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A student learns to be a teacher.

How to Teach HEMA –Communicating-

I am, by trade, a history teacher at a public high school. At the time of this article I have 15 years of service behind me. When it comes to Historical European Martial Arts, I have been teaching since around 2010 along with John Patterson, and before that taught on and off again for a great many years under the direction of Greg Hinchcliff of the Loyal Order of the Sword.

The adage is, “those who can’t, teach.”

To be a great teacher, and that is what I want to be, I had to ensure that at first, I could do. Thus, began a lengthy road of establishing myself in HEMA. Win tournaments, or at the very least make my way to the finals? Check. In multiple weapon types? Check. Have students who win tournaments? Check. Have a student’s student do the same? Check. Write a book or two on HEMA? Check. Get involved in the HEMA Alliance which supports the art? Check. Be invited around the world to teach? Check. Have a brick and mortar place to practice? Check. A nifty logo? Check. Website? Check. Argued on Facebook with the masses to little or no avail? Check.

You get the idea. You need to be able to ‘do’ so as to overcome that old adage which is repeatedly proven to be false, but will forever remain in the consciousness because there are teachers out there, in every discipline, who indeed can’t.

Doing, does not mean winning all the medals, or writing all the books, or having a brick and mortar school. What it does mean though is that you need to be able to strive for what is important in being a teacher in HEMA. I want to help you do that by writing articles on how to teach.


First, you need to be able to communicate. There is an art to teaching that reveals itself in the presenting of information. Students need to be engaged, otherwise only the most dedicated will want to come back.

A former history student of mine returned on a break from his college. I asked, “How is college?” 

The student grimaced.

“It is very hard. My teacher mumbles and I can barely understand him, and he has no interest in us. He isn’t like you.”

“How so?”

“He was hired as an expert in his field, not as a teacher.”

The most skilled fencer in HEMA will have little impact on his students if he is unable to communicate. To be able to service the students, and that is what a teacher’s role is, the teacher must be engaging. This is something that can be trained. By nature, I am an introvert, quite content to hide away from the world in a deep pit of abyssal darkness. However, I teach for a living, I then as a hobby teach HEMA two to three times a week, and go present at seminars around the world. How?

I learned to be a story-teller and showman, while balancing out the needs of the student. I am able to ‘turn on’ the presenter when I need to. Give an impromptu speech? Check.

This is a skill you can practice by doing a few things.

Eye contact is the first skill to learn. This is not a strong stare at anyone, but rather, when presenting, look at the audience as a whole. From time to time, look at one audience member, then ensure they have returned the eye contact. For a brief moment you are speaking just to them, or it appears that way to the audience member. Before it gets strange, look at the audience as a whole again and later, repeat the one on one eye contact with a different audience member.

Using your hands is another skill. Nervous teachers will put their hands in their pockets, or fidget. Instead, your hands should be used energetically when emphasizing something important. My hands tend to be doing nothing, until I am describing an action. This can be a part of telling a story, or, it can be in preparing the audience to understand a technique. Gesturing to yourself emphasizes something you believe or want heard, while gesturing to the audience indicates you want them to think about something.

Saying, “You need to…” is more effective when you point and say the same thing.

Little gestures will eventually become natural when you are speaking. If you would like to see a rather humorous way to parse this out, enjoy this parody TED TALK.

Timing is one of the hardest skills for a teacher to master. A part of my HEMA club, the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship, is about getting people to learn how to teach. Once a student is competent, I have them teach the lesson. I will guide as necessary, and rarely correct any mistakes until later. This CAN be done later and believe me, the audience won’t notice the change during the next lesson.

These students who are teaching for the first time tend to mimic me. While they may not be great presenters, they are usually fairly good about expressing information in small, digestible blocks. Trouble occurs when these students get good, or great at fencing and the source material.

One of my students became great. He won medals, he demonstrated great skill, he read the source material voraciously and was everything a teacher could hope for. However, he was at first, a terrible teacher. He could ‘do’, just fine, but he could not teach.

The student, turned teacher, lacked a sense of timing. The audience can only focus for so long. They are students, most of which who are not signing up for a college level class on HEMA. This means deep information is lost on them and it is far better to sparsely cover a lot of material than drill down on one specific thing. That comes later, after the students are comfortable with the big picture.

My guy talked too much. The attention span of the audience varies. The younger they are, the less their attention span. While talking about the nuances between two similar sources may excite you, it does not excite the students- not yet.

Pacing back and forth, my guy would hit all the right parts, talk about all the realities of sparring as well as the theoretical, then the mechanical and through it all reference source material.

He would have made a great college professor, but not a good teacher.

He needed to learn a sense of timing. Realizing this, on his own, he made adjustments. The material he covered became smaller. Books with pictures were presented to emphasize a point. He would demonstrate with his hands, or a sword, what he wanted done. He stopped pacing so much, and would make direct eye contact. In short, he learned how to teach. He’s a good teacher now and because of it, he’s better at understanding his art.

