Friday, March 16, 2012

“Cause I’m bigger than you.”

Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this. It has been way too long. Life has been crazy, don’t you think?
A couple of years ago, I was standing in one of my schools and I heard the student ask the teacher why he had to do something. She responded with the title words, “Cause I’m bigger than you.” In defense of the teacher, let’s agree that sometimes we can all be flippant and impatient with students. Because I’m asked to have specific conversations with children about their behaviors in class and at home, I’ve put quite a bit of time into thinking about the most effective way to communicate with them. I’ve noticed some interesting truths. Even if you aren’t asked to talk to kids about their attitude and choices outside the dojo, you might find my experience and the resulting conclusions interesting.

Talking at Kids
Often I’ll watch an adult command a child and the adult isn’t even looking at the child. The exchange goes something like this: Adult “Stop spinning, Johnny!” The child stops, than starts again. By time the adult turns to look, it appears as if the child didn’t stop. Confusion begins already! I know we’re busy. I know we’re trying to get a lot done in our time with our students. My thought is only that we take time to actually BE with the students. Use all our senses - eyes, ears, and intuition - to create a strong environment for growth. I remind myself often that my students are much more likely to become what I show them than what I tell them. Students will emulate what we are.

What We Say / What They Hear
Keeping their attention.
One of the biggest complaints I have from teachers is that “Johnny doesn’t listen.” (So much so that I made a little song to help the kids remember.) Johnny would inevitably say “I’m listening, Sensei.”  I couldn’t see why it wasn’t working, so I watched and listened to the dynamic. I realized that the adult wasn’t being clear. She wanted the child to listen AND do what she asked. (In a best case, do it the First time she asked!) But that isn’t what she said.  Once I started explaining to the children that they not only had to listen, they had to “do what the teacher says”, things began to slowly change. The children really tried and the teachers learned that they weren’t being clear. You might see this happen in your dojo. I have and I’ve really listened to myself to make sure I was clear in my directions. It has been interesting and helpful both inside and outside the dojo.

The Words Themselves
Two great teachers at work.
I’m going to stay on the example I was just using. In that same conversation the teacher would say, in utter frustration, “Johnny won’t follow directions!” I turn to Johnny and say “What does it mean to follow directions?” Johnny says “To be good.” Smiling I would say (20 times at least) “It means to do what the teacher asks you to do.” I would have Johnny say it back to me. Slowly he would begin to change.  We all grew from that simple exchange. The child, myself and the teacher are all smarter, better communicators, and better listeners from that event.

An Old Karate Saying
When I received my first degree black belt and my teacher was talking to me about how to treat students, he said, “With one side of your hand demand from the student. With the other side of your hand earn their respect.” This stayed with me over the years. (The application when training adults is more subtle and possibly more physical.) However, where kids are concerned, I interpret this to mean that the children need to do what I say, when I say it. Simultaneously I am also there 100%: working, caring, looking; I am an active member of the training process. In this dynamic, both of the parameters above are met.  
Sometimes, during training, I stop and explain why I want things a certain way. This may be an unusual trait, as I have had more than one teacher and parent mention to me that they have adopted the technique after observing it. Two situations brought me to this idea of making sure that children had an opportunity to understand why I make the decisions I make. 1. I noticed confusion on the faces of students. The look made me stop and empathize with them. What would it feel like if someone twice as big as I am was barking at me without giving me a minute to understand. 2. Sometimes a student that is a little more courageous will question why he should do a certain thing. If your follow this blog regularly, you’ve read in previous posts that in children’s classes my biggest goal is all about the child. I want him (or her) to leave stronger, more confident, and more respectful than when he (or she) arrived. (Compare that to adult training where technology is the most important thing; individual moods and attitudes are [at best] secondary.) In order for a young person to grow in respect, adults need to make a little sense. SO….. I began to think, when time allowed, a little explanation would go a long way.
Sensei Thomas explaining.
One of the first times I remember explaining was when a fourth grade student asked why we do extra push-ups (aka punishment push-ups). As I explained, the look on the child’s face as he began to understand was priceless. An unintentional surprise was how wonderful it felt to clarify the concept in my thoughts as I was explaining. I knew why, but saying it aloud gave me clarity that was previously not there – an excellent example of the teacher learning more than the student.
Many times since then I’ve stopped training a small group to explain everything from what muscle group gets stronger with what exercise to why we bow.  I use intuition to distinguish between a child with a real inquiry and a student who is talking to be disrespectful, rude, or lazy.
Just recently I was teaching two brand new little guys (4 and 5 years old). We were starting kata and I asked them if they knew what ’memorize’ meant. One said “Oos Sensei, it means to forget.” I smiled at that response. After a quick back and forth about remembering something for a long time, we began our work.
Sensei Harrison having fun with the kyus.
The point, of course, is that our goal should be to create a population that will grow up courageous enough to do whatever is necessary each day, while, simultaneously producing men and women that are genuinely respectful. I can only see this happening in an atmosphere where respect and responsibility are mutual and communication clear. It is challenging to remain ‘fresh’ in our attitude day after day and year after year. For me one way to keep teaching fresh is to remember that, like my students, I am a work in progress.