Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?

How much do you know about yourself?
In the film Fight Club Tyler Durden poses the question, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” By that measure I knew very little about myself. I knew nothing of what it actually meant to have someone ‘front me up’ or ‘give me some verbals’. Yet these experiences are common in the urban environment we find ourselves in: drunken, drugged-up people leaving clubs, opportunistic, bullying muggers, or groups of ‘hoodies’ are all somewhat stereotypical. Still, I think we’ve all experienced them (perhaps first-hand) to know how intimidating the world we live in can be.

We’re also bombarded with statistics about knifepoint robberies, gun-crime and general intimidation of members of the public going about their every-day lives. Sometimes, the way the media portray our wonderful city you could be forgiven for thinking we live in a war-zone. Some part of me wanted to address this gap in my experience. I frequently asked myself: what would I do if I got into a difficult situation? I’d met The Fella at a Circusboy’s birthday party and started following him on Twitter. He’d posted a video of some Urban Krav Maga. I’d watched with interest and thought I’d give it a go.

It was with these facts in mind that I entered the Virgin Gym in The Plaza, Oxford Street one Wednesday last September. I was more than a little nervous. Perhaps it was because my only experience of any Martial Arts classes had been a few Karate lessons as a round, nervous ten-year old. More likely it was the unknown: I really didn’t know what to expect.

I introduced myself to an intense, Scottish man Stewart McGill: the instructor. Who. You. Would. Not. Mess. With. He seemed like a smiley, humorous kind of guy but I had a vague sense of previously committed past mayhems. The tamed Dark Side. He professed a love of heavy metal and that set my mind at ease being a fellow fan. He guided me into the gym for the start of my first class and asked me to remove my watch and labret piercing. This did little to calm my nerves as I looked around the class and saw people from a range of sizes, and backgrounds and a few women too.

I have worked as a secondary school teacher for seven years now and I can’t help but judge the quality of any learning situation. Whilst the gym setting was unfamiliar and unsettling to me, it was still an educational environment; there were certain things I was expecting. In the back of my mind I had three areas I was (sub)consciously judging to see if Urban Krav was something I was going to commit time, money and effort to.

Firstly, is the teacher credible? By this I really mean do they know what they are talking about. OK Stewart might have looked the part but there are enough people walking around London who look like they can handle themselves in a fight. In teaching a subject, one of the ways I distinguish my knowledge is technical language. Stewart explained the technical aspects of each move, and demonstrated them. Not only that, he would walk through each move step-by-step giving a detailed running commentary on each aspect of the move.

Fair enough. If you’ve participated in any Martial Arts classes before, I’d guess that would be what you’d expect. However, what really enhanced the technical expertise for me, were the reference points from other Martial Arts. Stewart frequently includes in his instructions phrases such as: “Traditional boxers would…”, “MMA guys approach like this…” or “Ju-Jitsu teaches…” This breadth and depth of knowledge established credibility very quickly – but the guiding purpose is Stewart’s phrase “In a street-fight…” peppered with the word “nasty” (his Scottish accent increases its brutality). This gives the classes a practical slant for instant applicability to the urban melee.

But knowing your stuff isn’t enough. I know people who are incredibly intelligent but absolutely terrible at passing on their knowledge. This relates to the second area I was judging: what’s the teacher’s relationship with the class like?

From my own teaching experience, I know that when pupils respect the teacher and enjoy the classroom environment, they’re far more receptive to learning. Beginning to learn Urban Krav is no exception. Participants fully embrace the serious subject matter because of the dark humour and very colourful (but totally realistic) language that permeates the classes.

Make no mistake – I think undertaking any kind of Martial Arts training should be tough. Doubts about my own ability perhaps fuelled my nervousness. Training needs to be mentally and physically stimulating and Urban Krav certainly is. However, the balance between pushing oneself and building confidence can only happen in a space where learners are comfortable and safe. This is especially true where people could seriously injure themselves. Stewart (with the other instructors who are frequently in attendance) maintains control over the environment with a watchful eye whilst we train. His authoritative air is (relatively) easily established because everyone knows he could hurt any one of us. Badly. And with ease.
McGill teaches the attacker the error of his ways...

Despite that slightly disconcerting background awareness, Stewart and the instructors invite questions with humility and humour. I’ve always felt able to approach and ask for help or feedback on a particular move. In truth, the class is an environment of collaborative learning; I have gained a lot from other participants too. This is actively encouraged and there is a refreshing absence of ego.

