Teaching Dilemma: What Do My Students Expect?

Recently, on the Insight Taiji Facebook group, we got into a fascinating discussion about the challenges of teaching and the different kinds of student expectations that come across as teachers. As much as this was framed as a teacher’s dilemma, I felt that I came away with some lessons about how I set my own expectations as a student as well.

Anthony Court has been studying systems of health, healing, meditation and self-defense for over 41 years. He has taught and given workshops in Britain and Southern Ireland, and holds regular classes in Wales. Anthony started the discussion with this reflection:

Something that’s been on my mind over the last few years, and that has been the way that many new comers are going straight into more advanced forms and practices. I noticed this trend starting in the early nineties. I know I have been at these ‘Internal Arts’ for quite some time now, but when I first started my Taiji and Qigong training with Erle (after six years with other teachers) including Professor Chee Soo (who’s introduction to energy work, has always had such a profound effect on my practice), we practiced Yang Chen-fu for about six years, and only then started learning the Yang Lu-chan (in the old W.T.B.A. syllabus it was only commenced after gaining 3rd degree black belt level).

Over the past few years people have dropped into my classes, which normally consist of one hour of Qigong followed by one hour of form (the emphasis is different in the self-defence classes) recently one student in his twenties said at the commencement of the Yang Chen-fu form… “Oh! I don’t do that form, I only do the advanced form.” When I asked how many years he had been training he said “Three”. I then asked him to stand in ‘ward off left’ posture and was able to push him off balance with one finger.

This is not an isolated cases, people are coming to class, trying to do very small movements, expressing no yin or yang hand moments, and wiggling (for want of a better description) around a great deal. As for being able to defend them selves, forget it!

All that I have stated here is simply what I have witnessed over the last few years. It is not meant to be a reflection on any teacher, club or school or association. I simply think that basic training is somehow getting bypassed. It’s the same with ‘push hands’ and other practices.

After 34 years of training, 3 years in the ‘external’ systems, and 31 in the ‘Internal’ my approach has changed considerably. To me now, as the French say, “Less is more.” The only forms practiced in my classes these days are Yang Chen-fu, Small San-sau and Taiji Sword and other weapons. All the focus is on the ‘correct’ feeling, and understanding of movements, understanding how to connect the tendons, and the connective tissue for the development of power and speed etc. How does everyone feel about the above? I’d be very interested in your comments and observations. Or is it just me?

Everything that Anthony was describing sounded familiar. I tend to see this mentality play out in a slightly different way, though. So I wrote back:

I know what you mean and I think it’s part of a bigger cultural issue, maybe in the West in general, but definitely here in the States. The phrase that sums it up nicely for me is the “20 year overnight success story.”

Or as I read someone describe it lately, “other people only see your highlight reel.” Meaning, they don’t see all the day-to-day hard work that goes into practice, only the fruits of long practice.

Then, they see the results and think “I want that” but don’t realize all the small steps that go into it.

The only good news that I can see is in “deliberate practice” models of learning, from authors like Geoff Colvin and Malcolm Gladwell, where slow, incremental progress is being valued over flashy end results. I hope this kind of thinking continues and spreads in our culture!

Rodney Owen, who organizes this group, also weighed in.  Rodney teaches in High Point, North Carolina, and writes a blog on martial arts and mindfulness. He said:

I have a different problem with new students. Most of my new students have an idea of Taiji that is common, but not what I teach. Often they expect some new age floating yoga, or a class on nothing but some soft slow form–only. I teach Taiji as a complete martial art and form is only a small part of the whole picture. I teach Chen style, but my approach is probably similar to yours.

I see three distinct areas of Training that make up what I call proper Taiji: Qigong (including sitting meditation); Taiji form(s); and partner exercises. I don’t have enough students to have separate beginner and advanced classes, but I give everyone an outline or curriculum to follow. I ask new students to only be concerned with sitting meditation, standing Qigong, one or two simple dynamic Qigongs, and the Four Energies Form (Peng, Lu, Gi, An) for the first three months or so. I do not place a lot of emphasis on learning form, and I insist there is no reason to be in a hurry. At the same time, I start teaching partner exercises–push hands, sticky hands, chi na, chi sau immediately–not a lot, but as an integral component of training right from the start. I also am a big proponent of Qigong and sitting meditation. For anyone who comes to me interested in “Tai Chi for health”, I have a Qigong/meditation only class, that is quite fun and powerful.

My ruler, or standard of achievement is mostly fang song–acquiring a state of sung. If the student can be sung, still do the short form, 20 minutes of standing, push hands, and chi na without tensing up, then he/she is ready to consider more advanced training. I also keep it simple. We have a short form–12 movement, and long form–48 movement; a set of dynamic Qigong; and partner exercises noted above. And that is more than enough for anyone–several years worth of training.

