What It Takes To Be An Effective Teacher

Professor Rhayun Song of Chungnam National University in Korea and a master trainer of the Tai Chi for Health programs summed it up very well: "The inexperienced teachers teach from the book; the more experienced teachers teach what they know and the most experienced teachers teach what students need to learn". The effectiveness of a teacher is measured by how successfully they meet their students' needs. The important thing to remember is that the more student-orientated you are, the more successful you will be and the more you will enjoy your teaching. Once you know the route you must take, you can become one of these 'most experienced' teachers in a short time.

Three attributes measure your effectiveness as a tai chi (taiji) teacher: your attitude, your tai chi skills and your teaching skills. In Chapter 5 of my book Teaching Tai Chi Effectively, I describe The Stepwise Progressive Teaching Method, these will be incorporated into one easy-to-learn system.

An effective teacher will motivate and inspire their students to enjoy and practice their tai chi. If their students don't enjoy their tai chi they will soon stop practising and, without practice, they will not improve their technique or gain any of the benefits, no matter how brilliant they are. Your right attitude will motivate and inspire students.

Dr Lam with studentDr Lam demonstrating a movement at the Tai Chi for Arthritis instructor training workshop in Perth Australia, May 2009



Dr Lam explains a point Dr Lam explaining a point about the Stepwise Progressive Teaching Method in Tai Chi for Osteoporosis instructor training workshop in Singapore May 2009



Students have different objectives; therefore different levels of skills are required to teach them. For example, teaching tai chi to older people for fall prevention would require a different set of skills than would be necessary to teach it as a martial art. Barbara, a physiotherapist from Tasmania, Australia, after taking a 2-day "Tai Chi for Arthritis" training workshop, has now taught the "Tai Chi for Arthritis" program to 112 people. Her students have reduced their number of falls by approximately half, as well as improving their balance, strength, confidence, ability to relax and self-confidence. Her results are as good, if not better, than many more experienced tai chi teachers. The same impressive results are shown by medical studies with teachers trained at a similar 2-day "Tai Chi for Arthritis" workshop.

Being proficient at tai chi is important in teaching tai chi but it does not necessarily make you a good teacher. Teaching is itself an art. Evelyn, a physiotherapist from Switzerland who has learned the "Tai Chi for Arthritis" course, her classes are more popular than those of the more experienced tai chi teacher nearby. What's more she gets better results (in terms of students' objectives).

It is vitally important, when you teach tai chi, that you make sure your students learn it in safety, no matter what objectives they may have. Any injury they sustain will impede their progress towards their objective. Effective teachers understand about risk management and make sure that they minimise risk when teaching tai chi. For example, a straight-leg toe touch has a high risk of injury and a lower risk alternative should be used. Chapter 4: Safety first is devoted to this topic. Most traditional tai chi has no medical training how to teach safely. Just because a practice was passed from the ancient time does not mean it is safe. For example, a Yang style movement, Brush Knee, the traditional way to turn toes outward is while most of the body weight resting on the same knee, the foot turns outward. This motion grinds the knee under considerable weight... it is a high risk movement.

No one becomes a great teacher without experience; but you will not gain this experience if you never start. I would like to encourage you to start teaching as soon as possible and learn as you go. It's not possible or even desirable to learn everything there is to learn about teaching before you start; it is much better for you to begin teaching when you have the basic skills necessary for the job and then improve your skills as you go.

The full descriptions of these 3 attributes to measure your effectiveness as a tai chi teacher can be found in my book. I will outline in points the components of these attributes, and include the full text of one of the most important points: Being Positive.

1. Your attitude:

  Your attitude towards teaching tai chi and your students has 3 components to it:

  a. Your passion for tai chi

  b. Your relationship with your students

  c. Being positive

Being positive

Being positive is a vital part of achieving the right attitude and of effective teaching. Being positive starts from the very beginning. Even before you start face to face teaching, as you prepare for your lessons, expect to succeed and you will have a better chance of doing so.

Thinking positively is contagious. Soon your students will feel the positive spirit and join you in making your lessons a success. If you expect your students to do well, the chances are better that they will. There is an interesting real life story about a mix up of IQ tests in a grade ten class. The results of one girl who was thought to be third best in the class were unintentionally mixed up with the results of another girl, who was near the bottom of the class. All the teachers, parents and both students were told of these (wrong) results, so everyone expected the girl who apparently had the higher IQ score to achieve good results. And at the end of the year, this girl did what everyone expectedshe actually got third place. Meanwhile, the girl who should have achieved top marks, because she really had the higher IQ, came near the bottom of the class. In other words, they performed as they and everyone else expected them to do. Look around you and you may be able to find similar examples.

