View Full Version : What makes a good tai chi instructor?

Dr. Paul Lam
11-05-2004, 11:09 PM
I am writing a book "Teach tai chi effectively", would love to hear your view of what makes a good teacher, and how to improve your teaching technique.

11-06-2004, 07:28 AM
someone who isn't certified;the best technique you can possess is the ability to get the information across.
i'll tell you a couple of things that make a bad teacher.
1.holding information off from students at crucial times.
2.too much jabber
3.lack of demonstrated martial application
4.arriving late to class
5.not being in control of your class
6.favoritism with students
(some of this is ok for those that work harder than others;i don't think it's harmful to show the class that a more dedicated student will recieve a bit more attention).but don't be too noticeable.
7.not giving permission for students to teach because they think it may shrink the local job pool.
8.tendency to make students
feel inadequate or that results are somehow more important than the journey.
9.deputizing other students
to assist you in teaching the class;in my opinion,this is just generally a bad idea as it has a tendency to foster negative feelings from the other students.If you can't handle the class by yourself,don't even bother to show up.
10.too much correcting;let the student find some of his own way
11.and there are plenty more.......

11-06-2004, 11:54 AM
From a students point of view, a good instructor is able to strike a balance between praise and criticism. Too much praise makes a student big headed, too much criticism is off putting. I believe it was Soraya in one of the threads she tried to make comments like head up and keep your back staright, knees bent rather than criticse or make too many criticisms of new students.

He or she is also able to keep the training at the students level push forward or hold back at the right times, has a few annecdotes about different moves and makes the class interesting. Using imagary for some moves and step by step instructions to make the learning of the more 'difficult' moves easier.

A good instructor has a sense of humor, knows his form inside out, and enough about other forms to be able to answer questions. Patience is also a big plus point, but I geuss most Tai Chi practitoners have that

11-06-2004, 02:12 PM
Hi Paul

My classes are split 95% to 5%. Let me explain 95% of the time my students learn from me, but the other 5% I am learning form them. I started later in life on my Tai Chi journey and I have a long road ahead of me. The more I learn myself the more I am able to pass on to my students. I also want my students to enjoy and get maximum benefit from classes

All the best


11-06-2004, 08:37 PM

I already started a similar thread which is lost through possible technical problems.

Yes, Shark verbalized everything i wanted to say and I am not going to re-invent the wheel. Caroline was right about myself not overcorrecting not only new students.

Rather than overcriticism I give reminders inbetween, which i learnt from autogenic training and hypnosis. I give reminders like"back straight, eyes ahead, relax etc....etc" More important: talk in the 3rd person, never `1st and 2nd person. THE back IS straight, instead of"you must keep your back straigh, the mind IS relaxed instead of"you are tense". However, I do demonstrate what is wrong, sometimes by exaggerating a mistake.

This is an idea which also comes from religious healing. Rather to ask to improve your situation, it is important to think positive, stating a condition which is already there. Thank you God, I AM healed instead of "Oh God, please heal me".

In our class or workshops we do work together. Of course students pay much for the lessons expecting to learn as much as possible Tai Chi from me. However, they will bring in their knowledge with many links to Tai Chi, or simply an experience how they overcome an illness, technical TC posture or personal problem. I have a hotel chef who stated that in heavy kitchen work it is important to rotate and relax the shoulders, a karate master who presented a lot of parallels between the 2 arts, a yogi who brought in her breathing experience to learn the TC postures and lots of good humour.

please don't misunderstand. Recently i went through a lot of trouble with people trying to steal my research ideas and came out with recognition and honour. I don't think you are inclined to do this, but I have worked hard for my teaching ideas and would like to secure my work and publications. Thank you for your understanding

11-07-2004, 04:56 PM
One of my ways to improve is: I have few people I trust very much, my hubbie, Melanie and my mum belong to them, They are good at Tai Chi teaching and will give feedback by attending my classes once in a while. Maybe Paul Lam could also belong to these rare precious ones.....

Dr. Paul Lam
11-07-2004, 05:14 PM
thanks everyone for your contributions.

i agree with most and disagree with a few, it is great to know many of us sharing similar views. I am having fun gathering the information and experience i gained from teaching and conducting so many workshops, get them organised so that it is user friendly... and looking very much forward to share with my friends. The only problem i have now is to find time to write. Please continue to add your ideas, you can be assured that i would not use anything if it is not experienced and tested out by myself.

You are welcomed to give suggestions what problems you encountered at your teaching time, and i will try to provide a number of approaches in the book.

