Wednesday, March 31, 2010

White Belts

A little more on beginners, to go with the long call-and-response after the Time to Teach post:

In the mid-1970's I was a MA teacher evenings at a school. There were a couple of us sharing the space, a White Crane teacher and I, we alternated times and days. Sometimes we swapped techniques, he was a college professor and a nice guy. I wasn't really qualified to teach much, but I did have a black belt, and back then, that was more than was available most places.

What we learned, and what I've heard from several other teachers who had/have schools open to the public, was that the white belts largely paid the freight.

Not usually the case in a garage art like silat, where you don't come across the place by accident. At a mall dojo, you get a certain amount of business from folks driving by and stopping in for the introductory package -- three month's lessons, a gi, and a white belt, $99.

In our class, you have to go to some effort to find us, more to be allowed to stop by, and if you aren't called to it -- and a lot of folks aren't -- you won't even start.

I suspect this is true with other small classes in some of the less-common arts.

But beginners paid most of the operating expenses for the school where I was teaching. They would join, drawn by the Yellow Pages ad or word-of-mouth, or because they passed by the school and saw the yin-yang symbol. They would sign up, come to classes for a month or two, then they'd quit. We didn't have the droids there were looking for, and they moved on. The turnover rate was very high.

Of those who stayed for a couple of color belts, the retention rate climbed sharply. Of those who made it higher, the drop-out rate mostly vanished.

Same people are what keep health clubs and commercial gyms in business most places. The folks who sign up, work out a few times, then stop coming, even though their memberships are still good. Which is why a lot of places want lengthy contracts. They get your money, and you don't clog up the machines by being there.

In the garage and the sand-pit, most of the players have been there for years. Now and again, somebody stops coming, but even those who can't attend regularly but come when they can, still consider themselves students. Our drop out rate is very low.

We get very few newbies, and most of them come from other arts and have been looking for something like what we do for a while.

This is not to say silat is superior, only that's how it shakes out for attendees to the classes.

If you don't have to pay for freight, then you don't have to start a newbie class every five or sixth months. That kind of starting over from scratch is what I'm mostly talking about when I say that for a world-class teacher, doing that is apt to be less than satisfying. These days, we blend the newbies in, they tend to get paired with somebody who has been there a while to help them.

It's rough on them, because they have to learn a lot in a hurry to keep up. They can learn the techniques, but without the underpinnings, they don't have as good a grasp on it as someone who has been training for a much longer period.

After a couple of years and half a dozen beginner's classes and the dropouts, I was done with it. I can't imagine doing it for decades. I let the White Crane guy have the building and started teaching a few students in my back yard. It's why when I teach writing classes. I prefer students who want to learn how to write, who will pay for it, rather than at a school where they have to attend the class.

You never know, of course, but that one of the new white belt kids is going to be The One, but it's like selling scripts in Hollywood. For every one bought, tens of thousands are rejected; for every one that reaches the silver screen, hundreds were bought and nothing done with them.

As the head instructor, you might want to drop round the white belt class now and then to see how your senior student is doing as a teacher. Let him or her take them from from zero to good, because that's doable. Then you take them from good to great, which is something you can do that your student cannot.

My opinion.


Jay Gischer said...

At our school, the saying goes that white belts are a precious resource, because they react like a "normal person", not a trained martial artist. Even after a few months, they will react differently.

And so we see teaching them as not a pure drain. Plus most of us just like teaching.

We have a special intro class for them, in part to take their money whether they stick or not, like you describe. But in part to bring them up to a speed where we can incorporate them into the all-ranks classes.

Irene said...
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Steve Perry said...

At our most recent silat class, we played with knives against knives. The drills were designed to work on the back-up hand. So instead of using the knife to counter and attack, we used the empty hand. Yes, in the real deal, we'd likely use the knife because that's generally going to be safer and more effective. But we've covered that extensively, and knowing how to use the back-up hand -- which is another good indication that Silat Sera either didn't have a one-armed guy as the creator, or it was changed considerably after him -- is important.

I wound up working with two other guys. One has been training as long as I; the other less than half as long. But we all corrected each other on the moves. And if somebody who has only been there a few months is doing it right and I'm doing it wrong, I want to know. I have no problems having somebody point out my mistakes no matter how long they've been training. If they have it and I don't?

I'm a slow learner kinesthetically. Always have been, so there are folks who will often see a move and get it before I do. I figure, I'm in it for the long haul, I'll eventually get it.

With beginners, if you are the senior and you know a move, you can show them, and you get something from teaching it. If you are seeing a drill for the first time, it really helps to be working with somebody who gets it and can help you along, whatever your experience.

I do a lot of work with beginners because I think it is good for them and for me. But there are times when I want to work with somebody who is better than I am so I can get the stuff dialed in.

Justin said...

Hmmm...a Steve Perry writing course, you say? Do those still exist? I'm interested.

jks9199 said...

Steve wrote: I do a lot of work with beginners because I think it is good for them and for me. But there are times when I want to work with somebody who is better than I am so I can get the stuff dialed in.

Nothing wrong with that. We all need time with people at or above our skill level to advance. (Just like you need to teach someone to cross certain thresholds of undersanding, sometimes, too.)

In fact, that's one of my personal headaches. Of late, every time I get a student to a point where they have the ability and confidence to push me... they move on for one reason or another! I'm not at all trying to say I'm the greatest; there are plenty of folks out there who can easily challenge me... I just don't train with them regularly! A lot of the time -- the biggest hurdle isn't the skill, it's the confidence to actually push me.

Steve Perry said...

Justin --

No writing course per se. I've taught seminars and odd classes over the years here and there. The Blockhead ebook I have on my site has some war stories and bits of how-to -- things to do or not do in writing as I see it, but it's not comprehensive.