Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The perfect student

Recently I went paddling with a young woman, that in retrospect I think was the best student I have ever had. She is very active, having ridden her bike across the country last summer building houses for the homeless. This summer she did a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Yukon - backpacking and canoeing. Upon her return from the Yukon she decided to join a trip I am putting together, and because of that has started taking lessons with me.

I should point out that my favorite thing to teach are basics. Primarily because they are the foundation of everything else. But also because the forward stroke is difficult to get fluid with and it challenges preconceived notions. But I love teaching the basics because watching students process what they are being taught, teaches me how they see it. And for that I learn more about the art.

This young woman did a few things that made her an exceptional student, and they are things that I think we can all learn from. First, she recognized that there were things she didn't know, or had misunderstood about kayaking. Knowing that you don't know something is very important. All too often in today's society I hear the phrase 'OH! I knew/know that!' For some reason we have been trained that to not know something is somehow a failure on our part. But what that does is close off our ability to learn new things. She didn't have this problem. She would say 'I don't know, teach me' and then would be open to the concepts or ideas I brought forward.

The other thing she did was to have a true thirst for knowledge and skills. She would work on something for a few minutes, and then would say teach me more. Without giving up on the first concept she was looking to add to it with a follow up concept. This was not to say that everything she did was perfect, she still has skills she needs to work on, but her quest for knowledge and her openness to try new things all but guarantees that she will be an excellent paddler - or frankly an excellent what ever she sets her mind too.

She pushed me as a teacher as well, as usually I am holding back information until the time is right, and the students skills have progressed enough to add more to the puzzle. With her I had to rethink everything I was doing. Has she got enough that I can give her more? And at the same time if I do give her more will that overload her and bring it all crashing down.

It was the first time that I have had a student on day one, ask about rolling in a way that wasn't negative. She asked when she could learn to roll, and I responded - hopefully sounding very zen by saying - when she was ready. About thirty minutes later I felt that I could give her an overview of rolling, and start to work on hip snaps. She picked up hip snaps very quickly, and I wouldn't be surprised if she is also rolling very soon.

As I am a student myself primarily of the martial arts, though I always consider myself a student of paddling a kayak, I try and apply these rules to myself. I am hungry for knowledge, and do push myself to learn more. I study one martial art formally, and read about others as I think they form more of a complete picture when looked at as a whole.

My failings as a student are two fold. First I have very little patients with myself. I tend to pick up skills very quickly and then plateau. Then I must work very hard to progress. Currently I feel competent in a kayak as well as in a dojo, but I feel I need a kick to get to the next level. I think I am very good at the things that I do, but I want to be able to do more. I am still not happy with my spinning back kick, and I would like to learn to Greenland roll. My second failing is my knowledge level. Because I have studied the kayak, seriously for the past 16 years I know a lot. But there is still more for me to learn. This is even more true for me in my study of the martial arts, as I have only been on that path for about five years.

When I am told some piece of information, I need to be better about putting my hands together, bowing my head, and saying 'thank you sensei'. Regardless of whether I know the information or not, I must put my ego aside, accepting the knowledge and continuing on.

Because everyone has something to give, and something to teach - even someone who has just gotten into a kayak for the first time.


  1. Nice piece. I always tell paddling students that kayaking is like Judo. It is conterintuittive and, if you are woking hard you are doing it wrong. Students like the one you've described come along once in a great while.

  2. she was a rarity and a great pleasure. Thanks for your comments.