Gym teacher Charles Schweizer first launched a five-week mini-course on self-defense in 2001, at the request of his school’s athletic director. The class, which covered practical techniques as well as teaching students how to be aware of their surroundings, clearly had an influence at Hicksville (NY) High School. Today, the course runs a full semester and has 10 sections — enough to make sure the 290 juniors and seniors who signed up this year could enroll.
“There is certainly an impact with the students, many of whom go on to take the class for a second year,” says Schweizer about the class. “In addition, their confidence grows. They also become more willing to go beyond their normal comfort levels and overcome their fears.”
Physical and mental self-defense
While many remember their physical education classes as endless days of kickball and trots around the track, curriculum today can just as easily include yoga and self-defense alongside volleyball and basketball. Self-defense classes in high school, however, are not always martial arts training alone. While self-defense usually implies taking some kind of physical action against another, there’s a mental element woven in, as well.
Take Linda Carlson, a P.E. teacher with Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago, who spends nine weeks a year with 800 or so sophomores who engage in some skills training but spend the bulk of their time on safety.
Carlson teaches a technique developed by R.A.D., which focuses on self-defense skills that can be used in daily life. So whether that’s learning how to walk safely across campus or discussing sexual assault and dating, the basics of the program teach students how to think about both mental and physical options they have at their immediate disposal to keep themselves safe.
“We want them to understand the weapons you already possess, like their fist, elbow and mental strategies,” says Carlson, who was one of six P.E. teachers named 2017 SHAPE National Teachers of the Year and is also a certified R.A.D. instructor. “You’re always trying to avoid a physical confrontation.”
Students, of course, do sometimes need to practice to get kicking skills just right. Schweizer, who has a background in martial arts and has a 5th-Degree Black Belt in Judo among other skillsets, has his students try out their strikes against foam shields, and they also use a form of self-defense called Kata, where movements are learned independently rather than with a partner.
Practice is key
Kathleen Brophy prefers to get the adrenaline flowing in her students. Rather than have them practice alone or against each other, she brings in two padded helpers to her self-defense class. Brophy says that when students have to struggle against the padded instructors, they get a physical sense of what an attack can feel like in the moment.
For the semester-long class at Wellesley High School in MA, Brophy follows much of the curriculum from IMPACT Boston, which creates self-defense classes for schools and communities. Now in its 11th year, the courses are open to any of the 9th through 12th grade students at the school — and Brophy often hears kids refer the course as a “self-empowerment class,” she says, rather than self-defense.
Her goal is to get students to think about how they carry themselves — from their body language to what they say — and how those clues are also read by others around them. When people get nervous, she notes, they may smile or even start laughing. And that may not be the message you want to send to someone watching you, or someone who you feel could be a danger.
She knows, though, that it’s those final two days of class — when two instructors come to act out physical, confrontational scenarios — that are “the icing on the cake,” she says. That’s when the students see everything come together and understand what all the training can really help them accomplish.
“When you’re learning how to ride a bike, you have to get on a bike and experience it,” she says. “We call it adrenalized training. We create a way for this to be in their muscle memory.”