Those That Can, Teach

There’s an assumption in many martial arts and in HEMA in particular that someone who spends a lot of time studying will eventually start to teach. This is reinforced by the relative youth of HEMA and the breadth of weapons and styles it covers, which means that if you want to keep studying the same weapons or treatises for any length of time, you’re probably going to need to show someone else how to do it. Of course, it isn’t phrased in that particular way. It’s usually cast into some version of “giving back to the community”.

There is, however, a question of how involved with teaching you want to be. There are degrees of being involved that need to be considered.

Stooge Level Are you confident enough with the equipment (and your instructor) to be poked and prodded as they demonstrate techniques?
Assistant Level Will you get more out of the current course if you help your instructor by assisting with the beginners? (Which you should discuss with said instructor first.)
Instructor Level Can you persuade your club to look at that obscure treatise for rapier and off-hand kitten (totally a thing, honest) if you offer to instruct it?
Dictator Level Do you want to start your own club to study your beloved polearms that no-one else seems to be interested in?

You may notice that somewhere between assistant and instructor levels is an amount of commitment that requires more than turning up for a weekly session, probably that moment where you realise you’re actually going to have to start doing homework and make sure you know more than your pupils do in the next session. This conflicts somewhat with the fact that sometimes I’d just rather be lying under a duvet wibbling, or sitting in front of a computer typing, or (unfortunately, when I have no choice and my employer demands) getting my day-job work done despite the fact that it clearly isn’t the day time any more. There’s also the small matter of me being a terrible teacher. Just ask anyone who was subjected to my attempt at the third question a few years ago. I wanted to return to smallsword, no-one else seemed to know how, so I came up with some basic instruction based on Angelo. I haven’t been asked to be the lead instructor of a session since, although I stooge and assist on occasion.

So, what other ways to “give back” are there if you don’t have an interest in teaching? What is there for those of us who can’t, whether that’s down to ability or having the time available?

Some clubs have committees and serving on said committee is always an option. If you’re not interested in a full on role as Chair / President / Dictator, there’s also the Secretary (the person who does the actual organising) or the Treasurer (the person who controls the purse). There may also be minor roles in being responsible for particular projects or responsibilities, such as looking after the club’s website or organising a guest instructor, which may or may not be formally recognised by having to sit on the committee. Again, these things take time but it’s also possible to manage some of them without going particularly out of your way.

(Clubs that don’t have a committee may still be interested in someone doing that little something extra to help out. It’s always worth asking whoever’s in charge.)

Again, I was the secretary of the club I still fence with for a bit over a year, although it’s more than a few years ago since I found someone more capable at organising everyone to replace me. I enjoyed the results of getting everything into place, I just found the amount of time it needed, even though I arguably didn’t spend that much time on it, difficult to fit in with everything else.

Evangelising is also a good deed. This does not mean grabbing people on the street and asking them if they’ve heard of your Lord / Lady, but requires a development of a sort of PR mindfulness. Work on that sense of when it’s a good time to explain to people what your favourite hobby is and maybe mention good places to go to to join in. Of course, as most explaining-what-martial-art-you-do conversations seem to come up when you look like a victim of domestic violence the morning after at work, this can be a hard sell. And other people don’t really like being evangelised at so it’s generally best to find a situation where people are at least half-willing to come and listen. My adventures in evangelism are probably another post altogether.

However, I think there’s one thing that people forget when they talk about “giving back”. They’re assuming that the relationship between an instructor and a student is a one-way conversation (didactic, in fact) and that once the student is on a level with the instructor there is nothing more to be gained by maintaining the regular relationship. Now, if you have a limited amount of time available and you’re determined to be the greatest swords-person who ever lived (or pole-person? Does that even work?) then you probably will want to find another instructor and your old instructor won’t be your main source of new material. This doesn’t mean they’re not your friend, your sword companion (pole companion? this is getting extremely dodgy).

It doesn’t mean you can’t attend their training sessions, as their equal but retaining respect for them and their methods as they are still an instructor of other people. If you are as good as your instructor, it’s highly likely that you will be used as a stooge to show the technique on, or an assistant to help correct individual students’ form in class so that everyone has had some one-to-one tuition, or an instructor to lead the people who’ve been coming for some time when someone totally new is also there (or assist the person who does if you’d rather not be in charge) without actually having to commit to homework.

In other words, you are part of a community and “giving back” is as simple as being present, taking part rather than passively accepting everything. Attend the club as often as you can fit into your lifestyle, speak with your fellow club members and get to know them. If you have the time and money, attend the interclub meetings and camping trips. I found it’s good to be involved in something when I attend these things so I’ve volunteered to stooge in friends’ classes. I’ve also kept time and been a touch judge in a competition or two. Of course, if you’d rather compete, then do that. In short, if you’re not confident about or interested in being a committed instructor of your martial art of choice, the best way to be involved in your community is to be fully present – and to assist someone else who wants to get out there. This doesn’t necessarily mean more time, it just means paying attention while training and supporting the others around you, whether they’re your club-mates or friends you make in the wider MA world.

(And, look! You can be didactic at any time, not just when you’re in front of several armed people.)


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