Did it take long for him to become a good teacher? Will it take you a long time?

Actually, no. The audience’s mood can be felt and if they fidget, or check cell-phones, or repeatedly need to go get a drink, you know you are talking too much, or not changing up what you do.

The more you talk the more you need to break up the dialogue to keep the audience interested. Using a source material and pointing out pictures, picking up a sword and doing something, or picking out an audience member, and demonstrating something on them (with extreme care!) are all ways to break up the dialogue.

Repetition helps. I teach the basics, at least every other week because my club has a revolving door of new students. Some stick, some are only there for the one visit- but for me that is fine. I get to practice my opening lesson on What is HEMA? 

I used to go through all of Fiore’s guards, then realized how bored they were and now I cover all of Fiore, with interactive drills, all in two hours. My river is a mile wide, and only an inch deep, but interesting the entire time. It has worked well in retaining students. The more I practice the same lesson, or seminar, such as Polish Saber, the better I get as a teacher.

Story-telling is part of HEMA. We are studying history after all! I often start my seminars with an anecdote and end it with an anecdote. Those at a seminar expect more of a show than my day to day students. Anecdotes should be short and to the point, to help be an exemplar, or it should set context, or it should have a firm purpose.

John Patterson, co-founder of the Phoenix Society, often retells the same story about sparring that ties in specifically to a technique he is teaching. As many times as John has told the story, he always shows enthusiasm for it, as if he is telling it for the first time. This is not on accident. Enthusiasm is infectious. If you like a story, they like a story, if you like a technique, they tend to like it!

When I run a seminar on Polish Saber I always end with an amusing story about a Frenchman encountering a Pole and how that Pole end ups giving his daughter, land, clothes and finally saber to the Frenchman. It is a funny story by itself, but it also ties in to the narrative of the whole seminar. Throughout the seminar students are given contextual glimpses of 17th century Poland so by the time I get to the story at the end, it makes sense, it is relevant, and it is funny- always a good way to end it! Best of all, the students have a much deeper understanding of who these people were.

You can see and hear it here

Note the eye contact, but it doesn't linger, the use of my hands, my enthusiasm and the effect it has on the audience.

Another aspect about communicating is reward. A teacher who is there for themselves (and they are common) do a disservice to their students. Students are not props, they are the heart and soul of teaching. To that end, when teaching you need to reward students.

This can be done by having them perform a technique in which they are the winner against you. You follow up by telling them all the right things they did. This is good for the student and the audience. They see success rather than the teacher, who already knows things, defeating the ignorant.

While it may be necessary to be the winner in the demonstration of the technique at first, if the students are never in the winning position then all they will take away from the lesson is that, yes- you know more than them.

Audience questions can be a blessing and a curse. A short and easy question that ties into the lesson is fabulous. When given one, if the student was not loud, repeat the question out loud and then answer it. Keep the answer brief because the audience will lose interest except for the one who asked the question.

A bad question is when an audience member asks a non-relevant question. 

While I was teaching Fiore’s dagger, I had a student ask about katanas. Rather than engage him, I said, “I’ll talk to you about that after the lesson. Don’t forget now!”

Which he did.

Because deep down, the question was a distraction and born of idle curiosity and not a profound desire to know about katanas.

From time to time, remember to tell a joke or smile. A goal in teaching is to make a connection with the audience. While you may be an expert in your field, your students are not college students. They want to be there and they need to be convinced that staying is worth their while. Smile at them. Tell a joke that ties into the lesson. Tell a short story that is relevant. Being personable is not easy for everyone, but it can be practiced like any other skill.

The last bit of advice I have when it comes to communicating is that to remember being the sage on the stage is great, but the guide on the side is better. What does that mean?

If you are doing a seminar, you are expected to be a bit of a star and act the part. They called you out to teach!

However, if you are working with regular students that is not the best approach. Instead, try to balance out time when you are doing something and they are doing something. Overall, they should be doing a lot more than you in a regular lesson. I find that as time goes by, I talk less, show more, and stand back and watch more. My end goal is that if they stick with me long enough, they will not need me.

When the time is right, I then pick a student to teach. This is where they can become better as well because one of the best ways to learn a thing is to teach a thing. They, and you, might not be smooth to start with, but over time you will practice and become a great communicator, which is the first step in becoming a great teacher.

Expect more articles on the subject!

Richard Marsden is the co-founder of the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship

He has a Bachelors in Secondary Education with a focus in history and a Masters in Land Warfare

His latest books out are
Polish Saber

Historical European Martial Arts in its Context

If you are interested in HEMA 


Polish Saber 

or any other 

book by Richard Marsden and/or 

Tyrant Industries.