“Secrets” of the Filipino Fighting Arts
Words from a Modern-Day Warrior

Making a Living with your FMA, pt III

Curriculum and Promotion

So, you want to be an FMA Guro?

I am writing this article for two reasons. First, because I don’t believe that today’s FMA teachers are taught how to teach their students—nor are they given good curriculum to teach by. The second is because I truly believe that despite a teacher’s knowledge and experience, a good teaching plan and well-developed curriculum can maximize the outcome of a student’s training. Too many believe that longevity in the art and simply learning technique prepares one for teaching. However, technique knowledge is only one of the tools needed to be a teacher… especially a teacher who is teaching professionally. Teaching plans will help you track and plan a student’s training, and the student will not be confused by constantly encountering unfamiliar material.

The need for a curriculum

I am one of the teachers who was not given a strong curriculum. None of my teachers kept one; nor did they keep a lesson plan or schedule of learning. The closest I had was a list of forms given to me by my Jow Ga Sifu, Master Din Chin. However, half of my learning was not on the list he kept, and I did not learn the forms in the order he prescribed on the list. It wasn’t until I met Jae Kim, a Tae Kwon Do Master, who explained to me the importance of teaching techniques in a predetermined order that I understood the usefulness of devising a curriculum. Seeing how his program worked, I decided to do the same with my arts.

You must know the strengths as weaknesses of both the system you teach and your method of teaching it. Your levels should define what skills will come first and what skills will be introduced to be developed later. Naturally, some skills take longer than others to have any usefulness. Some skills will require more practice, some will require more power or speed, and some are more destructive than others. Some skills will need physical attributes to be developed before they can be used tactically. Consider this: in order for bareknuckle punching to be practical, the fighter’s hands must be strong enough to inflict damage, yet durable to not be injured when he uses them. For this reason, some masters have chosen to utilize open-hand strikes for beginner self-defense, while developing the fist. Fist techniques, then, are viewed as intermediate-level techniques for a good reason. Organize your system into tiers of skill; determine what comes first, what comes next, etc.

Some teachers give all basic attacks, blocks and combinations in the first few levels and spend the remainder of a student’s training career perfecting them. Others will introduce some skills at each level and then save the advanced levels for power mechanics and proficiency. Others may give defense at the beginner level and then attacks at the intermediate or advanced level. Whichever you choose, there must be a logic behind your method. I have seen many teachers teach without a curriculum at all and simply throw in random combinations, drills and skills in no particular order. On the other hand, I have also seen teachers overdo it by creating an abundance of forms and prearranged techniques and drills, packing each level with tons of material with no regard to why they are doing it. Think about how long a student will need to develop proficiency at each technique and skill. You may even want to define levels of proficiency (Got it, Doing it with power, Able to land at will, Doing it well) and when each level should be reached. The point is to have milestones for learning as well as skill. Regardless of how simple your curriculum may be, this system will produce the best results possible in your students, in record time.

Schools today are too concerned with formality and quick progression through the ranks. It does not give their students ample time to develop skill and understand their knowledge fully. This practice has reduced our ancient tradition of practical simplicity into an inferior system of arbitrary requirements to progress from beginner to advanced ranks without a strong defining factor to differentiate them. Therefore, a well-conditioned, 6-month beginner can be outranked by an unfit 3-year student who is unable to defeat his junior classmate in a real fight. The beginner who is already fit may not be pushed to further his physical ability, stifling his potential. The unfortunate result is too often the promotion of unqualified “Black Belters” and a confusion of which students are “better” than others. Such a system of teaching eludes the true purpose of instruction and promotion:

  • to develop knowledge and proficiency in techniques, and
  • to test the ability to prove one’s skill in combat

Purpose of promotion

There are two ways to treat promotion: formal graduation from one rank to the next, or an informal progression from learned curriculum material to the next set of material. Besides what the experts say about retention and good business practice, I don’t have an opinion about which is better. Whether or not you choose to formalize the learning process is your prerogative. However, you must have clear physical goals for students to strive towards. Such goals are kindle for igniting the fire of drive for students to push themselves. Without it, your fighters will not grow stronger or become better fighters. Your job as a Guro is to make sure the students learn and understand the material, and to ensure that they train enough to meet those goals. Their job is to push themselves and spend time developing their skills to higher and higher levels. When you set goals for your students, they will work harder and harder, or give up and quit. When you fail to demand more from them, most likely, they will fail to deliver.

I don’t recommend having too much on your students’ plate between levels. Their training should be focused and direct. With too many techniques, the average working adult student will not be able to budget enough time and attention to see results. It is far better for your fighters to have 8 – 10 techniques they master every 6 months, than to learn 25 or more in 6 months that they cannot execute well in sparring. Because of the smaller numbers of techniques, your students will be well-above average in skill in a shorter period of time. Overall, they will perform at a higher level and your reputation as a teacher will sell itself through the skill of your students.

** The idea of promotion, then, is to determine when students have excelled at the knowledge they have acquired. It is NOT a time to reward them for simply learning it. Make sure you keep this in mind. Anyone can learn, but only the most committed students will excel at it. **

You may also consider setting physical fitness goals for your students as well. Doing so will increase your students’ stamina, power, and overall skill in technique. Set challenging, but realistic goals—high enough that they will have to work hard and enjoy major improvements, but not so high that your students burn out before accomplishing those goals. A good tool to use is the repetition. For example, the first strength goal my beginners have is to be able to complete a 10-repetition set of push ups. Throughout the beginners’ training, we will alternate between sets of strikes and kicks and sets of 10 push-ups. At the advanced-beginner level, we have them performing two push-ups per count each time I have them perform push-ups. At the intermediate level, 3 push-ups per count. Advanced students will perform sets of 15-20 reps of 3 push-ups per count. Of course, a lot of time will lapse between stages so that the fighters don’t burn out; it is a slow, patient process. You can do this with punches, kicks, strikes with the stick, etc. Those of you who hold promotion exams may consider adding a number of reps when demonstrating technique. For example, White Belts must perform 50 repetitions of each technique for their level, Yellow Belts will perform 75… and so on. You will see their skill increase drastically with each promotion they achieve, and there will be a clear difference to distinguish the ranks and levels of proficiency.

The important idea to remember is that fighting skill and physical ability that do not develop and gradually increase throughout a student’s training is a waste of time and money. Give your students strong and clear goals to strive for, and I promise you, they will motivate themselves and make themselves and you, the Guro, successful. When your students have excelled in knowledge and skill, you—the teacher—have fulfilled your mission.


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