Tai Chi class Dr Lam teaching a Tai Chi class at the Tai Chi workshop in January 2009, Sydney Australia



Giving positive feedback

Giving appropriate positive feedback is the single most important factor for effective teaching. Most people feel uncomfortable, or even insecure about learning something new, especially tai chi, which is very different from traditional exercise. When people feel uncomfortable, their minds are more inhibited and they learn more slowly. Giving appropriate positive feedback to your students improves their confidence and helps them to learn more quickly. This sets up a positive cycle of more confidence enhancing good performance, and good performance leading to more positive reinforcement which in turn leads to more confidence. Do you remember an occasion when your teacher or parent told you had done something well? Did it make you feel good about your ability? Did you do that something much better ever since? Does it still make you enjoy that task more?

In contrast, criticism and over correction often makes students feel inadequate, causing them to shrink back into their 'personal shell', closing their mind, and becoming less able to learn. (I will explain the mechanism of 'personal shell' in more detail later in this chapter.

Positive feedback must, however, be meaningful and appropriate; otherwise it could have the opposite effect. For example, saying your student's movements are good because they are smooth is meaningful; just saying they are good is not meaningful. Positive feedback should be based on observation and be expressed appropriately; paying lip service does not work. If you have not observed your student's movement, you should not give feedback on it.

Hazel Thompson, an effective teacher from New Zealand, told me: "I tried to give everyone some positive feedback. One elderly student had not shown any improvement in his tai chi skill, so I praised him about his improved balance."

Be aware that the appropriateness of feedback is as perceived by your students. It is important that you take the time to get to know your students and find out what is appropriate for them. For example, to a very shy student, a loud comment on how great he or she is could be embarrassing or even be perceived as a sarcastic remark. A quiet word, "Very niceI like your gentle movements" when you are near that student may work better. For students who come from a culture such as Chinese, where praise is a rarity, open praise can be too overwhelming. Sometimes I find my Chinese students become genuinely embarrassed with strong positive feedback. More subtle feedback, like a smile or a nod is more appropriate in these cases.

Margaret says this about her teacher Bruce: "He was very encouragingnever criticalalways said if you didn't get it right or got lost, 'smile' and then we did it right! He would give little signs of approvaloften a nod or a smile at you if you did it particularly well. He would also ask a student to lead the class occasionally as recognition of their doing it well. When that happened to me for the first time I felt great!"

It is human nature to be critical. Many teachers have told me that they have no trouble finding many mistakes from their students, but to find good points is much more challenging. To give positive feedback well, you must orientate your mindset right from the start and make a conscious effort to look for the positives. Starting with yourself, do a positive self-appraisal and look for your own good points. When you catch yourself being over critical of yourself, substitute a positive thought for the critical one. Only when you are able to see yourself positively can you truly be able to view others positively. People with self-confidence inspire confidence in others. Professor Vince McCullough is a good example of someone who always inspires people around him with his self-confidence.

Correcting students' mistakes

The most common error I find in inexperienced teachers is that they try to correct too many mistakes. Often I watch an enthusiastic teacher hovering over a new student, giving them many detailed instructions and correcting several mistakes. Some even move the student's arms and legs to the desirable position. I recommend you do not do this: touching your students could lead to serious consequences for both you and the student. The student may have a medical condition, such as a strained ligament or inflamed joints, which could be aggravated by someone trying to move the part unexpectedly. In this litigious age, it can be dangerous for you to touch a student, as you could be accused of causing injury or touching inappropriately.

Hazel seldom singles out any one student for correction. If she sees a mistake, especially one made by several students, she goes through the correction with the whole class. If any of the students still do not get it right, she either tries to demonstrate it in a different wayagain with the entire class and without identifying the individual studentor she just lets it go. Unless you have an exceptional reason, it is better not to single out anyone for correction.

Most students find it overwhelming if they're given a lot of corrections at the same time. When they are overwhelmed they feel inadequate, lose their confidence, and their learning capacity is inhibited. As a rule of thumb, never give more than one correction at one time. Your students will learn quicker when they only have to deal with one point at a time. Our brain is designed to be most efficient at handling one task at a time; multi-tasking sounds good but studies have shown it is less efficient than concentrating on one thing at a time.

