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Touching Excellence – 3rd Dan

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woman practising martial arts

Those who develop their craft seriously will tell you that each day is about new learning. Professional musicians, architects, singers or athletes talk about a ‘beginner’s mind’. Otherwise, what more can you learn if your cup is full? What we see in a performance is only a fraction of the time spent practising, polishing and reflecting. So it is with teachers who strive for excellence. They have developed their craft over many years. Not repeating the same experience but developing it. The cup is never full. There are frequent struggles – maintaining your personal confidence, understanding pupils’ needs and motivation, providing meaningful learning experiences. Their strong and deeply-held purpose moves them through these struggles. Struggle is essential to secure growth in qualities, understanding and skill. Performance eventually becomes difficult to separate into elements of physical effort, technical expertise or emotional focus. These aspects are interlinked and, together, they help pupils rise to and extend their best. This makes heads turn. Others are inspired. The highly accomplished teacher did not teach to lead, but has become an example and source of guidance for making excellence visible.

This touching of excellence, typical of third Dan, is when others begin to look to you. In martial arts it is the first teaching grade. The grade when you begin to use what you can understand and do to help others. In the classroom as well as in the dojo, deep study and intelligent practice shows. There is a greater intuitive aspect to teaching. The teacher is responsive to students. The classroom vision and presence is strong. Planning considers how to connect and build learning. Pupil expressions are noticed to gauge understanding and confidence. Misconceptions are used to deepen learning. Questions build on this to probe and plan further learning. No resource is more important the pupil. It is the pupils’ performance, needs and abilities that guide the teacher. The energy of the class and their collective experience is adjusted so that they embrace the challenge of learning. They genuinely want to understand and do better because they are engrossed by their learning journey.

The teacher/leader teaches according to their own qualities, talents and skills. In martial arts we say that they have ‘shown their face’. They have moved beyond copying others and created their own expression of exceptional teaching. They link their understanding of themselves, their pupils and the curriculum to build effective relationships and memorable learning opportunities. The vision feels like a real possibility.

Still, ‘there are many ways to kiss the earth’ as Rumi said. This is a cornerstone of leadership, that the leader enables others to discover their own excellence. The Fourth Dan seeks learning from other styles and martial arts. The teacher/leader visits other schools and observes other skilful teachers. Principles and practice that provide frameworks for success are better understood by seeing them in different contexts. The true leader wants to move beyond the gains from one person or a single approach.

‘The fish looks large in the small pond. The true way is in the open water’.

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