Learning by Teaching

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The stress of the last-minute cram for a test could be seen in each and every one of my kids’ faces, which were contorting from determination, to anxiety, to confusion, and back again. My students were huddled in the back of the dojang, reviewing routines, foot positions, and terms, with only ten minutes before we began. Not even a day ago, the room had been bustling with kids practicing in lines, frequent kihaps filling everyone’s ears. Today the room was reduced to parents’ soft conversations, kids’ nervous questions, and the occasional snap of a crisp uniform. I was positioned in my usual corner of the room: at the front, next to the judges’ table. The table is a simple fold-out, but over it was a thick red cloth with our school’s insignia in bright colors and our school’s name in golden script. Seemly and ceremonial, it gave the everyday practice room a feeling of gravity and importance.

The school’s master, and my boss, Master Ha, motioned for me to join him by his seat. “It looks like you’re the highest belt here; you’ll be judging with me today.” I struggled to keep my cool, which resulted in a small laugh and an attempt at an eloquent response: “okay-cool-thank-you, sir.” The table is reserved for the most senior instructors at the school, all of them a full degree higher and many years older than I was at that moment. The same group of adults had been adjudicating since I was a white belt at my first test. After that day, I would have participated in each role of the ritual: student, administrator, and now judge. I had taken thousands of steps as a student, all leading to the current moment: from my first steps onto the mat as a white belt, to my first degree black belt test, to my job as an instructor. I took a seat on my fold-out throne and gazed across the mat at my young learners.

Pierre was practicing his board-breaking technique in the back of the room. He was developmentally different from the other kids; he had a harder time paying attention in class and found it difficult to interact with others. Just the day before, I had stayed after class with him to make sure he understood one of his more difficult kicks. It took patience, but we spent the time that was necessary to ensure his understanding. Next to Pierre sat Jacob, a new white belt. He had trouble embracing Taekwondo — especially the strenuous stretching; Jacob had to learn to fight through the pain. On his first day, I sat with him to explain the simple truth that in every class he would have to stretch, but I motivated him by describing how high he would be able to kick later. As I looked across all of the students — Pierre, Jacob, and a dozen more — I saw myself nine years younger when I began this process.

Studying Taekwondo (literally “hand foot art”) has taught me both physical skills and valuable mental strength through focus, perseverance, and leadership. However, my relationship with Taekwondo is even more than that. I have learned to be both a student and a teacher — an educational leader. My time as a student, taking guidance from other great instructors, observing my peers, and just being a member of my Taekwondo community, have all given me an upper hand in knowing what would work for younger trainees. As a pupil of more than one school, I have put this educational perspective into practice both in my sport and my academics. Working as an instructor has made me into a more focused, patient, and determined student. I will carry my Taekwondo experience as a student and a teacher not only in every physical step I take, but also into the next step of my life: becoming a life-long learner through my higher education.

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