11-07-2004, 06:05 PM
I also improved my teaching through questionnaires, similar to the ones in a hotel or airline, I learnt much from marketing people. There the students can give feedback of the course, whether it could meet their expectations, how to improve, things which can be done better. Paul also has such forms.

Teach as much as you can. Work with people by attending workshops yourself, therefore i attended Paul's workshop. Prepare the lessons extremely well but don't be too rigid with your concept. Be in the moment, adjust your teaching according to student's response. Develop an "eye" for body language of the students. See puzzled faces when they think your teaching is not clear.

Watch people outside your lesson and work. Sit on the beach or a cafe, look at people, how they behave when...how they talk when.....why and how they behave and talk when........

11-08-2004, 01:07 PM
Dr. Lam,

To me, a good instructor listens as much as he/she speaks, has the ability to "read" their students, and acts more like a class leader than a dictator. Being able to identify and fulfill the needs of the individual should play an important part as well. There seem to be as many reasons for a person to take up a martial art, and a good instructor will make an effort to find these reasons.

Arrogance and overblown egos can turn off many a good, prospective student, and should have no place in the training hall. An instructor who constantly blows their own horn may find themselves playing to an empty concert hall. An instructor that displays good, solid skills, patience, a good sense of humor, and the ability to transmit knowledge according to their students level of understanding will do well, indeed. A first class instructor should also recognize and acknowledge the time to let their students move on when to another instructor of a higher level of skill.

11-23-2004, 10:36 PM
Hi Dr. Lam:

Trying to find out what makes a good teacher, I've decided to go to the source for suggestions--my students! They have come up with the following:

1. Patience
2. Proper teaching techniques
3. One-on-one help
4. Excellent attendance of the teacher
5. Being on time for class
6. Classes need to be presented in a calm and peaceful manner
7. A caring attitude for each student
8. Getting in the mind of the student
9. Encouragement using humor
10.Ability to answer questions truthfully
11.Good general knowledge of your art
12.Students don't need to hear how good the instructor is--
self praise is a negative

Practically all students feel good about the teacher being certified--they prefer a teacher that took the time, effort and expense to obtain the certification since it shows their committment and dedication to their art.

The main problem I would like to address is teaching a class of beginning and advanced students in the same class when you have no assistants to help teach Hope this helps and best wishes in writing your new book. Take care.


Marc Heyvaert
11-24-2004, 04:19 AM
Originally posted by bobo711

The main problem I would like to address is teaching a class of beginning and advanced students in the same class when you have no assistants to help teach

I was an assitant teachers for many years with my friend and TJQ-teacher Patrick Van Campenhout. His approach is to have classes with all levels of students thrown together. His classes last for 1h.30' and the first hour is only warm-up, some silk reeling and some qigong work. This bit is always the same routine, it hasn't changed a bit during the last ten years and everybody joins in. There is also some soft music (new age stuff). Everybody seems to like this part because it is very relaxing and provides a gentle work-out. As it is not very technical beginners can benefit from these exercises right away.

Then for the last half hour the group is divided in subgroups according to levels and assistants take care of these subgroups. Sometimes there are more than 60 students. So there is a great group dynamic.

When I started giving classes of my own I started in the same way. Of course in the beginning the group was not very differentiated, but after some months I ran into problems. I changed my approach and have adopted a completely different system (more later). The downside is just to great for me to handle. Just a few points :

- you need good and thrustworthy assistants;
- new people are often daunted by this big group, it takes a while for them to feel at home and accepted;
- students like to have precise goals, when you beginners (sub)group gets new members all the time, you have to start over often, because the assistant has to re-explain the moves for these new people;
- progress is very slow because you actually spend very little time on formtraining, on average it took 3 years for someone to learn the 24....;
- people want to have classes from the 'master', that's what they pay for, having a (sometimes) mediocre 'assistant' gives them the feeling that they are not getting value for their money;

So now I have switched over to a 'unit' based appraoch. I have assembled a list of 'units', courses for which you can enroll that have clearly defined goals and fit into a 'personal' program. I have literally 'chopped up' everything I can teach into 'bite sized' pieces. Let me give you the list (everything is on http://www.taiji.be/lessen.shtml) :

introduction (8 lessons)
8-form (6 lessons)
24-form I (10)
24-form II (10)
24-form III (10)
16- form (8)

Every unit is self-contained and depending on the amount of time a student invests in practising the movements he can decide to take a certain unit a second, third, etc. time.

