Richard talking to another instructor (former student) and future instructor (current student)
Please do not judge my cap too harshly.
Opinion pieces can be tricky and hurt feelings. I was asked to write this (twice now) and so, forgive me for my opinions! Now, on to the controversial subject.
Are you an impostor?
If you are reading this in all seriousness, then no, no, you are not.
The HEMA community, by and large, is humble and more than a few times I’ve seen people openly question themselves, not realizing that they were A, displaying humility and B, showing a genuine concern if they were doing more harm than good. I’ve always been impressed by that thoughtfulness.
Not long ago I ran a seminar for instructors and one of the topics brought up was the issue of being an impostor. Instructors wondered what they needed to do to be legitimate in teaching and how not to be seen as a fraud.
In my time in HEMA I have met only a handful of people I would define as impostors and they were those that did not fully understand HEMA, had no intention of learning more, and yet claimed expertise. These people are rare and usually implode or grow up a bit and learn. If HEMA were more established, perhaps they might have become cult-leaders using no-touch swordsmanship techniques.
Our community is clearly unsteady on what makes someone valuable as an instructor though. I have been a teacher in the High School for, as of the writing of this article, seventeen years. Day in and day out I have worked alongside educators and coaches. I can say, with a degree of certainty, I know who’s a fraud (almost none), and who is good at their job and who is great (only a few) at the school.
In the HEMA community, I have watched and worked with and taught and been taught by a variety of instructors and seen the frauds (almost none), those were are good, and the great (only a few). So- whose who?
No, I’m not going to name anyone and for all you know maybe I’m making up archetypes so as to try and impress upon you a concept- so don’t even try to guess. Assume these are stand-ins and not actual people.
The Impostor = Not you. You made it this far into the article and a true fraud wouldn’t because they might have to question themselves. The impostor is someone who defines themselves by HEMA and their personality is linked to it. It makes for a dangerous combination because such a person will delude themselves and try to delude others. Such charlatans can’t fence and largely, can’t teach, but instead mostly ramble on topics they have little understanding of, but yet have maximum confidence in. Again- not you. True impostors get called out fairly quickly because they draw both attention, followers and ridicule in quick succession.
The Good Teacher = Nearly every instructor falls into this category. A good instructor is someone who knows HEMA, the sources, the techniques and can demonstrate them. Throughout your HEMA career, this is the category where you and most others will fall.
Are good teachers tournament winners? Maybe. Do they fence? They have to- or they do not understand application.
Do they know everything? No. Do they know something? Yes.
Good instructors tend to be one-dimensional. Example, someone who teaches Fiore, but only really understands the longsword material. It is where I was for years until I took the time and effort to learn more, looking not only at my source material, but comparing it to other sources as well as listening and watching other instructors. My you-tube is pretty much my HEMA-stalker tool.
Good instructors may know a tremendous amount, but not be able to teach well. The greatest fighter cannot be a great teacher if all they can do is fence. Teaching through fencing is fantastic, but not if that is the only way information is shared. My instructor from when I was young, self-admittedly, was not a great teacher, but a great fencer. I learned much from him, but it took bruises, welts, cuts, a few broken bones and nearly two decades. What he taught me in so long a period I can impress upon my students in a year or three. He was a good teacher and thanks to him sometimes I’m a great one. (More on that boast later)
Conversely, teachers who cannot apply what they teach do not fully understand it. Some of my more radical thoughts on Fiore I try to demonstrate in sparring, as a test of my own theories. I once doubted an instructor’s interpretation, until, during a sparring match he not only completed the technique ‘his way’, but did so while staring at me on the sidelines. I knew an instructor who was unable to demonstrate what they taught, and so they took a few months, perfected it and then could do as well as teach. Did they always win? Of course not, but they clearly could ‘do’ what they asked others to try and perfect.
If you are unable to fence, and never were able to fence, then you can never really understand what you are teaching. That’s not the same as being a winner at all things all the time and yes, time grinds us all down- but by and large HEMA is a young art and most instructors should still be able to fence, or at the very least have a healthy background of doing what they preach.
The savant also falls into the category of a faulty teacher. A knowledgeable person, who knows the sources inside and out and has beautiful theories and connections, yet they cannot express it to an audience has a problem. Somewhat like the mythical Cassandra, who could see the future, but no one could understand her.
Teaching is hard because it is not just ability and knowledge that makes a good teacher. Great fencers can make for bad teachers, knowledge people can be unable to share that knowledge and poor fencers can come up with bad theories. I don’t find any of these examples as imposters, just teachers with faults. Most of us as we learn and grow will probably relate to one of the above.
Yet, practice does make perfect and over time faulty teachers can get better at doing their job. I’ve seen it time and again as the great fencer learns to be a great teacher and the knowledgeable person finally finds that way to share their wisdom with the unlearned.
The Great Teacher = I find that the greatest teachers of my career and of my HEMA-life are those who can teach.
It’s a combination of, knowledge, their ability to relate to others, the ability to answer questions, use of analogies, and the ability to adapt their lesson to a varied audience, be it one person, or ten, novice or expert or mixed.
It takes years of teaching to become a great teacher and even then- great teachers are not always great. I think I can be a great teacher. There’s a reason I have successful students and people pay me to go visit them. There’s a reason that in my work I’m valued and my material is used and shared by others. I can say I can be great with confidence.
However, let me also say I can fail and falter and even be proven wrong. Perfect-master I am not, and doubt I’ll ever be. For every time I think I am great at teaching, something comes along to remind me that- not always and of course, there are those who are and always will be better than myself.
It’s how life works for most of us mortals.
Part of being great at teaching means also trying new ideas out, testing them, and be willing to admit when they are wrong. I’ve seen some great instructors claim one interpretation, then another, then go back to their original idea. I did not see this as a weakness on their part, but as a strength- especially when they had a rationale for what they were doing each time.
If you consider yourself a good teacher, then also consider if you are great at something, such as getting a student to perform a technique. If you are great at that, then try to be great at teaching another technique and so on. Just like fencing, teaching needs to be practiced and adjusted in order to try and get better at it.
Experience can lead to wisdom and stagnation. Simply being involved in HEMA will give you wisdom and over time that can be used to make you a great teacher. You will pick up examples of what you want to teach. That said, long years can also lead to intellectual laziness. I’ve been guilty of it myself where I’m convinced I can learn nothing new about a topic- then often do as fate reminds me to stay grounded.
Teaching others to teach is a true mark of a great teacher. It is not easy either. You need to be able to not only express information, but be able to train and work with others so that they can do it as well. You need to be able to take students and guide them to be good and hope they one day can be great.
At the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, John and I pride ourselves on doing this. Our students, eventually, become instructors. Some of them are quite good and some have left our fold to go on to be teachers elsewhere.
Great teachers make teachers – not lifetime students.
To be great, also consider someone in your life, not necessarily in HEMA, who is in your opinion a great teacher. Something they are doing is something you might be able to model, adapt and use. Besides, it's the ultimate compliment to learn to teach from someone!
Summary = You are not an impostor. You’re probably a good teacher and could get better. To be great, you need to consider teaching as a skill like you would fencing. A great teacher is not great all the time.
HEMA is young, and I believe we need more instructors to draw in more people. We’re growing fast and someone has to be there to teach the others new to us. There are not enough great teachers to go around and never will be. Instead, the good teachers need to get better.
To be great means practicing the art of teaching.
Did you like the article?
Consider a book from Tyrant Industries. The latest tries
to practice what I preach. Ben Winnick translated while
I interpret - doing my best to be a good teacher in my
Get it on Amazon today! Remember, it's never
Out of Stock. Order it and you'll get it!