5.a.i.-good-teacher Section

A Good Teacher

 by Nick Gudge - last revised 2010

According to Chen family tradition and its current senior practitioners, the acquisition of gong fu has three requirements. These are a good teacher, good understanding and good practice. In a series of three articles I have explored these three requirements. In this, the first piece, I have written about ‘a good teacher,’ What exactly constitutes “a good teacher?” How do we know if someone is a good teacher or not? Where can a student find good teacher? This article attempts to address these questions.

Given that almost all readers of this will have attended school for more than 10 years, and many more than 15 years, from your own experience, you know how uncommon someone with good teaching ability is. (How many teachers do you recall from your days as a student in school that were still memorable as good? My research showed that most people answer either one teacher or two teachers, giving less than 10% of their teachers they considered good.) Would you say that Taiji is a more difficult topic to teach than say Chemistry or Literature? I certainly would. So we might reasonably conclude that it is likely that there are not many good teachers around. This is borne out by my experience. So in addition this article attempts to flesh out why good teachers are rare and just how rare they might be.

What exactly constitutes “a good teacher”?

There are skills and characteristics associated with teaching. These include knowledge of the subject material, understanding the subject material; an ability to communicate the subject material in a manner the student can grasp; an ability to understand the student; patience; experience; caring and many more besides. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are others. Some of these skills are frequently referred to as characteristics. Some of the more general characteristics are listed at the end of this article below. (To avoid becoming drowned in detail I will stick to the most significant of those listed above for this article.)

The initial skill most taiji teachers require is that of taijiquan. However, few people manage to gain this skill even at the most basic of levels. (This is Level 1 in Chen style. Details of what constitutes a Level One have been provided by various high level teacher/practitioners e.g. Chen Xiao Wang – Five Levels Skill, and details can be found easily on the web. One high level Chen style teacher I asked said he thought that perhaps a few percent and certainly less than 5% of students reach Level 1.) I would argue that to teach well or effectively at this basic level (up to Level 1), a teacher would need to be at least a Level 2. The number of people who reach Level 2 is correspondingly smaller, perhaps 2% or 3% of those reaching Level 1 or perhaps 2 or 3 person per 10,000 practitioners. (See “Getting It” for a more substantial review of the numbers of people reaching these various levels.) So there simply are not many people out there with taiji skills of a sufficient standard to teach others correctly. If the teacher does not know the skill then student has no chance of gaining the skill.

Please note that while there are less than a handful of sufficiently adept practitioners per 10,000 people there are more probably around 500 people teaching taiji per 10,000 students, (if we assume an average teacher to student ratio of 20:1.) So of the estimated 500 who are teaching, probably less than 5 have a sufficient level of taiji skill to get the most basic job done. This is worth thinking carefully about. What I am arguing here is that less than 1% of teachers have the basic taiji skill they are attempting to teach. So it can come as no surprise that the basic standards of taiji generally are very poor.

Of those students who have sufficient taiji skill, how many of these have an understanding of the skill? Having skill and having understanding unfortunately are not the same. Fortunately, in my experience, there is a significantly higher level of overlap of the two skill sets of having taiji skill and having taiji understanding. Understanding is a significant aid to progress and the better the understanding the better the progress. My best guess would be between 30% and 70% of those students who have sufficient taiji skill also have an understanding of the skill but it is just a guess based on my own experience. In my arguments below I assume the higher figure of 70% for those who reach Level 2 and 30% for those reaching Level 1. It could be argued that the figure is higher still and I think this is true over level 2 where understanding becomes mandatory. At Level 1, understanding is a less stringent requirement for progress.

Why is this overlap not 100%? A good student with a good teacher may well do as their teacher proposes without understanding why. In many learning situations the student will have to do this. Understanding may come later if they seek it. Understanding is necessary to lay the foundation for the next level of skill. So someone with good taiji skill and good taiji understanding is more difficult to find than someone with just good taiji skill. Perhaps if there were 5 sufficiently skilled practitioners to teach per 10,000 students then their might be only 3 or 4 sufficiently skilled practitioners with sufficient understanding to teach per 10,000 students. So already we have a small likelihood of occurrence of someone with sufficient taiji skill and sufficient understanding to teach. This is without any reference to teaching skills themselves.