I have also defined 'programs' for students to follow. An example for beginners : introduction + 24 I and II (= 28 weeks continuous lessons)

I'm now 2 months into this new system and I must say that everybody seems to like it. For me it is certainly less stressful.

I still have 'normal' lessons on Sunday morning on the first and the third Sunday of the month. These lessons last for 1h.30 and then we practice what we have learned, but I don't add new things. After a general warm-up, some qigong and silk reeling, I coach individual students (or small groups) and I encourage them to practice 'on their own' for 1/2 hour. Between June and September there are no 'units' and then we practice every week on Sunday morning (sometimes for up to 3 hours) in a beautiful park.

I see now that this has become a very long mail. Just wanted to share...


11-24-2004, 06:18 AM
Originally posted by Marc Heyvaert
I have literally 'chopped up' everything I can teach into 'bite sized' pieces. Let me give you the list (everything is on http://www.taiji.be/lessen.shtml) :

introduction (8 lessons)
8-form (6 lessons)
24-form I (10)
24-form II (10)
24-form III (10)
16- form (8)

Every unit is self-contained

Hi Marc,
Do you still have assistants teaching those units or do you teach each unit yourself?


Marc Heyvaert
11-24-2004, 09:14 AM
Originally posted by kawan
Do you still have assistants teaching those units or do you teach each unit yourself?

All by myself, I'm afraid :) But you see the groups are very limited in number and very homogeneous, so it is posible to do this without compromising quality. Limits are relatively strict. Most groups are limited to 12 people. For weapons it is even less: 8 for jian, 6 for dao.

I like to be very much in control of the situation. Years ago, when I was just an assistant teacher, I found that I was very good at observing details in the way others performed their routines (I have done competition judging as well). Even when I lead a class, I'm always observing stances, arm movements etc, even from people who are more or less behind me. I always try to correct the mistakes that need it the most. Those that are less 'urgent' are left for later, but as I work with these small groups I have a clear picture of where every student is on his path to learning a form and I do a lot of 'personalised' coaching.

This seems to work rather well. For the moment I have no need for asistants. However, I 'm starting special classes once a month 'invitation only'. They are free and I invite a cople of people that would perhaps make good assistants. They don't know that it is some sort of test (I'm 99,9% sure none of them is on this board, so that's why I'm telling :) ). The teaching will be at a higher level, giving them leads and 'homework'. I hope it will help me chose (an) assistant(s) eventually.



11-24-2004, 03:53 PM
quote from bob:"practically all students feel good about the teacher being certified--they prefer a teacher that took the time,effort and expense to obtain the certification since it shows their commitment and dedication to their art."
again....and let's make it clear;there is NO standard certification for t'ai chi chuan; An approved concensus by a universally recognized body of authority on this issue has simply not been reached as yet;Dr. Lam certifies his OWN programs so do some others but not all readers and participants of this forum teach Dr. Lam's programs or others for which dubious "certificates" are handed out;If you've had a good working background for a correct length of time,can trace your lineage (yes,i used that DIRTY word) back through your teachers to the forebears of the style you're teaching and can provide good references,your student will be more than satisfied.

11-24-2004, 05:33 PM

I went to the same source and that are my students. However, I used to teach athletic martial artists, fitness people who consider Tai Chi as preventive medicine, Professional musical schools, surfers etc. Paul inspired me to teach or facilitate instructors in the area of the disabled, frail elderly, serious medical conditions which can be classified as the rehab field. Althoug aware and applying physical measures working with these people, teaching Tai Chi to them was new to me until 2 years ago.

Germany is the country of certificates. Students feel good about SOME SORT OF certificate but real knowledge and communication skills are more important. Credentials are important too. Students sometimes don't know how good my Tai Chi is. But.....they do see how your methodology and techniques are like:standing back/front on, clear to-the-point sentences, repetitions, consistency of movements and structure esp in the beginning, building up the lessons from small into substantial etc. Put it this way: studying and spending quality time with a role model teacher is considered more important than a doubtful certificate. Until now I find Master JIm Fungs' certification system the best in Wing Chun, incorporating medical and biomechanics

ALL the students all over the world gave these points, a questionnaire divided into psychology(p) and methodology(M):
- Calm and peaceful, humour(psychology) but strong leadership when the group gets out of control or lose respect(p)
- structure(methodology)
- ability to give one-on-one, at the same time challenging. New students are urged to follow the others to do the form, no matter how well they do it(M and p)
-balance between praise and correction(p)
Knowledge of the art and the ability to answer questions. To admit that he/she does not know something does not lose student's respect. To apologize and admit when he/she makes mistakes( p and m)
- MOst students, incl the very sick and disabled require knowledge of push hands and toy sau from the teacher although not taught to students who are not inclined to(knowledge)
-self-praise stinks(a German saying) but we never discussed this point until recently

11-24-2004, 05:46 PM

There is a difference between workshops and long-term classes. Due to my time restraint I concentrate more on on workshops.

