Saturday, August 12, 2017

Teaching Tai Chi

Last summer, Sifu Amin Wu went to China for an extended visit and, before leaving, asked if I'd be willing to teach a beginner Yang-Style 24 Form class in the fall. While I appreciated the offer, I told her I'd have to think about it.

I'd never intended to be an instructor when I started taking Tai Chi but, after having taken Tai Chi for a while, I thought I knew enough that I would have offered unsolicited instruction to other students if TToPA hadn't had a strict policy against it - at the school, only the instructors teach, you only help another student if they explicitly ask you to.

I got over that impulse once I improved enough to realize that I wasn't ready to teach. Since then, I've noticed this tendency in other beginner students - once they've taken Tai Chi for a while, they start trying to instruct other students, which is bad for them and the other students.

That's why, when Sifu Wu asked me if I was willing to teach, I had to think it over. While I had improved since since training with her, I still wasn't sure it was a good idea but, since she felt I was ready, I decided to give it a try.

In the fall, I taught a Yang-Style 24 Form class on Tuesday evenings. Sifu Wu arranged it so that I would teach an earlier class and then she would teach an advanced class afterwards, which allowed her to see how my students were doing and allowed me to take the advanced class.

It was an interesting experience. Overall, I'd have to say the class was decent but not great. I've taught academic classes and group fitness classes in the past so I don't have any qualms about getting in front of people to teach but there were a few issues with the class that I tried to learn from:
  • It wasn't clear from the schedule that Sifu Wu wasn't teaching the class, so people would come in expecting her and find it was one of her students instead, which made me feel a bit awkward the entire session.
  • Most of the existing students in the school weren't all that familiar with me. Up to that point, I had primarily worked one-on-one with Sifu Wu and, in the classes that I had taken, tended to keep to myself. I came to realize that, in order to be an instructor at the school, I also needed to be a part of the community.
  • Teaching Tai Chi is a skill in-and-of itself that takes time to learn. Instructing while doing the form is tricky, particularly if you're trying to watch students at the same time.
  • Sifu Wu would come in at the end of class to check how things were going and give corrections - this was good for the students but it set up a contrast with my teaching that didn't work in my favor.
My class ended up with 4 students who attended regularly. Partway through the session, Sifu Wu offered to let me cancel the class since she knew getting there on time to teach was a bit of a hardship for me but, even though I didn't have a huge class, my students were dedicated so I decided I'd stick with it as long as they did. And they stuck around for the rest of the session, which ended just before the Christmas holiday season.

For the winter session, Sifu Wu decided not to hold any early evening classes again because they hadn't worked out that well in the fall. She instead decided to open a new Yang 24 Form class on Saturday mornings. We discussed my teaching that class but ultimately agreed that she would teach and I would assist her.

The class started in early January. Initially, I just stood in front and she'd have me help demo postures and moves. As the class progressed, she had me take point so the students could follow my moves and timing while she led them through the form (up to where they'd learned). Later on, she started having me warm up the class, going through the basic loosening drills and zhan zhuang (stance training), which allowed her to observe the class and give individual corrections. Eventually Sifu Wu started having me lead the class through the form as well, which gave her the opportunity to observe the class and see where they were having difficulty (which is hard to do when you're teaching) and to observe me leading/teaching and work with me on that.

We finished teaching the form at the end of June and Sifu Wu went to China again for the summer. I took over teaching the class, focused on refining the form. Teaching on my own this time around was much different experience. I had 8 students in the class and they all knew me and knew it was going to be me teaching. I also felt a lot more comfortable with instructing and was able to start incorporating some of my own things into class to give the students a different perspective rather than just repeating what Sifu Wu teaches.

Sifu Wu will be returning from China soon and will start a new session of classes in September. She's asked me to continue teaching at the school and I plan to - I've found that I enjoy teaching and I feel like I'm helping people and making a positive contribution to our community.