This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2012, all rights reserved.
For months my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, had been planning to participate in the Dead Sea Seminar, led by Miles Kessler Sensei and Patrick Cassidy Sensei, in Israel. There were to be other stops along the way, making this a 15-day trip for him. Before the seminar, Sensei would stop in Switzerland to train, and was to teach an Aikido Without Borders class in the Ramallah, in the West Bank. A couple of dojo mates were planning to participate in the seminar as well. It was a big deal, to have a contingent from our dojo going, and it would be the longest time Sensei had been away.
The dojo would be closed for a few days for Thanksgiving, but that still gave us 8 normal training days, plus a couple of open mat exam-prep sessions over the long holiday weekend.
We have several yudansha who teach regularly. They were to cover the adult classes in the evenings and on Saturday morning. They have all been training here for many more years than I have, and are perfectly capable of managing dojo operations, but they have day jobs, and have more than paid their dues taking care of things in the past. I've helped with dojo logistics during seminars, and generally know my way around, plus my schedule is pretty flexible, so I got the gig. Two weeks of dojo sitting. Easy stuff. Open the dojo early, make sure things are in order, greet visitors, and close after classes. Handle anything that might come up. No problem. I put it on my office calendar back in August, so I wouldn't be scheduled for anything on those afternoons, and didn't give it much more thought than that.
Meanwhile, during the late summer and fall my schedule allowed me to participate and help out in the children's classes, which are on weekday afternoons. The bigger kids, 8-13 years old, are on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the little kids, 5-7 years old, have a class on Tuesdays.
I'm not a kid person. I'm childless by choice, and haven't spent much time around children. I've certainly never been the cool one who's "great with kids," rolling around on the floor with the little ones and playing silly games. I wasn't even a kid person when I was a kid myself. I preferred the company of adults, or at least older kids. I hated being talked down to. I resolved, when I grew up, to treat children like intelligent, sensitive people. I have a lot of respect for kids, and consider working with them to be a huge responsibility, but it was entirely new to me.
I do have some experience that supports me in this, however. I have a degree in psychology, including study of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and learning and perception. My work for over 20 years has been focused on communicating technical information, and on making software and website easier for people to understand and use. And my involvement with horses and donkeys has taught me a lot about training - providing frequent feedback, the value of giving appropriate praise or rewards, and developing good observing skills and timing. From all of those perspectives it is very interesting to see how these young people think, interact, and learn.
Helping in children's classes is pretty simple. It means being there regularly, providing a good example, reminding the kids to focus on training, guiding each set of partners through the details of techniques when needed, and participating in group games. A couple of my friends who had been helping with the classes right along mentored me in how to assist Sensei and the kids. I discovered what worked and what didn't, and started to feel more comfortable relating to the students. Of course I was also watching Sensei, noticing how he interacted with the kids, the language he used, and the techniques and games he taught.
I was deliberately pretty formal with the kids right from the beginning. Not harsh or unfriendly - and in fact fairly liberal with praise, looking for any "try" or improvement - but perhaps a bit serious. In any context it's easy to get more relaxed and easy-going with people over time, but it's very difficult to go the other way - to reclaim authority once you are their buddy. I wanted to set an example, and to model correct behavior in class, especially when taking ukemi for Sensei, and I wanted them to see me as someone who is disciplined about training.
At some point, after a few months of helping in class, Sensei asked if, in addition to dojo-sitting, would I be willing to take care of the kids' classes while he was gone. The others had been helping in class longer, and have children of their own, but I have the higher rank. That was a little awkward. I imagined that we might be co-leading activities, or something. I didn't have a clear picture in mind. I'm a big fan of saying yes, and then figuring out the details later. I didn't know quite what I might actually be doing, but I was certain I could handle it. "No problem," I said, "I'd be happy to."
I'm sure a good part of why I was asked was simply that I was available and reliable, and had been assisting in classes recently. But I was deeply honored, and considered it an extraordinary learning opportunity. During the months when my friends planned for their adventure, traveling to Israel for the Dead Sea Seminar, I prepared for my own adventure. They scheduled their flights, learned about the places they would visit, found cute apartments to share, and arranged side trips to nearby places. I thought of ideas for teaching, really studied everything Sensei did in class, and got my Adult/Pediatric First Aid and CPR certification, just in case. Although I wouldn't be leaving the dojo, there was a real sense of getting ready for something.
There's not much that keeps me awake at night. When my head hits the pillow, I'm out until several alarms go off. But this kept me awake. My mind was racing, coming up with themes for classes, planning how to teach certain techniques, thinking through how I might handle any problems. I had led warm-ups in the adults classes a few times, but I had never taught Aikido, or anything, for that matter, in front of a class. Scenarios would play out in my mind as I was doing yard work. Ideas came to me while driving. It was on my mind for weeks.
