A Teaching Experience

By HLV Hanh Nguyen

During a Vovinam instructor’s training conference, I shared with the masters a couple of martial arts teaching experiences that I have had in my many years of teaching.  Master Ngo Huu Lien has requested that I share the following story in hope that those who are new to teaching may learn from my mistakes as well as my strengths. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this story with you.

A couple of years ago, I came across the opportunity to share Vovinam Martial Arts with a group of about 60 third, fourth, and fifth grade students at a school in which I worked at as an elementary school teacher.  I have been a third grade teacher at Walnut Bend Elementary in the Houston Independent School District for about six years.  Walnut Bend is one of the few schools that has received a grant to fund an afterschool program that provides children with activities such as art, cooking, computer, and Spanish.  Never before were the children able to select martial arts as one of their learning activities afterschool.  The program coordinator was thrilled to find out that I had agree to participate as an instructor of martial arts that year and offered me to teach five days a week, Monday thru Friday.  At that time, in addition to teaching full time, I had prior commitments to teaching Vovinam on Fridays and Sundays at Lo Duc Center and was also training on Wednesdays and Sundays every week.  My week also included teaching English/ESL classes to recent Vietnamese immigrants.  Although I had quite a hectic schedule, I decided to fulfill my commitment as a Vovinam instructor, which encourages us to build up the mind and body of the younger generation through martial arts.  Therefore, I began to teach Vovinam Martial Arts at Walnut Bend Elementary on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work. 

            In most school environments, the children are often encouraged to sit still, be quiet, and keep their hands and feet to themselves.  In Vovinam class, it was quite a different atmosphere.  The students were encouraged to keep moving, scream as loud as possible, and hands and feet were for kicking, punching, and chopping, and sometimes even to hit people!  Martial arts was the perfect remedy for students who had been sitting quietly in their seats doing class work for eight hours and for those needing to let their energy out! 

Having been a martial arts instructor for over ten years, I was well prepared for the first day’s lesson.  As the students walked in, I assigned them in places forming straight rows and columns, introduced myself and Vovinam, discussed rules and guidelines, and performed a brief warm-up practice with the students.  The student’s curiosity of Vovinam kept them quiet and engaged.  I remember thinking to myself, “Wow!  Everything is looking great!”  Little did I know, even after ten years of experience, there is always more to learn.  Five minutes into the warm-up, the students began raising their hands.  One student felt dizzy, another had a headache, and a third stated she needed a water break immediately or she was going to faint.  Let me remind you that at this time, we had only stretched, completed a brief warm-up of Vovinam jogs number 1-5, and completed some stretch kicks and jumping jacks.  From my experience as a teacher, I knew that if I allowed one student to get a water break, it was almost certain that the others would want water, too.  I could either push them to build that endurance and risk the chance of one of them getting sick or allow all of them to go get water.  What could I do?  So of course, I did what I had to do, take the whole class to get a water break.  By the time everyone had a chance to get water, Vovinam class time was over. 

            As weeks went by with continuous practice and constant encouragement, their endurance improved day by day.  We got to the point where no one complained of dizziness and everyone understood that water breaks occurred at the end of each class session.  Things were looking brighter.  Unfortunately, as soon as one problem was solved, another developed.  The more I focused on the importance of practicing the  basic punches, kicks, chops, and blocks until they were perfect with correct form, speed, and strength, the weaker the students got.  It was as if they were incredibly bored.  They felt that knowing the four basic kicks, punches, chops, and blocks were enough and wondered why I kept making them repeat the moves over and over again.  They wanted me to teach them new attack forms and new kata forms.  The more I taught them, the more new moves they wanted to learn.  Unfortunately, they were not performing to my expectations, therefore; I stopped teaching new techniques and focused more on review.  Memorization of the attacks, katas, and defense moves were rarely the problem, but the students lacked application of the correct technique and stance.  They didn’t focus on speed or strength.  Seeing this, I sought advice for improving my teaching skills from my own father, who is Master Nguyen Hung.  He explained that in addition to training the physical body, I must also train their minds.  He encouraged me to include five minutes of lecture time in my classes to explain techniques, motivate the children, and help them to formalize goals.  In addition, he suggested ongoing activities such as small pre-tests, class tournaments, videotaping performances, and additional activities to encourage the children to do their best.  In the days to follow, I began to show short video clips of my own past Vovinam performances to motivate the children, and videotaped the children’s class performances for the entire school to watch during the Walnut Bend School News broadcasted in the morning.  Because the students had a short term goal and a purpose, they were more eager to do whatever it takes for them to perfect their martial arts, even if it meant repetition of the basic techniques.  Both the class environment and the martial arts skills of the students improved dramatically. 

            At the end of the school year, the principal requested for the Vovinam class to represent Walnut Bend Elementary at the Houston Independent School District Physical Fitness Fair.  At this event, each elementary school conducts a performance that requires physical activity such as jump roping, hula hooping, shooting baskets, etc.  The sixty Vovinam students arrived promptly at Westside High School on the morning of the fitness fair.  Arranged beautifully in straight rows and columns, they performed Thien Mon Kata and immediately broke out into pairs and completed Dual Practice One simultaneously.  The crowd was amazed by their discipline and focus.  They received a standing ovation.  As the students left the gym floor beaming, I knew that I had fulfilled my duties as a Vovinam instructor.  Although they were not yet martial arts champions or leaders in their communities, in that short time of being in Vovinam martial arts, they had gained the strength and confidence to help lead them closer towards the right direction.