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By Brendan Hufford

Let’s get this straight, just because you know a tremendous amount about the subject area’s content, it does not mean you are qualified to teach it.

Many of us have experienced this phenomenon.  During school or college, we have had a teacher who knew all about the content they were teaching, but, for some reason, was completely unable to effectively teach that content to the students.  This left us to figure it out and learn the content on our own.  They were effectively a presenter, not a teacher.

In 2009, I was a blue belt and I was asked to cover a few classes due to a mishap where I was training.  Immediately I was thrust into a world that I had only ever experienced as a student.  I immediately looked for resources on teaching Brazilian jiu jitsu and discovered Roy Dean and Matt Thornton.  I also sought out those who had a great influence on my classroom practice such as Stephen Covey and Charlotte Danielson.

Matt Tornton (author of Aliveness 101 and president and founder of Straight Blast Gym) has written that “we shouldn’t assume that people who have never had any formal training whatsoever as teachers would automatically get it right.”  It is with this in mind that I, as a veteran classroom teacher, have embarked on the journey to apply classroom teaching tools to improve my teaching of Brazilian jiu jitsu.  Here are ten tips to improve your teaching on the mat:

1. Teach to the lowest common denominator - I firmly believe that a rising tide raises all ships.  That does not mean that the entire class should be spent teaching a student their first submission or escape.  It does, however, mean that every single class should include a serious review of basic fundamentals.  Students of every level should review basic positioning, escapes, etc.  By teaching to the lowest level student in the class, you ensure not only that the student is getting something from the class, but also that the student will leave your class believing that Brazilian jiu jitsu is for them.

2. Emphasize time on task - During a class, no time should be “wasted”.  Classroom teachers seek to eliminate downtime as much as possible, but this requires an incredibly attentive teacher to make sure that when students are finished with what they are working on, they are able to move on.  This does not mean that there should be no time set aside for discussion or questions and answers.  It is actually quite the opposite.  Time for these tasks is valuable and should be scheduled just like drilling, new learning, and sparring.  I have found that using a round timer or a stopwatch works best when drilling or practicing technique (instead of using a set number of reps), because this keeps the entire class working together.  It is actually quite easy to schedule your class if you’ve planned ahead and you…

3. Use a lesson plan / curriculum - Failing to plan is planning to fail.  Sure, you can ad lib a class or two, but the most effective teachers plan ahead and set specific objectives.  When you don’t have a lesson plan, you plan to do the easiest thing possible and teach the most standard and boring of classes.  This does not mean you must stick to the plan.  The best teachers will also know how and when to adapt their lesson plan to meet the needs of their students.   A lesson plan will help you meet objectives, keep students on task, and help you to…

4. Understand different learning modalities - Using Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences as a model, we know there are at least eight different types of learners.  In order to guarantee that you are teaching all students effectively, I recommend that you touch on as many of these types of modalities as possible.  Give the kinesthetic learner a chance to feel how the technique should feel.  Give the linguistic learner a chance to hear you accurately explain a technique (NOT “here, here, then do this, then go here, and tap them out”).  Give the interpersonal learner a chance to ask questions and explain to the logical learner why you are doing what you are doing.

5. Reflect on your teaching - After every class you should consider: How did my plan work out?  Did I accomplish my goal for the class (skill, conditioning, fun, etc.)?  Was what I taught important to my students? How does this lesson scaffold into the next?  Could I make better use of my resources?  What are my strengths / weaknesses as a teacher?  What is something I could improve on?  Would my students pass an assessment? Which leads directly into…

6. Learn how to assess - In his 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey describes beginning with the end in mind.  Establish what makes a student successful at each belt level (competition, time spent training, technical knowledge, lifestyle, etc.), and base your assessment on that criteria.  Don’t get caught in the pitfall of relying heavily on anecdotal evidence (especially competition).  Many competitions are won or lost on strength and conditioning (especially at lower belt levels), so putting all of your assessment of a student on one competition can be dangerous.  As a classroom teacher, I vary my assessment techniques between multiple types of formal and informal assessments. I believe that that this should also be true on the mat.

7. Put first things first - In his 7 Habits for Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey describes the need to put the things that are the most important first in our lives.  He also describes the issue of urgency in relationship to importance.  Once you have defined what is most important for your students to learn (based on what they will be assessed on), you need to make sure that those aspects are what takes prominence in each of your classes.  If you feel conditioning is important, it should be the majority of class time.  If you feel that stand-up grappling is most important, the majority of time should be spent on it.

8.  Build community - Don’t look at coaching as a business transaction.  I believe that this is a common mistake that many BJJ instructors are making.  I believe in the old adage: students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  I have found it to be true in a variety of teaching settings, especially in a BJJ academy.  By arriving to class early, greeting students at the door or as they come in, and talking to them about their lives outside of the academy, you will start to build a quality relationship with your students that will not only make them want to return for another class, but will cause them to believe in the importance of Brazilian jiu jitsu, hold themselves to higher standards, and cause them to want to continually improve on their training.  The relationship between you and your students should be respectful and follow the standards of the academy, but the more you get to know your students and build rapport with them, the easier they will be to teach.

9. Yes to habits, no to absolutes - As a teacher, I want to develop my students to become critical thinkers above all else.  I don’t care if they remember the specific details of what I have taught them ten years from now.  What I do care about is developing habits in them that will allow them to be successful in the long term.   The ultimate goal of a teacher is to progressively de-emphasize their role and give their students the gift of taking on a greater role in their own learning.  Developing good habits is a big step in that process.

Try not to use phrases like ‘always’ and ‘never’.  When you speak in absolutes, you tend to close your mind to what your students can teach you about your art.  Also, you close their mind to possibilities.  For example, if you teach your students to never cross their feet while controlling the back, you will hinder their development.  However, teaching them why crossing their feet can be dangerous and building a habit not to, will allow them to learn when they can and can’t cross their feet.

10. Professional Development - As a classroom teacher, I am asked to pursue professional development activities and give back to the profession.  Also, I regularly seek out feedback from my employers and my colleagues.  I believe that a BJJ instructor should do the same.  You should attend seminars and workshops given by other instructors in order to learn not only new techniques, but teaching styles as well.  Don’t only seek to learn a new technique, but ask how they schedule classes, organize their academy, etc.

The largest part is giving back to the greater BJJ community.  Post a few of your unique techniques on YouTube or on social media sites.  Start a blog for your academy and interact with your students even when they cannot make it to class.  Regardless, make sure to constantly improve yourself as a professional instructor.

Like any good teacher, I have borrowed and developed many of my ideas from other teachers.  I would encourage you to look beyond these first ten ideas to other instructors in your association or local area and seek to further develop your practice.

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April 10, 2015 — Jiu Jitsu Style