It’s time for a change of pace.
I have been a full-time professional teacher of historical swordsmanship since March 17th 2001. By which I mean it was my one and only job, source of income, and so on. This has had all sorts of benefits, not least that I have accumulated a huge amount of experience in teaching and researching the art of arms. These days, most students who come to one of my seminars for the first time, or have their first private lesson, find it an eye-opening experience. But I realised in 2014 that I do not want to end up being the little old man still teaching day-in-day-out after 50 years; the archetype of the old martial arts teacher. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; it just isn’t me. And that came as a surprise, because it is exactly how I had imagined my life would go.
Up until 2013, about 90% of my income came from the Helsinki branch of the School, with 10% coming from seminars in other branches or for other schools. Then I started self-publishing my books, starting with Veni Vadi Vici. That went well enough that I had the bright idea of re-issuing the out-of-print The Swordsman’s Companion, and The Duellist’s Companion. This turned out to be a game-changer; by the end of 2014, with The Medieval Longsword also out, they were bringing in enough money every month to pay the mortgage, and accounted for about 50% of my disposable income. This is the financial background that has made it possible for me to wind down my regular teaching at the Helsinki branch (I taught my last class to date (NOT my last class ever, of course!) on my 42nd birthday: November 30th 2015).
I had been a swordsmanship instructor who also wrote books; now it’s fair to say I’m a writer who teaches swordsmanship. And to be honest, while I do miss my students, I don’t miss having so much of my waking time taken up with class. It’s given me much more freedom to write, and play around with training routines, and play with my kids. And I will be taking advantage of that freedom to take my family to the UK in June this year, for at least a year. We are still not decided exactly where, but that question should be settled by the end of this month. I have no intention of starting another branch of my school there; I have my hands full with the branches I already have. Besides, I’ve been there and done that; I feel no need to do it again. But I may well be looking for training partners, and of course I’m reasonably available for seminars. There is a thriving HEMA scene in the UK, and I look forward to taking some part in it.
For most people in my life, students, friends and family, these changes will make no difference at all. For a few senior students it will come as something of a change, and for me it will make all the difference in the world. Here’s why:
When I started my School back in 2001, a strict and clear hierarchy was necessary. I was responsible for the safety of a whole bunch of absolute beginners; they had to do as I said, or someone would get hurt and it would be my fault. As the School developed, and a culture of safe training was firmly established, my iron grip relaxed and classes became much more organic; students had more input, and there was no need for the strict discipline that we had had before. I think people learn better in a relaxed and friendly environment. But at the same time, a hierarchy was established, the sort that is common to most martial arts. Teacher at the top, senior students outranking juniors, and so on. We have skill-levels, but actual rank is not tied directly to them; we have Free Scholars (literally students who have the freedom of the school; they can open the salle for training at any time, that sort of thing), Class Leaders, who are Free Scholars that have been examined and passed for leading basic classes, and Provosts, who are the senior student responsible for a branch. The problem is that all rank promotions come from me directly. Senior students can recommend their peers, and I wouldn’t appoint a Free Scholar without consulting with the existing cohort, but ultimately, it’s down to me.
This means that I have to be super-careful not to play favourites. For promotions to have meaning and value, they must be based on transparently applied objective criteria. This leads to me being quite isolated from the students; I have to be really careful not to like any of them more than any other. But as a human being, of course I happen to gel with some more easily than others.
One of the legacies of my boarding school experience is that I find it far too easy to detach. In fact, problems of proper attachment are pretty much the hallmark of institutionalised children. So there is a switch in my head, which is either on the “student” position or the “friend” position. And there are no grades in between. It ought to be a rheostat, but instead it’s binary. Over the course of the last 15 years, some of my students have been adept at flicking that switch back and forth, and some have never allowed it to swing into the “student” position.
So what? You might reasonably ask. So, the people I have spent most of my time with, and with whom I have the most in common, have to be kept at arm’s length.
Sure, in any profession, you need a certain level of detachment. A beginner in their first class, or a senior student working hard on a difficult problem, need a teacher that is able to see them in full “student” mode. But even after a decade in class, most of my students have never seen the inside of my home. That’s just plain weird.
This is one of the reasons that I enjoy going to events and teaching seminars outside of my School; I’m not holding the keys to their next diploma; I’m not their judge. So I can interact with them on a much more natural level. And it’s ok to make friends.
I have been feeling this way for a long time. Years in fact. But it’s been a slow-growing realisation of what the problem is. I have always disliked rank exams, because I’ve always disliked the feeling of judging my students. Where you happen to be on the path is far less interesting and relevant to me than how far you have come.
I stopped wearing my all black training uniform, familiar to you all from my books, in favour of a much less forbidding combination of blue t-shirt and white-ish trousers in November 2014. The first time I wore the new threads in class, there were some raised eyebrows, but the world did not end, and the students were taught properly. My blacks had become an armoured carapace for keeping me separate, so I took them off.
Now to my main point for students of The School of European Swordsmanship: Students, my lovely students, if you want ranks and skill-levels, here is what you must do: set up a grading committee, organise panels of examiners, and do it yourselves. I will advise if asked, I’ll sign certificates; I’ll even sit on examining boards. But I will not ever run another exam solo. And if I happen to feel like I have some kind of history with the student being examined, I’ll recuse myself from sitting on their exam board.
As one long-term student of mine put it: “you’re divorcing the School to marry your students”.
If Sherlock Holmes can be a consulting detective, and Moriarty a consulting villain, then dammit, I can be a consulting swordsman. I am delighted to help you with any sword problem you may have, but I am done being in charge. It is not and never has been my nature to command and control. Within the context of a class, of course it is sometimes necessary to exhort students to greater efforts; to tell them what to do. But every class I’ve run for ages now has begun by asking the students what they need from me that day. This often surprises students having their first seminar with me; most teachers just get up and teach their class plan. I co-create the class plan with the students in the first 5-10 minutes of the seminar. On my last teaching trip to the USA, the organiser called this “a very adult way to run a class”. Because it assumes a certain level of competence in the teacher, and a certain level of interest and engagement from the students.
When Salvatore Fabris was fencing master to the King of Denmark, who was in charge? Which is more likely: “drop and give me 50, your kinginess!” or “Your Majesty, I would strongly advise a few push-ups at this juncture. 50 would be an excellent choice.”
Or as I put it to my students: If I’m Fiore dei Liberi, that makes you Niccolo d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara.
So, my Lords and Ladies, how can I be of service?