Nevertheless, a knowledgeable teacher, and an appropriate relationship are just the foundation – the proof of the pudding is in the eating: did I learn anything and will I continue to learn something? This can’t get answered from the first class – it has to be pursued.

Yes, after the first session I felt I learned something. A few months on and I’m still learning something new from each class. As a teacher, I plan for progression with my pupils. I have an idea of where they should be by the end of term. To the untrained eye it seems as if Stewart and the instructors are making it up as they go along. In truth, they’re completely guided by the group in front of them. The balance of beginners and experienced attendees can vary wildly by session. Serious formal planning for each class makes no sense; rather there is a deeper awareness of the individuals in the room. Stewart and the instructors are constantly observing class members and have developed an instinctive understanding of what’s needed. This is high-level instruction.

That doesn’t mean there is no structure. There is a syllabus and in my last session I was formally assessed at Level One. This involved several minutes of pressure-testing, handling the Ten Most Common Street Attacks. I didn’t pass. This time. I was a little frustrated but the instructors have a clear commitment to high standards. Anything else would do me (and anyone who attends) a disservice.

So, I highly recommend Urban Krav Maga: credible, knowledgeable teachers, an effective relationship between instructors and pupils in a mutually respectful environment and a clear commitment to learning. This training is varied, challenging and fulfilling – if you stick at it. Last September, I remember leaving my first session thoroughly tired and slightly giddy having experienced getting my hand in someone else’s sweaty face (and vice versa). Everyday life does not offer us the chance to experience our own naked aggression. The closest I usually get is a heavy metal gig. Urban Krav is different. Each week, I am invited to unhinge, embrace and eventually learn to control and use my aggression. It leaves me a little more confident each time.

Hopefully, I won’t have to use any of the techniques I’m learning. But I’d happily look Tyler Durden in the eye and say, “I know more about myself.”
For more details: check the Central London School of Krav Maga and,
the YouTube Channel or,
buy Urban Krav Maga 6-DVD Box Set: defending the most common street attacks.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Class of 2012: Home Truths

Tonight - Touch The Sky
Each year another set of Year 13 students steps beyond the castle walls and escapes to university to begin Life After School. Each year group likes to think that they will be remembered fondly in teachers hearts and minds. Truthfully, year groups have a tendency to blur into one another. This article is not only to acknowledge the boys, but also to take the chance to deliver a few Home Truths...

Firstly, every year when The Leavers are planning their ritualistic Last Day of Practical Jokes, they think that the ideas they come up with are truly original. Home Truth Number One: they're probably not. Moving rooms and equipment around are to be expected; water pistols teachers have been there, done that.

However, this year the banner was wholly unexpected - charming, humorous and excruciatingly painful to read. It was also very memorable. With the picture taken by 5* the willing participants with big smiles were: 3, 19, 20, 14, 16, 26, 18, 9, 23, 2, 12, 1 and 6. Head Boy (15) was meant to be in the picture but was asked to help with the new Head Boy interviewees and couldn't be there.

This leads to Home Truth Number Two: teachers all remember something about each year group; we just have to think a little to recall it. Perhaps the banner may not be all that we remember from this year group: 10 and 24's unfailingly attractive dress sense (lacking in Top Buttons), 11, 13 and 4's unique intellectual banter, will also be remembered.

Part of the reason we have to think a little before we can recall particular year groups is because of Home Truth Number Three: every year, roles repeat themselves. It's as if there are certain archetypes individuals must conform to within a group of Leavers. Every year there are variations on a cast of characters: the funny one (19), the creative one (25) the dark horse (8 and 7), the sensible one (15), the one-who-is-always-there (22), the wild one (23), the sleepy one (17), the could-try-harder one (1) and the don’t-mess-with one (21).

Maturity encompasses Home Truth Number Four: in their hearts, Leavers are ready to move on - whether they realise it or not. Our annual occasion is the formal recognition of this. This year was no exception as Teachers and Leavers exchanged anecdotes about starting in Year Seven, how they have grown into young men and their hopes, aspirations and dreams – all whilst sipping alcoholic beverages on the Thames. (Photographic evidence can be found in this video presentation).

The final Home Truth is that experiences at school do not happen in isolation. Leavers (and Teachers) cannot single out one story to capture their time at Our School. The boys take from Our School a collection of friends, various incidents, conversations and (life) lessons, remembered forever, that are a strong foundation for later years.

