Engaging a class

One of the skills that is very important to an instructor is engaging a class. It won’t matter how well structured a class is, how much research went into it, or how technically correct the material is if the students are not kept engaged with the class in some way. If they lose interest, then they are not going to be able to pick up the lessons effectively.

There are many ways to engage a class; just as there many ways to mismanage the engagement of a class and to lose their interest, or to let the attempts to engage them distract them from the actual technical material that is being taught.


Humour is one of the most obvious ways of engaging a class, and can be one of the easiest. Simply telling a joke or two is a quick way to make the atmosphere seem friendlier and a little less serious. Some care needs to be taken with humour though: a joke may seem like it will be funny, but then fall flat, which will not help with engaging the class, and could even do the opposite. One example comes to mind of a seminar I once took part in where the instructor came across as quite strict and serious, but out of the blue made one or two very bad jokes. This simply came across as jarring. Other instructors might include too many jokes, to the point where it becomes hard to take them seriously. It is also worth bearing in mind that everyone might not share your sense of humour, and telling a joke during class time that people might find either offensive or cringe-worthy will also not help.

The occasional well-timed, well-told joke can definitely help engage a class, although jokes that are badly timed, badly told or that are simply inappropriate, or making too many jokes can damage how you are perceived in your student’s eyes.

Humour can be more subtle than telling obvious jokes as well: I can think of some instructors who’ve done well from using a certain kind of dry humour for instance. Many of the treatises we study include phrases such as “…and then you may do as you like to him…” or “…this blow he will not soon forget”. Phrases like this, when delivered during a technique demonstration with an under-stated voice, a wink and a smile can go a long way towards this sort of humour.

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The aesthetics of HEMA safety gear

Today I wanted to offer a brief set of recomendations for HEMA clothing and safety gear aesthetics. Safety gear should of course be protective, and this should be the prime concern, but we should also wear safety gear that looks professional, gives a good impression of HEMA, and also fits into the established HEMA aesthetic. We want people to take us seriously, whether they are students, potential training partners, or members of the public, we want to give HEMA a good image, and I think we should attempt to look good while doing HEMA to show respect for the discipline of HEMA itself.

Someone with a clean professional look will give off a much better impression on behalf of themselves, their club and HEMA generally. This means that we should try to present a look like this, rather than, for example, wear a mismash of badly maintained psuedo-historical gear and motocross gear. Even those wearing HEMA gear could often do something to improve their look, e.g. replacing a painted mask design with a more professional one, or replace some black items with something a little more distinctive.

Me in my current set of HEMA gear. Photo copyright of Lindsey McMahon.

Me in my current set of HEMA gear. Photo copyright of Lindsey McMahon.

As a comparison, this is previous st of gear, which is less distintrive and recognisable in terms of national and club colours, and also had a less professional mask design. Photo coyright of Keith Farrell.

As a comparison, this was my previous set of gear, which was less distinctive and recognisable in terms of national and club colours, and also had a less professional mask design.
Photo coyright of Keith Farrell.

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On painted masks

One practice that is quite common within HEMA is painting fencing masks.  The fencing mask is the most common item of safety kit that a HEMAist can own, and so many HEMAists will personalise their masks. There are many possible reasons why a HEMA practitioner might paint their own mask: it may be so they can find their own mask quicker if a group of masks are left together, or it could be so that they can identify themselves in photos more easily, or so that others in the HEMA community will recognise them more easily, or simply because they think the idea of a painted mask might look cool.

For quite some time, I wore a painted mask. Most recently, I wore a mask painted with a skull, and before that, I was borrowing a friend’s mask with a zombie/Jason design. When I got my mask back, freshly painted with a skull, I was very happy with it. The painting had been done well, it was very distinctive, and a few of the newer students said that the mask made it more intimidating to spar with me, which was very satisfying. After this I acquired a new mask, which hasn’t yet been painted. Taking time to think about exactly what I wanted to be painted on my new mask made me think about the entire practice of painting masks, and especially the problems associated with it. I was very happy with both of the painted masks I have used, but I have been thinking recently that the issue might be a little more complicated than simply having your mask painted because it looks cool, which was the only real consideration I ever had personally with regard to having a painted mask before.

Me, in my old mask painted with a skull. Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

Me, in my old mask painted with a skull.
Photo copyright of Daniil Lapko.

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How should a new club set its attendance fee?

A photograph of a group exercise about range and distance, taken at one of the practices at RMAS in Dundee.

A photograph of a group exercise about range and distance, taken at one of the practices at RMAS in Dundee.

One of the most difficult decisions you have to make when setting up a new club is to decide how much to charge for participation in your training sessions. If you set the rate too low, then you will have difficulty paying for hall hire and meeting your financial obligations. If you set it too high, then people might not be willing to pay that much, and you will have difficulty finding and retaining members.

Nonetheless, it is my opinion (based on significant experience teaching at both an amateur and professional level) that it is better to set a higher price than a lower price.

Rather than picking a number out of thin air, it is important to consider the matter carefully, and to choose a number that works for you and your club. It is not necessarily helpful to base your choice on what other clubs in the area may charge for sessions, since they may have advantages (or disadvantages) that you do not have.

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My updated 7 rules for instructors

Back in 2013 I wrote a post called Teaching Skills, and Presenting a Class, in which I presented seven rules for instructors. This post then inspired several other posts on the same subject[1] [2] [3]. However, as I said in my original article, we should all be trying to improve our skills at instructing, and as quite some time has passed since I wrote the article, I thought it would be worth revisiting and updating it.

I think the original rules are still good rules, however some are slightly redundant, and others too specific. We should always be trying to convey information to our students as effectively as we can, and this includes not giving them redundant information, and focusing on teaching them general principles they can apply to a wide variety of situations, rather than focusing on very specific applications of technique that they can only use in specific situations. Rules for how to instruct therefore should cover a principle of teaching that can applied to many situations, rather than being a specific rule that only applies in some situations.

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7 Rules for Instructors

This article has been written and submitted by Daria Izdebska, one of the instructors within the Academy of Historical Arts.

I am not only a martial arts instructor, but also a language tutor and an academic teacher. This variety of experiences has helped me realise that some aspects of teaching are universal, no matter what subject you teach, what kind of students you have or how often you instruct. At the same time, each and every teaching situation is unique. It is therefore at once a very easy task to come up with seven rules for instructors, and a very difficult one, because I could come up with much more than just seven pieces of advice. Many aspects of teaching are interrelated and make sense only when discussed in conjunction with each other.

The advice I lay out below is the result of my own experiences as a teacher and instructor, but also as a student who is looking for the best teacher I can have. Some of it may be difficult to put fully into practice, depending on the particular teaching situations and environments, but I believe this this is the ideal we should all be striving for.

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7 Fundamental Rules for Instructors

Keith Farrell teaching "halfswording" for 15th century German armoured combat (kampffechten) at the Vanguard 2012 event held at the University of Glasgow.

This article follows on from a previous article by Alex Bourdas, expanding upon his original concept and providing an alternative point of view. Alex’s article can be read here:


Instructing martial arts can be a difficult task. It is very much a skill that needs to be developed. In the previous article, Alex put forward 7 fundamental rules that he believes instructors must practice and work to improve. He has asked me to write about the 7 fundamental rules that I believe instructors need to work on, so here they are:

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