Teaching and Tae Kwon Do

In learning how to break boards, Elisabeth R. Gruner picks up some ideas for her classroom.

March 21, 2008

At first I didn't mention it at work. I think I felt a little silly about it: a middle-aged woman -- an English professor! -- taking tae kwon do. But then one day a colleague asked about a small bruise on my arm and, unthinking, I told him I'd blocked a kick with my forearm. It hadn't been a smart move in tae kwon do, but as I told him about it, I could see the respect in his eyes. I began to think I should bring in my broken boards, leave them in the office, maybe mention how easily my palm had just gone through the wood. It couldn’t hurt.

But I still didn't talk about it in my classes. My students have a hard enough time seeing me as anything other than someone roughly "mom"ish. It came as a blow when I realized that I'd moved far beyond my imagined grad school persona of hip older sister to something much more like Mom, but I'd accommodated myself to the shift. Throwing in the ugly white uniform and board-breaking would just complicate matters.

Still I found myself thinking about tae kwon do frequently when I was in the classroom. Not because I wanted to spar with my students (though occasionally the mental image of a roundhouse kick to seat of the pants does satisfy) but because I was learning so much about teaching from my own teacher.

I started taking tae kwon do after my son had been studying for over a year. His teacher, Master Gibson, had invited the parents of his youth class to join in for a reduced rate. He had noticed us sitting in the chairs in the back of the room, and figured we might benefit from the exercise as much as our sons did. First two, then two more, and now up to six mothers joined the class. We now practice two or three times a week together, a motley group of children and adults of all ages and skill levels.

At first I worried that it would be odd to take lessons alongside my son. But tae kwon do is very hierarchical, and he considerably outranked me. He loved being the expert -- and, in fact, he was a big help to me when I had trouble memorizing patterns, the complex series of kicks, punches, and blocks that make up the core of a tae kwon do practice. At 8, he could recall a variety of different turns -- complicated dance moves, really -- that my over-40 brain had trouble remembering. But two or three times a week I donned a baggy white uniform, wrapped a belt around my waist, picked up my sparring gloves, and joined a group of 4 to 12 kids and adults in an airy room where, remarkably, I began learning.

As I learned, I marveled. I'm the least athletic person I know, but I was learning to spin and jump and kick in ways I had never imagined. And, yes, I broke boards, with a kick, a punch, a well-placed elbow. And it wasn't just me. There was, for example, Jimmy, a blonde kindergartner who would have driven me to despair with his antics. He progressed right alongside me, learning the patterns and, amazingly, calming down over time. Where once my son Nick groaned to see him in a class, he began to respect him. "He's gotten a lot better, Mom," he said. "More focused."

Nick learned, too. Not focus -- he had that already -- but patience. I liked to watch him sparring with the younger kids, slowing down so they could get a punch in sometimes, working on new skills (a sweep, a turn) while they came at him, arms and legs flailing.

Some days class felt like an anarchist miracle. How did we all, at our various levels, learn? And stay focused, and not get bored? I watched as Master Gibson walked beginners through chong ji, the first pattern; kids with higher belts moved right alongside, in patterned unison. He praised, he corrected, he encouraged. I began to wonder if I could apply the lessons to my own teaching. I'm not teaching physical movement, or well-ordered skills, but the five principles that seem to me to animate Master Gibson's teaching may indeed have some relevance to my own.

First, encourage and praise. Praise what's going right. Praise what someone especially needs to work on. I've noticed that when Master Gibson tells Jimmy he's doing well with his patterns, he tries especially hard with the next one. When he tells Chess his sparring is more focused, he slows down and works even harder on aiming his punches. When I started tae kwon do, I wasn't at all flexible or coordinated; my kicks went every which way but up, and I felt frustrated at my gracelessness. I knew what I was doing wrong. But when Master Gibson mentioned that my kicks were getting higher, I was able to stretch even farther the next time. Praise works. I learned this in my graduate school pedagogy seminar, but it helps to remember when I'm grading a paper and focused on the elements that don't work. There's always something that does work, even if it's a small thing, and noting it may help the student far more than noting all the ways in which the paper falls short.

Second, both expect and deserve respect. I don't expect my students to bow to me at the beginning of class, and I feel old when people call me "ma'am," but I appreciate that we bow to each other before we spar or practice together. Master Gibson expects our respectful attention, and he gets it both by reminding students about it -- some of them are 5 years old, after all, and they do need reminding -- and by enacting it. He bows to us, we bow back. He listens to us attentively, and we to him. I find it increasingly difficult to learn my students' names these days, but I'm working harder at it lately as one such marker of respect. Even the smallest markers of respect -- a well-placed "please" or "thank you" rather than a bow and "yes sir" as in tae kwon do class -- can help foster the atmosphere I'm looking for.

Third, break it down. I can never do a pattern the first time I see it, but I can manage the first few steps. If I repeat them, I can move on to the next few. Similarly, few of my students can analyze a poem the first time they see it, but if we go line by line -- sometimes even word by word--they begin to see how it works. Masters at any skill often forget how they got to mastery; teachers need to remember, demonstrate, and help their students practice.

Fourth, tolerate -- or even encourage -- a little creative chaos. My tae kwon do class includes kids as young as 5, adults as old as -- well, as old as me. Old enough. Sometimes the kids just need to let off steam. Sometimes the parents do, too. Occasionally at the end of class we'll play a rousing game of "dodge the stinky socks," using balled-up socks as a ball in a small-scale dodge-ball game. It does develop quick reflexes and attention, but it's also a lot of fun, and very silly. I don't think the desks in my classroom will allow for a game of dodgeball, but perhaps a little creative play with language? Maybe the dada poem game: best played in Tom Stoppard's Travesties, in which "Tristran Tzara" cuts up Shakespeare's sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") and makes new poetry out of it. Would that help us understand the poem better? Perhaps -- and I know it would help us remember the class, and think about its purpose.

Finally, rituals actually do matter. We begin every class with a bow, stretches, and a brief moment of meditation. We end with a bow and a thank you to both the teacher and the highest-ranking student, after which we line up and shake hands with everyone in the class. When I was new to the class I found this all a little awkward -- I'm bowing to my son! And shaking his hand! And, I have to confess, I still find the sight of small boys sitting cross-legged in rows and "meditating" amusing. What really goes through their minds? And yet, over time, I've come to appreciate the gestures. By acknowledging each other, even in a perfunctory way, we remember that the class is not all about us. We do it together, even if each of us is developing an individual practice. Again, I'm not sure I'm ready to institute such formality into my own classroom, but I think there's room, even in the most informal, student-centered of classrooms, for a moment of reflection, a pause in the busyness of our days to focus, even if briefly, on the transformations we are working on. Rituals need not be elaborate or even very formal to work, but always beginning and ending a class in much the same way gives shape and structure to the hour in between.

I don't know how to institute all of these elements of my tae kwon do classes into my own classroom yet. But I'm on sabbatical this year, and as I work towards my next belt, I'm keeping the classroom in mind.


Elisabeth R. Gruner is an associate professor of English and women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Richmond. She is a red belt in tae kwon do, with about a year to go before testing for a black belt.


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