From Rodney’s comment, you can see how clearly he sees the major practice milestones, e.g. maintaining “sung” through a practice session. The problem is that, compared to the funny arm-waving that most people equate with Tai Chi, the average person walking through his door has even less context for figuring out where to put that concept.

I wrote back:

Rodney, one of my favorite teaching moments was with a private student who insisted on learning the forms. I tried again and again to introduce more fundamentals like standing or simple qigong. One day, after about 18 months, he looked at me and said, “Can we just do Cloud Hands”. Haha, victory!

I find this mentality really common too…and we just have to find a way to “give them what they want in the hope that they’ll want what they need”. I definitely know teachers who disagree with this approach.

Then Kelly Whelan-Enns weighed in. Kelly has been training in the internal arts for 24 year and he currently teaches beginner’s classes in Qigong and Baguazhang three times a week in Winnipeg, Manitoba. You can hear something that I think is common to just about every good teacher I’ve ever met, a real love for training the basics:

Almost 25 years in the internal arts and I am still amazed at how little time people want to put into the basics and ‘master’ the advanced stuff. I have been lucky to find even 8 people in the last three years that keep coming back every class to repeat and repeat the basics. I have always had a love for basics, getting the feeling right. I feel privileged when a person comes to my classes with the same intent, to get the foundations right. I have MMA guys show up to my classes thinking they are going to learn a magic secret and cannot even get through 2mins of Zhan Zhuang. I never see them again. Not one MMA player ever becomes a regular.

Recently, I asked my teacher about this phenomenon. He said in China there was a very clear understanding that only 1 in 1,000 people really “gets it.” But, the other 999 still practiced and got something from the practice and the teacher taught them within their capacity. He said that the difference was that in the West, everyone came in with the fantasy that they were the 1/1000, but in China, people were happy with what they got from regular training, even though they knew they were in the 999/1000 group.

My biggest hope, as we continue to educate each other, as teachers, students, and general public with a casual interest in tai chi, is that we create a context where there is room for people to participate in many different ways.

We need to shift out of the mindset that being a hardcore martial artist, meditator, and health fanatic all rolled into one is the only genuine way to have Tai Chi in your life. When we make room for different levels of engagement and different roles for people to play in the Tai Chi community, we won’t water down the tradition and the art will take a more sustainable, stable place in the West as a valuable cultural activity.

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Comments

  1. Whatever reasons you study Taiji, continuous neigong is the core. As you learn good posture, breathing, mental awareness, focus and sensitivity you have to apply it to your life all of the time. This increases your awareness, health, vitality and emotional intelligence, meaning that you also become an ‘engaged’ student in Taiji.

    If you only practice one hour a day it means that for 23 hours you are pracitcing ‘anti Taiji’ and are therefore bound to lose. These core basics are essential before qigong, form and pair work is added and after that Taiji can have many faces, but they are only faces, the body is always the same.

  2. After 43 years practicing internal arts and over 20 years teaching in the Carolinas, USA, I count in Yang Family (Yang Cheng fu’s large qi circulation form) as my main stay for both beginning and advanced students. The reason is that it’s difficult to do well unless hip and shoulder gates are opened. In and of itself, with a medium sized frame and clearly linked contra-lateral, (left inner thigh to right arm, right leg to left arm) association, song jin or loosening occurs over time. Students need to feel that happening. Doing the Yang Family style with its slow and smooth pacing reveals breaks in people’s energy flow and so identifies where they have poor body mechanics, while it clarifies the need for various types of bamen (eight gates) work needed for their improvement. Our school’s signature style is Chen Pan-ling’s composite xingyi, bagua, taijiquan 99 posture form, which can be intimidating to beginners because of it’s greater expression of chansi spiraling. A lot of chansigong play is requisite to master this form. Too, the martial applications –particularly related to shuai or throwing, can deter beginners. So, tui shou –push hands with many partners from early in their training expedites their learning. As stated in the above comments, we are teaching Americans after all. I’m sure my school is not unique in such lessons and that other styles of taijiquan, too, benefit from similar regimes.

    Our Mountain Dragon curricula work both ends from the middle, that is, if someone comes in with a lot of qigong training I urge chan quan external practices so that they can more quickly grasp the use of fa jin or issue power. If, on the other hand someone comes in with many years of external practices, I urge qigong and taijiquan. I’m all for holding nothing back. I’m all for expediting one’s training to ever higher levels of practice combining elements of the internals with external regimes.

  3. Mark, this sounds like a great approach. I especially like this insight: “Our Mountain Dragon curricula work both ends from the middle, that is, if someone comes in with a lot of qigong training I urge chan quan external practices so that they can more quickly grasp the use of fa jin or issue power. If, on the other hand someone comes in with many years of external practices, I urge qigong and taijiquan.”

    Thanks for weighing in!