own father and passed the skills onwards to his own sons, so they in turn could make a living on it. In older China, Martial Arts were mostly either a tradition only kept within the family or to very close friends, but sometimes they could be transmitted just like how professional illusionists do today. Still, they would mostly only teach it to maybe two or three trustworthy students or disciples in order to keep the secrets from reaching the public. Sometimes a martial arts skill was a kind of trading skill, but still, those skills were mostly only taught to a few.
And this is the way a Chinese Martial Art should be taught, within closed doors and in private, or at least in small classes. This is how a student can build up real skills (if the teacher really wants his or her students to become skilled, but this is for another topic.). However, If you only want to teach Tai Chi as a lightweight health exercise, there doesn’t need to be any kind of skill involved, and you don’t need to keep the classes extremely small.
Keep the hippies and Qi-huggers together in a separate class
But still, if you want to teach Tai Chi for health only, or teach both types of students – health and Martial Arts practitioners, keeping them separated in different classes is a good idea to consider. There are people who will never understand, or just refuse to accept, that the greatest health benefits from studying Tai Chi Chuan goes through practicing it as a martial arts. There are people who hate every type of violence and would never even simulate a punch properly because they don’t want to learn correct punching.
Therefore, it’s often better to keep this type of people away from the people who are mostly interested in the Martial Arts and combat aspects. Most Tai Chi teachers will mix everyone together in the same class, but personally I don’t like this approach. One suggestion you could consider is to start a class with 45 minutes to an hour as a mixed group, teaching basic exercises, forms and qigong type of stuff to these minutes, and then after a small break where the health-only enthusiasts can leave, you can continue on with the fighting applications, Push hands and so on. Martial Arts enthusiasts often need more teaching and more time with the teacher than the health-only people. So you might also think about charging them differently. But how to charge different people? This is another question.
Don’t charge too much, but also don’t teach for free
I’ve already said this, but it’s highly unlikely that you could earn a living on teaching Tai Chi. You will Most likely to need a regular job as your main income. So there’s really no need to be greedy. You don’t need to charge a lot. In China, many traditional teachers who only have a few students and teach in the traditional way, mainly inside their own homes, won’t charge anything. It’s often even considered ugly to ask for money.
So what the students do, is that they often buy their teacher useful gifts, fruits, foods, etc. If the teacher is old, students might help out fix something that is broken, go shopping and help out with other practical things. But a teacher won’t ask about those things, as Chinese people have this tradition in their own culture so Chinese students will do this by themselves without anyone having to ask for anything. And mostly, a Chinese student will feel uncomfortable trying to get something for free, and understand that he or she must get something in return. But if they don’t do this, the teacher might become reluctant to teach the goods or will stop teaching the student.
But here in the West, it’s a bit different, we mostly live in more selfish societies, so we don’t have this culture of giving things without knowing when and what to get back. So here it’s better to charge something. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but if you won’t charge anything at all, there’s a great risk that the students will get lazy, or come and go as they like. If they don’t pay something, they won’t feel the need to get the most value from what they have payed. So mostly, just to keep people coming to the classes, they need to pay something. Then, if you want to use the money to cover classroom expenses, preparing snacks for the classes or use it to buy them a dinner at the end of the semester, is all up to you. But you should really ask for something, even if it’s just to make sure that the students understand that they should show up regularly.
Focus on individual progress
Again, take a look at how Playing different instruments are being taught. Every student is different, some people learn slower and some people faster. Teaching people the same amount of hours, or keeping a curriculum of exactly one or two years, in order to let them progress one step further, would be an absolutely ridiculous thing to consider for any music teacher. Everyone want their students to progress as fast as possible, or at least to keep to the students own pace.
In Tai Chi schools, dragging the progress by keeping people to stay at the same level is something I regard as completely ridiculous. A good teacher wants their students to progress, and will keep on pushing them to develop further. If you keep faster, gifted students in a lower level than their own potential, they will leave. They will certainly leave and find someone much better than you, someone who understands what they personally need.
Keep the teaching personal, but also focused and professional
So keeping the classes personal and focusing on the individual is the best thing you can do, which again means that you can not have more students than what you can handle to teach on a more personal and individual level. But keeping classes personal should also mean to keep them focused, and the teacher should have a professional approach.
I myself like to hear a teacher telling related stories and I love to learn more about culture and history. But when people goes to class just to socialize and speak about what they did the last weekend, a teacher should step in and not let the lazy bunch derail the classes, or spend unnecessary time on personal nonsense. So personal here as a teacher means keeping attention to the individual student’s need, and not to waste time by getting too personal.
Be honest in your marketing to attract the right type of people
My final advice is to market yourself in a way that feels comfortable, confident, natural and honest. Don’t market or brand yourself through your teacher, your great Grandmaster or through an organization. You are the teacher, so brand yourself as a teacher, and not as someone’s student. It’s you, yourself who is going to teach your students, and not your chief instructor who you haven’t met in ten years, and it’s not your Great Grandmaster who has already been dead for 57 years. What and how you teach is about you and only about you. So if you want to get the students that will like what you are teaching, let them know you and make people understand what and how you teach.
And also: Don’t give people the same type of generalized curriculums that everyone else give to presumptive students and don’t just state what someone is supposed to learn in Tai Chi. Personalization of your own personal branding will be exactly what makes you to stand out from the crowd. Everyone teach in more or less the same way, so what do you offer and what can a student expect from you? The statements on your poster, flyer and homepage need all to be personal so that the teaching, and what you offer feels specific, clear and hopefully a little bit different from the crowd.
But at the same time, keep in mind that not everything is about you. As a teacher, you want some kind of recognition, but your students want to be recognized as well. Think about this for a while. Everyone student is unique and special, so how can you let a student know if you have the ability to see the individual student and can give him or her something personal, something that just that person needs? Maybe you cannot come up with a simple answer, but I do believe that this is something good to consider, both as a teacher and as you approach others as a Tai Chi teacher. As a teacher you need to know how to see and listen to each and everyone of your students. If a potential student can feel that you can do this, even before he or she shows up in your class, you have already won a great race with competitors in an already too crowded market.
And that’s all folks, …at least for now. I have a feeling that it will take some time before I write anything more on “Tai Chi Thoughts.” But as I am writing about teaching, I can give you a little tip. There’s a book called “The Martial Arts Teacher” By Jonathan Bluestein. He is a very experienced teacher and has a lot of thoughts and insights to offer. But before deciding if you want to buy it or take a closer look at it, you can read my interview with him here.
©David RL – Thoughts on Tai Chi