The next priority of skill is probably teaching skill or ‘an ability to communicate the subject material in a manner the student can grasp.’ Clearly there is not only one way to teach taiji. Perhaps there are many ways. Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zheng Lei, Zhu Tian Cai, and Wang Xian all learned and studied taijiquan with the same teachers, (Chen Zhao Pei principally and then Chen Zhao Kui.) They are all widely accepted as having very high level gong fu. Yet their taiji is visibly different to watch. They all teach and yet they all use different teaching methodologies and practices although there are some conspicuous similarities. So while methodology is a factor, it is not the only factor in teaching skill. Possibly it is not the most important factor either.

There are so many example that we have had of people who were clearly knowledgeable in their field but who failed to convey to us their material in a manner we might grasp. Very few children do well in all their subjects. Is this a teacher problem or a student problem? To my mind it is both, but primarily a teacher problem. There is an old saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear.” As far as this is true then success in learning is a student problem. However, preparing the student is in itself a teacher problem. If someone attends a taiji class then presumably they do want to learn the skills of taiji. Perhaps they misunderstand what taiji is. (I think this is very common.) However, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to help the student overcome their ignorance and misunderstanding. In this respect, the ongoing ignorance of students can be a reflection of a teacher’s inability to communicate the subject material in a manner the student can grasp.

I think most ‘teachers’ do not have ‘an ability to communicate the subject material in a manner the student can grasp.’ Teachers that do have it, in Chen style like Chen Fake, Chen Zhao Pei & Wang Hai Jun, succeed in producing a host of highly talented and capable students. They each taught in different ways and to different types of people. Yet they were and are remarkably successful. What was it they did that which many other able practitioners cannot? This is a question with no simple answer, but might be best describes as ‘they were able to teach well.’

The ability to understand the student, where they are and where they think they are, (rarely the same thing in my experience,) is significant. The teacher must recognise when a student reaches a requirement for information and material. Too much information/material or too little information/material both cause problems. There is an order to the acquisition of skills. University level understanding is not generally appropriate for young children. The acquisition of taiji skill and understanding is largely hierarchical. If a significant skill in a lower set is missing then higher sets of skills will not be graspable. It is an unpalatable statement but unfortunately still true. Of those few teachers who do have taiji skill but lack understanding of how to teach, many attempt to get their students to learn at a level which is wholly inappropriate for their skill level and consequently impede or deny their students any chance of gaining significant gong fu, eg. Learning or practicing applications before the appropriate foundation skills are present.

The process of gaining the skills of taiji is relatively long, being measured in years, not days or weeks. The teacher must have the patience and long-term view to persist in managing the learning process to bring about the best results. Too little foundation cannot be rectified easily if at all. Given the limited patience of almost all students, the teacher must be willing to maintain the learning regime until the critical skills are learned. The student cannot be expected to manage this for his or herself. So in the face of all the student’s flaws, errors and distractions the teacher’s patience must prevail. Find a good teacher and you find a person with extraordinary patience.

Clearly experience will help. How important this is, still remains unclear to me. Does 5 years or 10 years or 15 years produce sufficient experience? Given the variation in the quality of experience, a simple number will clearly not provide a universal answer.

In addition, the teacher must want the student to learn. In short they must care. The effort that the teacher will need to make, to assist the student in overcoming their hurdles, to encourage and correct, to convey the necessary understanding and to inspire the student to undertake the practice all take time and care. If the teacher does not care, the student will not achieve their potential. So, a taijiquan teacher must have the understanding of taijiquan skill and of teaching taijiquan skill, and have the time and the willingness to transmit their art. This caring is sometimes referred to as respect.

How rare might a good teacher be?