A good way of being positive when correcting mistakes is, instead of thinking that your student is doing something wrong, think of it as a point for improvement. Instead of saying to students "No, that is a mistake, don't do it that way", say to them "Try doing it this way. It may work better because of this reason". Remember, there is seldom an absolute right or wrong way of doing something; rather, there are better ways to do it. If you give your students a relevant and understandable reason why they should do something differently they will learn more quickly.

An effective way to correct mistakes is to identify the most important and commonly committed mistake, then explain and demonstrate your point to the entire class. Be sure to explain why your way is better, and demonstrate clearly the original and the better way. Ask your students to follow you as you do it the better way, then check to ensure it has been done correctly. I will discuss this further in Part 2.

Expecting success

Being positive means expecting good results from your students. I have worked with many people who have moved their performance up to a new level just because their teachers expect them to.

Kerry had been studying tai chi with her first teacher for ten years, but her teacher always expected her to be average and so she stayed at that level. When she joined my class, I recognised her ability and, without knowing anything about her previous teacher, simply expected her to do well. Somehow my expectation was passed on to her without words and her improvement has been phenomenal over the last three years. She told me that she has learned a lot more over last three years than in the previous ten years.

Tai Chi for Arthritis workshopDr Lam teaching the Exploring of the depth of Tai Chi for Arthritis workshop in Kansa City, November 2008



Tai Chi for Arthritis workshopDr Lam delivering a lecture at the University of Kansa, Medical school and followed with a teaching session for the audience. November 2008



Speaking positively

Speaking positively creates an encouraging atmosphere, helping your students to let go of their fear of being inadequate. Many people are so worried about their perceived clumsiness that they will not try tai chi. When people like this pluck up enough courage to try tai chi, we should encourage them, not deter them as Kay was by her teacher.

Using positive language enhances learning while negative language hinders. For example, "remember" is positive while "don't forget" is negative. Asking students to "remember" to center is more effective than saying "don't forget" to center. One day I overheard one teacher saying to her student: "Now take a step forward, don't lean to one side, no, no, don't look down, no, no, no, don't step with the ball of your foot; don't hold your hand tight; don't lift up your elbow" "No's" and "don'ts" are words to avoid as much as possible; substitute them with something positive like this: "Take a step forward, keep your body upright; good, look ahead; keep your elbow relaxed. Yes, you are doing well." If you ever catch yourself talking like the first person, try and change to the latter style and watch your students grow in confidence and skill.

Using your positive spirit/energy

Tai Chi is a mind/body exercise and your positive energy will be expressed in your teaching. The way you teach and do your tai chi forms often reveals your inner spirit.

Margaret Brade of Age Concern, Stockport, says this about my teaching: "the positive 'energy' you create around your teachingit is a tangible demonstration of the positive power of good Qi! I always come away from a session with you with renewed confidence and a desire to continue to learn more".

2. Tai chi skills

How good your tai chi needs to be depends on your students' needs. An effective teacher does not necessarily have to be a better performer of the exercise or sport than their students. Having a higher level of skill at tai chi is an advantage.

3. Teaching skills

Teaching is both a science and an art. There is a wealth of knowledge about effective teaching methods in different fields and new research is expanding our knowledge every day. Also, with the development of new teaching aids, there are more and different approaches to effective teaching. For example, multi-media communication tools like DVDs have revolutionised the learning and teaching processeven for experienced practitioners. No one knows everything there is to know about teaching, but then you don't need to know everything to be effective.

As well as having the right attitude, as we have already discussed, there are three desirable teaching skills. In Chapter 5, The Stepwise Progressive Teaching Method, I will incorporate all these skills into a practical and easy-to-learn system.

The three teaching skills are:

  a. Teaching the learners' way

  b. Communicating effectively

  c. Facilitating enjoyment

Dr. Paul Lam, a practicing physician and taiji master for over 30 years, is a world leader in the field of taiji for health improvement. He is one of the most experienced taiji teachers and has trained thouands of taiji instructors/leaders around the world.


1. The "Tai Chi for Arthritis" workshop consists of supplied teaching materials for individual preparation beforehand, two days' face-to-face instruction, a final test and regular updates. Suitable health professionals and tai chi practitioners who have fulfilled the requirements are certified to teach this program. The program aims to help people improve their health in general and it is especially safe and suitable for people with arthritis. These workshops have enjoyed great success. For more information about Dr. Paul Lam, visit www.taichiproductions.com

Copyright 2009, Qi Journal Summer 2009 issue