Greetings. If there are any climate change deniers, I have proof positive it exists. Behind my house there is a pond, stocked with goldfish, that has been there since 1985. I feed the fish, and stop when the pond temperature drops below 50. This always happens right around October 15. This year the temperature finally dropped to 50 on November 17. So there is all the proof you need. This weeks email is a bit long, but I think it is important. Also, come and join us for push hands on Dec. 3, from 1 to 4. See you then.
The Path to Becoming a Tai Chi Instructor
People worldwide contact me looking for advice on how to become a Tai Chi instructor. They have either seen or participated in a Tai Chi class and recognize the many benefits of the practice, and want to share this with others. They are hoping this might lead to a righteous lifestyle, where one can study, practice, teach, and earn a living while doing it. So here are some thoughts on the subject.
Not all people make good teachers. Look at your past “good” experiences. Did any of the ones you really enjoyed involve teaching? Have you worked with groups of people? Can you get up in front of groups and present ideas and instruction? Have you ever done this? If you are middle age and haven’t demonstrated these abilities in the past, you probably won’t, all of a sudden, develop the skill.
Assuming you still want to teach, one needs help to get started on the path. There are thousands of books and videos which can help, especially with learning about how others view the art of Tai Chi, but there is no substitute for having an instructor in person, one who can correct the inevitable mistakes when starting out. With an in person instructor, one can feel how Tai Chi’s energetic movements flow in a steady, powerful stream that builds slowly.
Of course, not everybody has access to an instructor. One must then rely on books and videos. This is very difficult, yet it can be done. It takes a strong desire mixed with persistence and perseverance. I have actually certified several people to teach whom I had never met in person. I do this for free, not for money, as it is my strong desire to help sincere people learn and teach Tai Chi.
There are now several, if not many, programs that train instructors in as little as a week-end. They are costly and I can’t imagine how one can learn very much in that period of time. One of my students attended such a program, and everybody, no matter what their understanding or skill, was certified. They then pay back certain fees on a regular basis to remain connected to the organization. I stick to a more traditional path.
So, assuming one has an instructor, one needs to learn the principles first. These are the building blocks upon which all the lovely movements are built. As I said, there are many very good books to help the seeker to understand the history, philosophy, and classic teaching of Tai Chi. At this stage, one can benefit by trying various styles of Tai Chi, with different instructors, to see if one style might be more appealing. After deciding on a form, I would focus all my intention into one. Learning more than one style can be very confusing, especially in the beginning.
Then one learns the movements. This is the most fun, as well as difficult, period of study. How and why to stand, take simple steps, make complex turns, do kicks and squats. Each and every movement must be examined for structural, and mental, adherence to the classics. This phase takes at least a year, if not more, depending on one’s time committed. If one is going to class once a week, and not practicing on a daily basis, it will take a lot longer.
This learning of the movement phase, leads to the place where the body responds to the will of the mind. The moves flow out of your experience and knowledge. You look forward to your practice time and enjoy Tai Chi as much or more than any other activity in your life. You feel you are ready to help spread the word.
One should also study the weapons, push hands, and especially Chi Kung. These will train the body and open the student to more possibilities for subjects to teach and ways to improve ones knowledge of what makes Tai Chi so special. Remember, you can only teach what you know. So study and practice until Tai Chi is second nature.
If you think you want to teach Tai Chi, and you have an instructor, speak to that person and tell him or her your desire. That way the instructor can get on board with your goal, and most probably, will talk to you about whether this is realistic or not, as he or she views your skills and talents. Even if your present instructor doesn’t think you are ready, you might find someone else who will recognize your potential.
At the Gilman studio, we then start the perspective teacher into the Duai Feng role, that of helper. He or she helps the instructor by being the partner in applications. The duai feng (helper) does not teach, but spends time helping, as well as learning the teaching techniques of the Studio. The new students look to the duai feng as an example of how Tai Chi can be, even if it might not be exactly like the primary instructor, realizing this person is still learning and is committed to the path of Tai Chi for life. The duai feng usually starts to feel, at this stage, like he or she is ready to be a more active participant in the learning process, and usually starts to speak up and even contradict the instructor. One must carefully guard against this from happening.
When the instructor thinks the duai feng is ready, he or she will assign more active tasks, like actually teaching or showing new movements, explaining principles, and working with students. This is the role of Assistant Instructor. The assistant still attends all the classes possible, learning the way the lead instructor and senior instructors teach. This phase usually lasts a couple of years.
Finally, when the director of the Studio or school decides, the new instructor is assigned a class, always a beginning class. He or she is not monitored, and assumes the role of Instructor. The other instructors and director are all there to help with any problems or questions, but lets the new instructor teach how he or she wants, as long as it blends with the Studio philosophy.
The new instructor should show deference to the director and other senior instructors. He or she shouldn’t start a new class that would be in competition with the others. After training several local instructors, I retired from teaching beginning classes to focus on working with the advanced students and the instructors. I still coordinate the Studio, but leave the instructors to teach mostly as they like. We are all working on the same form, so it is important we are in sync with intention.
To summarize. First comes the desire to teach. Then, spend time to study the classics. Spend as much time as possible with senior instructors to see what and how they teach. Practice. Move into a helping role. Then assistant instructor. Finally instructor.
As an instructor you should feel free to innovate, study other forms, make changes, organize retreats and workshops. Just be careful if you are connected to a particular school. Remember who taught you and show respect. And also remember the title of Sifu (Chinese for instructor also means parent, and that means one has a responsibility to take care of the student, and the student needs to show respect to the instructor.) Lastly, have fun and enjoy yourself. It is your life, after all.