If we follow the line of argument given above and try to fill in the numbers, we arrive at the  following scenario:

How many taiji practitioners ar there? Various estimates give 30-200 million across the world, so let us be a little conservative and assume there are 50 million. How many taiji practitioners reach Level 2? A rough estimate worldwide by Wang Hai Jun was between 2,500 and 5,000. Let us be optimistic and assume the higher end of this, giving 1 suitably skilled possibility for every 20,000 taiji students! How many of these have sufficient taiji understanding to teach? Perhaps 50%, giving 2,500 people with both skills or giving 1 suitably skilled possibility for every 40,000 taiji students! How many of these have good teaching skills? Perhaps 10% giving 250 teachers or 1 suitably skilled teacher for every 400,000 taiji students! Of these, how many of these care enough and have sufficient opportunity (face time with the student,) to undertake the task? The answer is all too few! Remember we talking here about Level 2 practitioners, suitable to raise students to level 1, the opening level of skill in Chen style. So we might arguably conclude that good teachers are indeed extremely rare.

What might we do to verify this answer? We could look at the historical performance of taiji teachers. What is the historically performance of taijiquan teachers in producing skills in their students? Of the estimated 30-200 million taiji practitioners in the world, how many high level practitioners are there (Level 3 or above)? It is certainly not more than a few hundred and perhaps less than 100. From this one might easily conclude that there were very few good teachers and that the performance of the overwhelming majority of taijiquan teachers in producing skills in their students has been exceptionally poor.

Why is this? I suggest that this is a consequence of both poor teaching skills and insufficient taijiquan understanding. We might also conclude from this that most taijiquan teachers are not very good teachers, regardless of the quality of their taijiquan. These are not very palatable facts for taijiquan teachers and students alike to face but until we do face them, understand how to change them and then actually set about changing them, the situation is unlikely to improve much.

I would add there is frequent reference to ‘a student needing to be of a certain character.’ There is much of significance in this, perhaps the most significant elements being respect, honesty, discipline and perseverance. (Note these are not moral characteristics in the sense of good or bad, they are simply characteristics required to achieve the goal of gaining significant taiji skill.) These characteristics would needed to have been there in the teacher when they were students and should be just as apparent now they are teachers. Where these characteristics are missing from teachers may be an indicator that they lack skills that a beginner may be unable to judge effectively.

How do we know if someone is a good teacher?

As described above, a good practitioner is not necessarily a good teacher. There are many skills of teaching that are needed in addition to an understanding of Taijiquan. That someone has high level skills in taijiquan does not imply that they are a good teacher. Would you learn boxing from Mike Tyson? I suggest that the quality of a teacher can only be measured by the progress of their students. If the teacher is good then the students will develop. A teacher of high quality will have students with high quality skills. So it is difficult to know if someone is a good teacher without having some objective reference to the quality of their students, in itself a difficult thing to obtain.

Until recently, one way was to know if their students had reached an unequivocal standard e.g. by winning the Chinese Nationals. There are many Taijiquan competitions in China and around the world. Unfortunately winning them is rarely a matter of good taiji skills. Fortunately the pinnacle of these competitions in China up until the year 2000 was the Chinese Nationals, run by the Chinese Government. (These have been described elsewhere – see Chinese Nationals.) Unfortunately they have been discontinued. However, the quality of the highest tier of teachers can be found by examining the results of these competitions, noting not the winners but the teachers of the winners.

(Unfortunately the same standard cannot be said for almost all other competitions where both judging and rules are profoundly suspect. It was poignant to note in Jan Silbersdorf’s book “Chen” – which incidentally I do not recommend – he records that when he showed Chen Xiao Wang his skill, Chen Xiao Wang commented that he could see why he had won many competitions but that he did not have any taiji skill. Winning modern taiji competitions is not reliant on the development of taiji skills. So winning competitions generally is not a good indicator of taiji skill. This is an unfortunate progression arrived at because most taiji competitions being organised and run by those with at best a poor ability in and understanding of taiji skills.)

In conclusion, it is very difficult to know whether someone is a good taiji teacher. Careful analysis and strenuous efforts to retain objectivity are recommended. Caveat emptor!

We might begin by asking those who have attained gong fu about their teachers. As best I can ascertain, in the second previous generation there were two teachers who produced a significant number of very high quality students, Chen Fake and Chen Zhao Pei. This is not to say that there were not other good teachers, just that these two appeared to have been the best given the number of excellent students they produced. In the previous generation Chen Zheng Lei seems most notable. In the current generation the record shows that Wang Hai Jun has succeeded beyond all others. While I surmise that there are others, their record remains more difficult to ascertain or less consistent.

