by Paul Simmons
Teaching Wing Chun Kung Fu is like teaching any subject; the more you do it, the better you become, both as a teacher and as a practitioner. This is because a teacher, sooner or later, realises that teaching and learning are the same thing. In fact, the best teachers are those who continue to be students, themselves. Finding better ways for students to learn is the most effective way for a teacher to improve his or her own skills.
The teacher of Wing Chun has the same goal as any teacher; that is, to pass on certain knowledge and skills to students. However, there is another goal which can often determine the effectiveness of the former – A good teacher strives to improve their teaching skills. Having knowledge and skill in a specific field does not guarantee good teaching skills. After all, teaching is not something that comes naturally; it, like Wing Chun, must be practiced until experience can be gathered. Usually, in the beginning stages of teaching, people copy methods with which they are familiar. Also, like Wing Chun training, teaching is a constantly changing process; new ways to be more effective have to be experimented with in the hope that understanding can be gained and passed on.
Once the connection is made between teaching and learning, most teachers begin to develop their own ways of passing on their skill. So, in actual fact, teachers go through the same learning process as their students; that is, they, also, are students. It is this perspective on the learning process which can allow a teacher to empathise with their students and to understand that we are all at different stages of our learning. Students change all the time; some come and some go, while some stay and get older and wiser and more skilful. Each student has a different motive for training and a different way of learning. Some students talk a lot; some keep to themselves; some are there with commitment and some are there for fun; and some learn quickly and some take longer, but they are all students who are there to learn. The rewards of teaching, though occasionally outnumbered by the frustrations, lie in gaining insight into students, as well as yourself. In effect, the teacher learns from others, as well as from him or herself.
The most basic aim of teaching is to enable a student to ‘know what they are doing’. This is vital in Wing Chun teaching because if a student remains in the copying stage of learning, whether practicing the forms or doing Chi Sau or sparring, then progress will be slowed. The best chance for improvement of any skill lies in understanding what you want to do and in being able to do it often. One without the other can only take a student so far. To be able to continue improving, a student must be able to think for themselves, that is, to know what they are doing. They must understand how to continue improving. It is only then that a student can begin to take some responsibility for their own learning.
Many students reach a certain stage of training and then plateau; they continue to train, but the improvements slow down and frustration creeps in. In basic terms, this student is just ‘going through the motions’; doing what they have done thousands of times before. Just as the teacher must find their own way of teaching, so the student must find their own way to progress and improve. The teacher can still be a guide in this process, but the signs are there that the student needs to take the next step, at least partly, on their own. The teacher can only ‘show’ a student what to do; he or she cannot do it for them. Once a student realises this, things can begin to change; and so, the progress continues. The student learns to become their own teacher.
The old adage of whether it is better to give a starving man a loaf of bread or to teach him to bake, applies here. It is just too difficult learning techniques from other people. The wonder of the Siu Nim Tau form is that after years and years of practicing it, lessons can still be learned. It is sometimes easy for a teacher or a person who can perform a certain skill to forget that others cannot, that they are still consciously struggling to feel the right way. This is evident in the most basic aspect of Wing Chun training – the structure. What the teacher sees as obvious (straight back, tai gong, muscle relaxation etc.) might be a matter of great conscious concern for a student. What is important is that the students know what they are doing; know the feeling they are trying to achieve. The teacher’s role is to help them to discover these feelings for themselves.
No one can make you feel the relaxation necessary to perform the Siu Nim Tau when you are on your own; no teacher can tell you how to feel the sensitivity through touch during Chi Sau training and, a teacher’s understanding of ‘focus’ and ‘intention’ cannot be understood through words alone. When a student is able to work things out for themselves, the teacher has achieved a degree of success.
Above all other things, a teacher must be able to show that they not only understand how the system works, but that they can perform the skills which they are teaching. The irony in Wing Chun is that the better one understands the system, the less physical strength is required, in accordance with the principle of economy of movement. Complex movements are not necessary when simple ones are just as effective; in line with the principle of simplicity. When a Wing Chun teacher demonstrates or trains with students, it is to prove to them that the system actually works. No one owns the system, especially not the teachers of the art – Why else would they spend so much time trying to give it away!
Finally, teaching is the best way to improve your own skills. By constantly showing others what you already know, you are reinforcing the foundations of the art; the very ones which allowed you to get where you are. It should not be forgotten that all students make mistakes when learning new skills. An effective teacher allows their students the freedom to experiment, while continuing to reinforce the basics. Understanding, patience and practice are the necessary ingredients of learning – just as they are for teaching