YOu can teach beginners and advanced in plenary sessions. Warmups and qi gong, form practice. Even beginners have to copy as well as they can. I give instructions: beginners copy as good as they can, intermediate focus and relax, advanced concentrate on martial application, qi circulation. The beginners will copy but at the same time hear the instructions for the advanced over and over. This hearing and observing will hardwire them in due time.

For detail work you do need assistants sometimes, but as I said the students come for the master. An assistant can be very good but not every student will accept this. Another option is to do detail work e.g. single postures, techniques, principles in partnerwork where student learn from each other. As a master you go around.

Actually I do prefer max 30 students, detail work is divided in 6 groups a 5. Small groups are more homogeneous in skills level, defined according to experience and goal. I still can go around and everybody gets attention. Of course a weekend workshop is more difficult due to time restraint

Very important in Tai Chi is the flow. For this reason I let new students do the form, even when it is not YET good. They will experience the flow which in due time leads to correct movements

By the way, I do have a diary with my student's comments but think of publishing this myself with the consent of the students

11-24-2004, 11:21 PM
Thank you all for all of your excellent comments and suggestions. It's so nice to be able to get such great assistance when you need it--you guys are the best!! Your many replies are also appreciated. Thanks again.

Take care and best wishes.


11-25-2004, 08:37 AM
Hi Marc,

QUOTE]Originally posted by Marc Heyvaert

when I lead a class, I'm always observing stances, arm movements etc, even from people who are more or less behind me. I always try to correct the mistakes that need it the most. Those that are less 'urgent' are left for later, but as I work with these small groups I have a clear picture of where every student is on his path to learning a form and I do a lot of 'personalised' coaching.


Marc [/QUOTE]

Hi Marc,
To me, this is most important attribute in a good teacher :)

11-25-2004, 08:47 AM
Hi Soraya,
I suppose workshops are between 2 to 3 days? In such short time, do you find the beginners benefiting from workshops?


11-25-2004, 04:42 PM

NO illusion here, one-on-one for a longer period is more beneficial. I suggest students to prepare with written material which I could borrow from Dr. Lam or my own articles(partly published in Dr. Lam's newsletter), copies from the net. Also I can use Dr. Lam's videos for the students to prepare. NOrmally the students need a considerable preparation with the videos, find a buddy to correct or self-observation with a video or mirror.

Beginners are not always the same. If they have a background in sports or dance, the guiding principles are similar to Tai Chi. Also when you are serious about any sports, you need to be mindful like Tai Chi. From my experience the best beginners are the dancers and yogis and the totally unprejudiced novice, the worst the karatekas.

Another point is the correction, for psychological reasons I correct beginners less. In workshops you don't have the relationship like long-term students. I will correct a deviation from the essential principles like crooked back immediately, in fact anything that can affect health. I have something like peripheral sight, I see mistakes behind, beside and everywhere but i don't correct them all at once. Some mistakes are habitual, some occasional(even grandmasters have this). Most of the time i give reminders in repetition, like back straight, relax shoulders etc

Last but not least, i mentioned detail work in small groups. I will announce:"Less than 3 months group 1, up to 1 year group 2, more than 3 years group 4 etc...etc...Of course this only serves a s a guide, actual achievements are more important than the amount of time.

After the workshop they need to practise for some time, using videos as a help.

HOpe this helps, the mail is getting very long. For workshops it is important for the students to put in their own activity.

11-25-2004, 10:33 PM
Hi Kawan:

When a student signs up for Dr. Lam's workshop they will recommend obtaining a copy of the video for the form which will be taught. Doing that ahead of the workshop appears to be a big help for both beginners and advanced students alike. I was surprised how much a beginner can learn in two days time, with or without the video. Dr. Lam's teaching methods really works!

I feel us advanced students always need to remember how it was for us when we started and demonstrate a caring attitude for these new students. Especially for those that have physical problems, they need our help even more. Hope this helps. Take care.