Where can a good teacher be found?

The first step in your journey to learning taiji is to find your teacher. In my experience, for reasons described above, good teachers are very few and far between. How does a new learner know if the teacher they have chosen is any good? The answer that they will have difficulty knowing but in all likelihood their teacher probably is not a good teacher. They are most probably simply convenient to the location of the student. Most people start learning with their local teacher.

A good teacher is a rare person in my experience. Many teachers think they are good teachers but this does not make them so. Many students study with these teachers, thinking they are good teachers, but this does not make it so either. Testimonials of poor teacher are so commonplace as to be lamentable. I would go so far as to say that teachers who offer testimonials as a marketing device should be avoided. It would help if students would consider both what taiji is and what makes a good teacher. Both of these considerations are difficult in themselves. Few people make these considerations. It seems most people come across good teachers by chance. The old saying, ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear,’ does seem very plausible. Nevertheless, by implication the overwhelming numbers of students are never ready.

Finding a good teacher is more difficult than finding an honest politician or an altruistic predator.

As mentioned above, a good teacher of taijiquan will need a certain skill in taijiquan to understand what is required. In my opinion, someone will need to be a Level 2 to help someone reach Level 1. Someone will need to be a Level 3 to help someone reach Level 2. For the last 20 years there have been a small number of Level 3 and Level 4 practitioners travelling and teaching outside of China for access to be the least significantly difficult of the three requirements. However, as mentioned above, that someone is a high level practitioner does not imply that they are a good teacher or, if they are a good teacher, that they are willing to put in the time and effort needed 

Overall, a good teacher will be looking at the big picture of a student’s training as well as the momentary detail. When training with a good teacher, trust in their judgement. A good teacher will need to understand more than the student in all aspects of taijiquan. The student probably will not have the perspective to understand the why of a particular instruction. Over time (and considerable practice) it will become clear. A good teacher will help a student avoid the detours and encourage them to persevere even when the road ahead looks like a dead end but the teacher knows otherwise. This is part of the role of a good teacher. By following their instruction and practicing diligently and with considerable effort the student will arrive at understanding.

It is worth noting that the last 25 years of intermittent access to good teachers has not proved sufficient for Level 3 gong fu to be gained by any non-Chinese student outside. Seeing a teacher for one or two weekends a year or perhaps for a few weeks in the summer in themselves have not proved winning strategies in the effort to learn taiji skills. Hoping this method alone will suffice is most likely short sighted. So how much access to a good teacher is required? This is not an easy question to answer and will necessarily vary according to the student. However my best estimate is perhaps 3-5 hour per month or 5-10 hours per two months as a minimum. There must be sufficient time and sufficient regularity of time for the teacher to familiarise themselves with the student’s character to allow them to understand the student and how they might best be taught and find progress. So while the teaching strategies offered by the itinerant high level practitioners might be sufficient to produce a high level practitioner, other factors remain critical. The next of these factors I have explored in the next article, ‘Good Understanding.’

Appendix: A List of characteristics and skills of a good teacher.

A. Characteristics of a good teachers (in alphabetical order)

  1. Caring
  2. Empathy
  3. Humour 
  4. Integrity
  5. Leadership
  6. Morality
  7. Patience
  8. Perseverance
  9. Respect 
  10. Self Awareness
  11. Self Control
  12. Selflessness
  13. Understanding

B. Skills of a good teacher

  1. Understanding where the student is
  2. Understanding where the student wants or needs to get to
  3. Understanding how to get the students from 2a. to 2b.
  4. Ability to communicate in such a way that the student grasps what to do
  5. Multiple redundancies in teaching approaches / methodologies
  6. Understanding the process of learning
  7. Group teaching methodologies and their adaptation
  8. Observation & Listening
  9. Individual Correction (Hands on – Physical correction)
  10. Group Correction
  11. Understanding student and teacher Motivations
  12. Dealing with Pre-existing Injury
  13. Sports first aid
  14. Understanding / Experience of Motor Skills Formation

Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.