“While we teach, we learn” Seneca, Roman Philosopher
When I first learned how to make sushi at Big Fish Restaurant in 2006, the chef who trained me said: “you don’t know how to make sushi until you need to train someone else”. He trained me for a day or two, and then I was on my own. I managed the station fairly well during busy nights and I got to the point where I thought I was pretty good at it. About a year later, I had to train a new cook on the sushi station. I realized there was a lot of about sushi preparation I didn’t really understand until I had to explain it to the new cook.
I find the same principle in Aikido. When I teach an Aikido class I always learn something new about a technique, or a movement, because I have to break it down in my head in order to teach it.
The details that I may take for granted suddenly are front and center because they are critical to the execution of movements. When teaching, I am more aware of details, therefore I feel I’m becoming more proficient and skillful.
Last week I taught a Basic Japanese Calligraphy Workshop in Worcester, MA. I had a full class of students who were all beginners. Some were more proficient than others with a brush, but they were all still learning the basic fundamentals of Japanese Calligraphy. We spent the morning session practicing the 8 basic strokes of Japanese Calligraphy or the EIJI HAPPO. The afternoon session was spent practicing basic Kanji characters while focusing on the character EI which encompasses all of the 8 basic strokes.
I don’t usually spent my own practice time doing basic strokes. In fact, most of the time I take them for granted. I often grab my brush, ink it, and start brushing without thinking about strokes. However, since I was teaching a class, I had to spend three hours focusing solely on strokes and figure out a way to explain them to students in a coherent way. Calligraphy strokes have formal Japanese names, but they don’t mean much if you don’t speak Japanese. In order to help students remember them I have to give them a reference they are familiar with. “This is a dot,” or “this is a checkmark” or “I call this the spatula”. It is a way not only for the students to find the details but also for me as well.
As a teacher, I believe my role is not to give my students a direct transmission of what’s in my mind.
In fact that is impossible. Only I can do what I do. I worked under a chef once who said: “I can’t teach you how to cook, you have to take it from me”. Maybe he said so because he wasn’t a good teacher per se. But maybe also because if you wanted to learn how to cook like him the only way to do it was to watch him, taste his food and replicate. Toyoda Sensei said: “I can’t take my technique and give it to you, that is impossible. I create a teaching methodology so I can teach you and you create your own technique with your own mind”. My role is to give them the tools they need to discover their own calligraphy within themselves. I am just but a guidance on their path but the path if for them to discover.
Every Friday before I head to the dojo Rachel always asks: “What are you teaching tonight?” I always say that I don’t know. I have to wait and see who shows up. I never plan ahead an Aikido class because I need to wait and see who comes to class, what are their needs of that day, what level of training are they, and what is the energy and mood of the group on a particular night.
My calligraphy skills have gotten way better once I started teaching.
A while ago, I forced myself to learn how to brush calligraphy with my left hand. I have students who are left handed, and I wanted to experience Shodo practice from their perspective. Being able to use my left hand is a skill I acquired only so I could be a better teacher to my students.
The wonderful part of teaching is that it is actually more learning. My students teach me more than I can teach them. Each of them bring me new challenges and experiences that force me to look at what I think I know from a different perspective. More often than not, the lesson I learn is that I actually don’t know much at all, and if I want to stay ahead, I need to keep learning.