Abysmal Teachers

The first time I met Adam Hsu I was at his house attending a seminar on Bagua. In proper Chinese fashion we spent a pleasant half hour having tea before the lesson. We talked of many things including Chinese teachers. At one point I made the gentle reference to some teaching techniques I considered out of date.  Adam looked right into my eyes, “Are you complaining about Chinese teachers?”

I had to admit I was.

“Me, too,” he said. “I go to tournaments for instance and they come in and sit and pretend they know everything…”

At this point he started to tell me about one of his worst experiences with a Praying Mantis master. He recalled that every time he worked with this teacher the chain smoking onlooker would laconically remove the cigarette from his mouth, stare at Adam as though reviewing him mentally for the first time. A deep sound would issue from his throat, pulled up to a high note of acceptance which would inevitably crash to disappointment before the teacher, shaking his head, would replace the cigarette in his mouth. That was the totality of his instruction range. Sometimes the length of time to reach the inevitable negative conclusion would take a few extras seconds in which Sifu Hsu would vary what he was doing in an attempt to at least come closer to the right motion, but these attempts were always in vain. The teacher never gave actual feedback other than an initial silent demonstration and that same damning negative feedback.

I, too, have had my share of boobs. Some of these, even, are possessed with some skill; no, I take that back: ALL of these teachers have skill, that’s why they first confounded themselves and us by coming up with the misguided idea that they had something to offer in the martial field.

Believe it or not it’s worse if you have experience. Then the teacher not only wants to instruct you but convert you. He will take your knowledge as a permission to recklessly drive his car into the jungle undergrowth of martial theory, telling you everything from magical practices to intimacies about his sex life as a Qigong experiment.

Among the common bird varieties I have to add the Threatened High Belt. This is the teacher who shows you the ropes in sparring but, if you score a point on him intentionally or otherwise, clocks you. Bad enough this has the added embarrassing surrealism of him instructing you with the titular goal of seemingly trying to improve your skills, “You really should block those, “ he will say referring to a kick that just knocked you down, a kick you haven’t been taught yet; couldn’t recognize in a line up; and then will have to suffer the humiliation of trying to perfect under his tutelage.

Some people just think they have bad instructors where they don’t. For instance, the old Kung Fu rule is, “Don’t expect me to remember your name until you’ve been here two years.” In fact recognition in typical social terms is hardly part of martial training. We have our own standard. It goes like this, 1.) If your instructor yells at you, you’re in good shape. 2.) If your instructor never corrects you, you are either perfect or on a very dismal list. 3.) If your instructor really yells at you, you’ve made it! The lesson here is that you can’t always assume uncomfortable is bad.

No, to qualify as a truly bad instructor you have to be a poor and confused communicator, wear your ego on your uniform cuffs, and be generally small-minded. A good image is the blond surf-nazi in Karate Kid 1. This adds the further distinguishing feature of running a totally dysfunctional family… make that school.

How the observed specimen demonstrate on his students is an important mark. I’ve known teachers who almost couldn’t restrain themselves from dropping whoever was honored enough to be their “dummy” for demonstrations. First the lucky recipients are “tagged” with a little friendly rib shot, then dropped to the mat with a  gasp of neural disbelief, after which they are required to stand there, silent except for the wheezing, waiting for the Master’s explanation to alight on the next diabolical chapter. Dropping his charge  yet again the teacher struts around with a nonchalant air of someone who has mastered the art of ignoring other people’s visible discomfort.

A particularly common type of our feathered friend is the Long Winded Pedagogue whose only aspiration is to launch into inchoate philosophical diatribes. Freely displaying the entire medley of his one minimal insight he will construct moral masterpieces of nuance, “Words can never hurt you,” and philosophical revelations, “There’s yin and yang. If I call you a name, that’s yin. But if I punch at you, that’s yang.” A sub-species is that instructor  who uses a mat as a low pulpit. He will not only teach you martial arts but explain current politics, the benefits of buying this car or that, and—just as a freebie—who will capture the pendant this year.

Directly opposite is the Speckled Tuneless Sifu. Just to think of this recalls  a Shaolin instructor of mine in a conversation with one of this top students. “Sifu, I just realized I’ve been doing that wrong for years. I have to change my posture from this to that, and then, etc.” A minute of silence, followed by, “You see, I couldn’t have told you that.” Overhearing this my first reaction was, yes, you could have told him that. Immediately followed by wondering what I hadn’t been told over the years. But had the instructor actually spoken of these things he would be going against his nature, we assume.

A subtly infuriating instructor is the one with dissonance problems. He or she knows what to do truly and correctly but hasn’t figured out yet that correlation between instructions and sought-after results. “I don’t know, you just have to suck everything toward your center, that’s all.” This plumage goes with a special doubly handicapped variety because they have a rare avian disease that prevents them from being able to imagine any alternative method of explaining anything. They are condemned to a hell of repetitive explanations which never served, and the same incomprehensible speeches forever. You, relatively lucky, are only forced to hear these mutterings in purgatory until you’re released from or leave that particular  school. This is the unfortunate example of a good teacher who is still, ultimately, bad.

You will note that I’m not mentioning those vultures who sexually prey on students, or borrow money from them, or embezzle from their schools. I’m writing here of bad teachers. Bad people is another sadder subject. We’ve all had a bad teacher or two and can somewhat laugh them off,  shaking our heads, and admitting that the worst of them gave us something even if it was in the order of reverse lessons. Bad people are much more difficult to laugh off.


3 Responses to “Abysmal Teachers”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Right on! I have come to the conclusion that teachers like these, in every field behave like this cause they have little control over their lives so they want control over YOU. After awhile, I don’t laugh them off but insist they “teach me a thing or two” about fighting but they never do or fail in their technique but I’m one who still tries to practice the “art of saving face”and say something like, “I was just lucky”, or you are having an “off day”, or “Wow! That was a great technique you just did on me!” But, from their faces, we know who won. Of course there are bad students also, but that is a whole other story.
    Alas, we sometimes have to be like the ocean and accept everything. =)

  2. neal prentice says:

    Great article. This happens in all disciplines of life. People who have knowledge but just are not wired for teaching. A truly bad teacher is a poison for the mind and spirit. You have rightfully made a strong statement to call out these people.

  3. Uwe Schwenk says:

    While the article is right on the money, in my opinion the problem lies in the fact that having the skill is one thing and being able to convey the skills to students is quite another. Good teachers are far and few between…

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