By: Mariana López Rodríguez.
TL, DR.: Read the text in bold.
I get it. There are things that you don’t necessarily feel like sharing with your instructor, especially when you are new. Things like not wanting to do X exercise because you are on your period, or that after your baby was born your levels of testosterone or aggression went down (I’ve heard that happens to guys), or something like that.
However there is one thing students need to understand: For every misunderstanding, for every time you feel there was some disrespect, every moment you feel insulted, ignored, conflicted, angry, sad, shocked, confused or disappointed in your trainings, if you ever feel there’s an attitude or a comment that’s out of place, for every concern or question, every time you feel unsure, you need to understand: YOU MUST TALK TO YOUR INSTRUCTOR FIRST.
I’m about to share one of the most embarrassing and shameful stories that happened just recently (TW: Mis-gendering): I have this one student who has very queer features, a neutral name, and a neutral way of dressing. This caused me to change the pronouns I used to refer to this person all the time, it was a struggle, she/he/they… I was all over, English not being my first language I LEGIT don’t know how to talk without using pronouns and I was babbling more than usual, I was terrified I was being the most disrespectful person ever, and yet invading the person’s privacy by asking was also terrifying. This was new to me, I really like this student and I was acting so awkwardly I felt it was obvious to everyone, it was the first time I was in this situation. At the end of the 7th class I got brave enough and for the first time in my life, I asked for their pronouns. I was so scared to screw up and so anxious I’m 99% sure I came across very VERY rude, but by the time I noticed I messed up the person (who gently and calmly answered the question) had left. I did everything wrong, I asked the person to come with me for a second to have privacy in the wrong way, I was so anxious I used the worst wording of all time, I dismissed the conversation extremely awkwardly and by the time I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my life, the person had left.
The next class the student didn’t show and while I’m still hoping it was coincidental, a part of me is well aware that I might have just made someone’s day miserable, and to leave HEMA with a bad experience, all due to my inexperience, communication barriers and lack of tools. And believe me, I didn’t start the conversation lightly. I talked to people, asked for advice, spoke with more experienced instructors, and I still ruined it. I learned my lesson by possibly hurting or offending someone.
In this instance, I understand if the person gets the worst idea about me, and I understand if they never want to approach me ever again, and while obviously they did nothing wrong and this was entirely my fault, it got me thinking about this issue. I was deeply frustrated knowing that this is not who I am and that that person does not deserve that bad experience and that I could’ve done better and now I won’t be able to apologize.
What am I trying to say?
INSTRUCTORS ARE HUMANS. Think of it like this: Sometimes there are misunderstandings when your instructor is demonstrating a move to you, let alone the possibility of misunderstanding while explaining something or talking, or tweeting or facebooking, etc, etc, etc.
Depending on the size of the club, we can’t be everywhere. We don’t hear the talking in the changing room, or what happens with the people behind us while we were correcting someone else’s technique. There’s a chance we are missing someone misbehaving, or because no one told us, we have no idea the substitute instructor is mean, or sexist or racist or such.
Now, I want to make a quick pause at this point and make something very clear first: It is every instructor’s OBLIGATION to be approachable and constantly remind students that we are there to solve any questions, clarify doubts and solve any problems. Instructors must be vocal and clear about how important it is for students to come to us with all the questions and needs they have. We can’t ask to be approached when we do not make ourselves easy to approach. As instructors we must work and seek to empower our students so they have the confidence to talk to us, the same way we approach students when there is any concern. And honestly this topic has enough material to write another blog specifically about it, but in this blog I want to specifically focus on what happens when students still decide not to approach their instructors, regardless.
And yes, there are times in which we make mistakes serious enough we probably lose the privilege of being approached by our students (Like my story). But to be fair, those instances tend to be rare, extreme and incredibly obvious, and yet obviousness is highly subjective. As an example, I know of an instructor who is Jewish, and English was not his first language. He was substituting for a class at a university, and having a dark sense of humor, made a sarcastic/ self-deprecating remark about Jews, not realizing that no one knew he was Jewish and that he was trying to crack a joke to break the ice. He was reported by one of the students and ended up being investigated by the university for anti-semitism.