Teaching must work a lot like cooking. A new cook needs a recipe, a shopping list, and step-by-step directions. There's careful measuring, mixing things just so, setting timers, and checking temperatures. But with more experience we can throw together whatever we have on hand, without obsessing over every detail, and create a very nice meal. I felt a little like a new cook expecting important guests for a dinner party, and so I obsessed over the details.
The little kids' class didn't cause me much concern. My dojo mate who would be assisting came up with an agenda of activities. It was to be the last class of the 8-week session for that group, so we figured we'd put a little "advanced" spin on it to recognize their achievement in completing the session. But for the most part we would run the class like any other class - warm ups, rolls, group exercises and games, and meditation at the end, keeping things predictable and familiar for the little ones.
For the older kids, whose classes are ongoing, year-round, I created a big spreadsheet listing what we would do in each class. I wanted to intentionally run classes a little differently, hoping the experience for the students would be more like a guest leading a seminar than someone acting as a poor imitation of Sensei. For each day's class I chose a theme, with a supporting quote that I would read just after bowing in. I planned which techniques to teach, and how to relate training to the theme for the day. At the end of class I would lead a guided meditation related to each theme, with a different kind of bell each day from my own collection, just to keep things interesting. I started to feel like I had a good little 3-day curriculum laid out, and could relax a bit.
A few weeks before Sensei and my friends were to leave, conflict erupted in Israel. They would be heading into a war zone, with missiles from Gaza landing near Tel Aviv, and news reports of increasing violence as the days went by. One day a bus in Tel Aviv was bombed. Our group would be in the hands of locals, and chances were good that they would probably be fine. Still… Before they left I had a vivid dream, I was trying to get somewhere, but the road across a barren, flat landscape was blocked. I kept having to detour around piles of wrecked cars, and semi trucks in flames. It was just a dream, but I was worried about them.
We all kept an eye on the evolving situation, and the trip seemed in limbo for a while. Everyone had been looking forward to the Dead Sea Seminar, of course, and it would be a real shame if the classes in the West Bank, part of a program to promote peace, would have to be canceled on account of war. One of our dojo members eventually opted out, leaving Sensei, another member, and her friend from a different dojo still hoping to go. Eventually word came that the seminar would go on as planned, and a cease fire brought reason to anticipate a peaceful visit. There was nothing to do but be supportive and hope they would make it there and back safely.
The day Sensei left he sent a note to the parents of all the students in the children's classes. In it he said "…classes during my absence will be instructed by Linda Eskin and a variety of assistants from our adult program." When I read that a sort of jolt went through me. Up to that point the word "instructor" hadn't entered my mind. I'd be co-leading classes, or running things, or something... And I'm used to helping behind the scenes, anonymously. Somehow it hadn't really sunk in that I would be the one teaching. I was prepared, but it was still sort of a shock to see it put out there, publicly, in that message.
The first class went well. It was about half the usual size because the kids had the week off school, so many were off with family, or traveling. I chose gratitude and happiness for the theme, and started class with the quote "Always practice the Art of Peace in a vibrant and joyful manner." My friend, who had been assisting with the kids classes all along, was there helping to keep things going in the right direction.
We often hear the advice to write what you know. I figure the same applies to teaching. One of the things I know is tractors. Or at least I know my tractor. I have a little Kubota tractor with a front loader. I recently discovered that visualizing "being a tractor" was very helpful to me in my own Aikido. Tractors are the mechanical embodiment of settling and extending energy. They have a heavy, stable base, and a low center of gravity. Soft tires connect to the ground, where they get their power to move things. Tractors are unhurried, but unstoppable. There is no sudden shoving. They connect and move, taking whatever they are connected to along with them. And as a handy bonus: Kids like tractors.
So for techniques, I introduced the tractor idea. I think it resonated with them, and I used that image throughout each class. For katate-dori sumiotoshi I had the kids picture being like a heavy tractor, with their body and legs being a solid, low base. I demonstrated slow, steady movement, not jerky or quick, connecting with Uke and moving steadily, keeping extended arms, like a bulldozer. Next we worked on shihonage. I introduced the image of the loader arms, extended in front of the tractor, raising the bucket straight up center. When the tractor turns, the arms move with it, staying extended, not off to the side or trailing behind. After the tractor has turned we lower the bucket straight down, still right in front of center. It seemed to be working.
As we wrapped up the last exercise I looked at the clock and noticed I was running about 5 minutes ahead of schedule. I had to stretch the meditation and bowing out part a little to end class on time. But generally it went well. The kids had a good time, stayed focused, and trained well together. My friend and I congratulated each other, relieved and glad to have made it through with no upsets or injuries.
At the end of that first class, just as I stepped off the mat, a sophisticated-looking older lady approached me. Parents often watch classes, but I had not seen her before at the dojo. She spoke with a lovely, charming accent, and told me that she enjoyed watching, and was impressed that I had such good control of the class. It turns out she was a grandmother visiting for the holidays. She could have been the New Instructor Fairy, come to offer encouragement. What a wonderful thing to hear after my first attempt at teaching kids!