In a similar way, it’s not one single teacher that creates the unique familial atmosphere at Our School: it’s the whole community of teachers that make a contribution to a leaving year group. This year’s Leavers understand, appreciate and embody this. Moving on to the experiences of university and Life After School, we can be sure they have enjoyed their time at Our School and made the most of it. They move on with our best wishes for the futures they will create.
*Names have become numbers to protect the innocent (and hide the guilty).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

JDS Insights: May 2012

It's in your head...
For a teacher May is a month brought sharply into focus because of those little things called exams.

The particularly depressing weather through the month didn't really help matters - in my mind it was supposed to be warmer, sunnier and feeling like the end of the year was approaching. Instead it felt like one long extended spring - with no end in sight!

Teachers also start to get a bit tired about this time too because we move into writing reports - which can seem like an endless task.

May was also quite emotional because the Year 13 were leaving. Each year it's slightly different; the range of emotions seems to widen. Check my blog post about the leavers for more. At least it warmed up...for a while.

Apart from teaching, there were a few birthdays. Sister was turning another year older, another year wiser and another year closer to the truth. Of course I am ahead.

Another friend turned thirty - which brought home to me not only my own age but also how much things change. She's accomplished a lot in the time I've know her. Birthdays are occasions where disparate groups often come together with one key person at the centre. Sometimes the disparate groups gel, other times they don't. Our individual friendships have a significant effect on us. I think this is because who we are is defined by how we relate to people, places and stuff that happens. I feel as if the trick is to keep in mind that I have a choice about how I relate to something. Not always easy to keep in one's experience.

During May I also enjoyed some reading material. After the experimentation of previous books, I looked at something slightly more academic and psychological. I can't quite remember how I heard about this book but Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School is solidly written and has practical application - especially for me as an educator.

It's written by John Medina - a "developmental molecular biologist" - who practices what he preaches. I found it very accessible and interesting but also academically rigorous. He only uses studies that pass his 'grump' factor - properly peer-reviewed and replicated stuff.

Check out the Brain Rules website.

Not only does it challenge a lot of the nonsense I hear/ read amongst the chattering teachers, it also (far more disturbingly) made me appreciate my parents even more. There are parts in the book that could have been written by my Dad. The difference is - my Dad came to his own conclusions - not peer-reviewed scientific research!

Suffice to say I was sufficiently inspired to buy him a copy - which has brightened his retirement. I also recommended it to Sister (she of Paediatric Occupational Therapy fame). Actually I did more than recommend it - I told her she *had* to buy it. Which she duly did.

Being proved right is better than any drug. Having your children tell you is probably better than that.

Enjoy the insights.*

May 01: I can learn deeper truth myself through appropriately expressing my anger.
May 02: Anger, fully expressed, is part of being human.
May 03: It's all a competition. And then we die. Wow.
May 04: I set the rules for my life. I'm competing with myself - no-one else.
May 05: What I see, has already happened. Reality is always a step ahead.
May 06: What I see is mostly creation.
May 07: Sensory input is infallible. Sensory interpretation is not.
May 08: My senses are not the best pathway for understanding truth.
May 09: My senses tell my one thing about my body but my mind can tell me another.
May 10: I am not just my body. Neither am I just my mind. Nor am I just my spirit.
May 11: People will believe whatever you tell them.
May 12: Discipline is not boring - not producing results is.
May 13: I am always producing the results I want. I am just not always clear about what I want.
May 14: You can only really discover aspects of yourself in prepared conversation.
May 15: Planning cannot account for real life.
May 16: Accidents happen. The real fun is how we respond to them.
May 17: Consistently taking a particular action defines us.
May 18: Repetition creates learning - including learning mistakes.
May 19: Writing something down gives something more reality because it's out of my head.
May 20: We spend a significant chunk of our lives in our head.
May 21: Believing my thoughts and opinions to be true keeps me blind.
May 22: Not all growth requires pain.
May 23: Beauty is everywhere.
May 24: We are mostly unconscious to the truth.
May 25: Underestimating the impact I have on others diminishes my power.
May 26: A Family creates conversations we have no choice but to participate in.
May 27: Conversations don't just happen. We are always making something up.
May 28: Commitment starts. Action moves. Truth sustains.
May 29: Self-discipline is nothing without a commitment to something.
May 30: It's not hard to produce the results I want. I just complicate everything.
May 31: We all think we are not good enough. We just have different versions.
*My own creations