As instructors, at least once in our lives we will encounter a person who is mad at us and won’t want to see us ever again because we did this one thing that we:
a) Never recalled doing.
b) Didn’t realized was bad (ignorance is not a sin as long as you are willing to change once you learn).
c) Meant in an entirely different way but the person didn’t understood or took out of context.
d) Were too inexperienced and had no clue how to handle it properly.
e)Never took action because we had no idea something was happening with other instructors/students (because we are not omnipresent/omniscient!).
By not talking to your Instructor FIRST you are causing several troubles:
1.- You can slow down your learning and improvement process: Sometimes the things we feel shy talking about are as simple as not wanting to train with this person who keeps mansplaining everything, even when they are less experienced than you; or you are asked to help with new students so often you feel your own training is being damaged; there’s also the chance your instructor is not pushing you harder as they are unaware you are interested in being more competitive rather than just a recreational fencer. If you don’t alert your instructor, you are removing yourself from the opportunity of having more successful and productive training. On that same note: We can’t read minds: There’s no way for us to know all your needs as a student if you don’t communicate it to us. If you are frustrated because you feel we don’t care about something, maybe, just maybe, you should consider that it’s not that we don’t care but that we don’t know.
2.- You might lose the opportunity to be better student: None of us are perfect, and by that, I mean that you as a student are not perfect either. We as instructors have reasons for our actions. It happens more often than not, to have students that are entitled or who see a reward as a punishment or who believe they are ready for something they really are not. And from time to time we think these things are obvious to you. To us it’s obvious that we make you work with the new students because you are really good with them and you enjoy it, or you are not being asked for certain thing because you are more needed elsewhere or that you are not given a certain job because you don’t have enough experience or knowledge yet. Maybe you think you are ready and are really good at something but you are really not. By not talking to your instructor you might be losing the chance to realize you were wrong and you could be better student and training partner, and therefore, to be a better fencer and person.
3.- You lose the chance to confirm whether your instructor is a bad person or not: Yes, there is the chance your Instructor is an absolute jackass and won’t do anything about that one classmate or meant the awful words you thought you heard. But both by just leaving or giving the benefit of the doubt without talking to them you are missing the chance to confirm the reality. You could be walking away from a good person and loosing what could be your favorite hobby, or you could be staying for a toxic bad experience to come.
4.- You don’t allow your instructor to right their wrongs: We could’ve kicked out that one student, we could have learned to talk about weight and gender and how it relates to grappling/strength/training in a different more respectful way, we could’ve made the club a friendlier environment, we could’ve apologized. By not talking to us first, you are removing from us a growth opportunity and you are removing yourself the chance to have a better experience in your training.
5.- You can hurt your instructor unfairly and permanently: There ARE misunderstandings, they WILL happen. There is the chance that you’re so angry for this one thing, and complaint behind their backs to everyone, people are horrified and decide Coach Harry is a total Voldemort. Then you go back to your HEMA class and realize it was all a misunderstanding. But by the time you realize you were wrong, it won’t matter if you tell people Coach Harry is, in reality, a Saint of all Saints…. the HEMA village already heard the rumor and the Instructor will have to fight a myth for all their years to come as an instructor.
6.- You could put you or your classmates at risk: Maybe you never talk to your Instructor of this problematic classmate that they just didn’t noticed, maybe they never heard the one dude who kept making misogynist comments, maybe you weren’t sure to ask to your Instructor what do they mean when they said X thing. By not making your Instructor aware, he won’t be able to take action in time, and he won’t realize what was going on until something major happens.
The only instance in which you should NOT talk to your instructor first, is in the instances where the instructor or student (in which case you should alert the instructor as well) is doing something that should be alerted the police or authorities. And if that’s the case then GO TO THE AUTHORITIES FIRST before doing anything else.
Communities are social environments and we will face the common problems that any place with more than one person will have: language barriers, lack of understanding, lack of experience, ignorance, naïve people, doubts and mistakes. Communication is the one tool that we have to work through all of those, and so we might as well use it.
Instructors are there to guide you, teach you, and give you an enriching and fun experience. Help us reach that goal! TALK TO US!