After my experience of nearly ending too soon I wrote out a "cheat sheet" before the class the following week. I drew a timeline, with activities grouped in 15-minute chunks, and taped it where I could discretely refer to it during class. At least I could be sure I was on track to cover everything and end on time. I felt pretty well prepared, having survived my first class the week before. This class, however, on the Monday after the Thanksgiving break, was more challenging. It was the whole group this time, about a dozen kids. They were especially energized, distracted, and loud, maybe from returning to their desks at school after a week of freedom. Most of the kids were great, paying attention, and doing their best, but a few were in rare form, and I wasn't having much luck getting them back in line. Right then one of our most senior yudansha arrived at the dojo, getting ready to teach that evening. In that same way we seem to mess up a technique at the very moment Sensei turns to watch us, the first thing he saw when he walked in was the loudest, most uncontrolled part of the class.
He talked with me after the kids left about some strategies for keeping better discipline. He's far more experienced with teaching children than I am, and I really appreciated his input. He offered to teach the last class, on Wednesday, but I really wanted the chance to try to improve. Being a beginner at anything can be painful and frustrating. It's probably even more difficult when you're the experienced one, watching a beginner flounder while trying to find their way. I was grateful for the offer, but asked to go ahead and teach as planned, and he agreed.
The last class I was to teach was that Wednesday. This time my friend who is usually there was on her way to the Dead Sea, and two other dojo mates came to assist. One has helped with kids classes before, and even taught once. The other used to work in a day care. Good people to have on your side! The theme I'd planned was training cooperatively, with a quote from Frank Doran Sensei that particularly stuck with me after a seminar with him: "Practice kindness."
I thought this time I would try a faster-paced class, with fewer opportunities for goofing around and getting distracted. We bowed in, I said a few words and recited the quote, and then "Everybody up! Big circle! Jumping jacks… Go!" We did warm ups and stretches, practiced tenkan and irimi, and worked on rolls. I had them do several familiar techniques, but with the focus on providing a good, solid energy for their partner to do their best rolls, calling students up to do the technique with me, while I demonstrated the ukemi. One student had been asking for munetsuki every day. I think that attack was new to them. So we did that, starting with how to make a fist, and punching in a line across the dojo several times. Then we worked on an irimi blend into a strike. Between the constant motion, new material, two adults assisting, and quite possibly a bit of good luck, things went much better.
At some point during the class, my yudansha friend had arrived and sat off to the side doing some reading. Undoubtedly he was keeping one eye on how things were going. This time when I stepped off the mat he smiled and told me "Now that's how a kids' class should be run!" I couldn't have been happier.
They say we learn by doing. While Sensei was gone I got a small taste of how much work it is to run a dojo. Everyone helped with the daily sweeping and vacuuming, as usual, but I also took on a few projects like tidying up the garden, pulling everything out of the bathroom and giving it all a good scrubbing, and cleaning the supply room / kitchen. There's also the ongoing awareness of all the little things - making sure we have enough toilet paper, picking up cleaning supplies on the way in, remembering to bring the towels and rags back after washing them… After going home for the long weekend I realized I needed to return to post a sign on the door about holiday hours. Plus I kept notes on all the visitors and guests, so I could bring Sensei up to date when he returned. None of it really took a lot of time, but it was constantly on my mind, making sure things were in good order.
A particular instance of this involved another dream. One of the things I took on over the long Thanksgiving weekend was a special cleaning project that I can only do when no one will be around for a couple of days. After our open mat session on Saturday I stayed to knock down all the dust that accumulates high up in the dojo, on the ventilation ducts, lighting fixtures, and fans - gray clumps of dust that hit the ground with a soft thud. This makes a big mess, and needs at least a day for all the dust to settle before gently sweeping and vacuuming it off of everything… the weapons, shoe racks, desk, bookshelves. I figured I would come in early on Monday and clean up. Then on Monday morning I awoke from another bad dream. In this dream I had arrived at the dojo in plenty of time to do the cleaning, but had gotten distracted talking to friends, in some side room that doesn't even exist. Suddenly it was time for class but there was still dust everywhere! You can bet that day I got to the dojo well ahead of time, and made sure everything was spotless before anyone else arrived.
They also say you learn by teaching. Indeed! I saw new details in familiar techniques and the steps we go through in learning them. I thought of vivid ways to help student visualize and express good posture and form. Mostly I learned how much preparation can go into teaching. I gained a small understanding of the investment teachers have in the success of their students. And I learned what Sensei is talking about when he sees us finally get a technique sort of right after missing the point time after time, and says "Good, now I'll be able to sleep tonight."
It was an exhausting experience, and I'm so glad Sensei is back. But I loved every minute of it, and I hope to have the opportunity to do it again.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.