The Question of Apprentices
By Tonwen ferch Gruffudd Aur, OL

One of the things I treasure the most about the SCA is the remarkable body of knowledge that its members have, and how willing they are to share that knowledge. As Laurels, one of our privileges and responsibilities is to pass what we know onto others. That may be in the form of teaching formal classes, having a few people over to your house for a weekend workshop now and then, or a longer term commitment of taking on an apprentice.

Being mentored by and mentoring others can be a very important part of SCA life. The personal relationship between a teacher and a student can be unlike any other. It can also be a very overwhelming notion to both people. What does it take to build a successful teacher-student relationship? What works? What doesn't? How do you know if you're ready to take on or to be an apprentice?

The answer to all of the questions is, it depends on what the two of you want and need from each other and the relationship. As vague as that sounds, the truth is, with every successful mentor-type relationship I have ever had, we took the time to talk about the obvious and not so obvious facets of that relationship before it ever got started. Perhaps the most important factor of all is to know what you want and need from each other, and have some idea about whether those needs can be met and how.

Some peers and their students prefer more casual, laid back relationships. Others prefer more formal ones. What is right for you and your prospective teacher or student is entirely up to the two of you. Before entering into a committed teacher-student relationship, there are some things you may want to talk about with each other. The more you think and talk about the relationship before you enter into it, the better chance you have of smoother sailing and fewer unfortunate surprises.

Do you want your relationship to be time-limited or indefinite? It seems that indefinite teaching relationships tend to be more common, but putting a time limit on a relationship like this can help both parties be more productive. It can also allow a comfortable out if one or both of you feel like things are not working out for you.

Do you want an apprentice who is in fealty to you? Or does that not matter? How would it affect your relationship to go that route or not? Will it be more a benefit or a hindrance? Some peers will not accept students who are also peers. To others, this is not an issue. What is right for you?

Once you and your prospective student have at least agreed to explore the idea of working together, what then? Do you want a formal ceremony? Ceremonies formalize and make a relationship public. It can create a greater sense of community, belonging, and solemnity for those directly involved and for those witnessing it. It may also not be your cup of tea. You may prefer a private agreement with few, if any witnesses and pomp.

Do you want to give your apprentice a belt or some other symbol of your relationship? If so, why and if not, why not? What will work for each of you and give you both what you need in the outward expression of your commitment to each other? Some Laurels give their apprentices green belts. Others may give some other token that is symbolic of the relationship. A chatelaine for a costuming apprentice, a wooden spoon for a cooking apprentice, a tunic, a book or some other item may be more meaningful for the people involved.

What about your relationship? You will probably have certain expectations of your apprentice, and your apprentice likewise of you. It's really important that the two of you sit down and talk about every detail you can think of about what you want, what you do NOT want, what you expect, what you hope for, and what is simply not acceptable to one or both of you. Negotiate what needs to be negotiated, agree to disagree on the things you can accept to disagree on, and iron out the rest of the kinks before you move on. Nothing is more disheartening than committing to this kind of a relationship and THEN finding out that you have fundamental differences in attitude about things that will only serve to make one or both of you miserable.

Topics to talk about really vary from one relationship to another. Things that I have discussed from both ends are issues like obligations, duties and responsibilities, respect and titles of address, obedience and how to approach disagreements, issues of fealty and what it all means,. More practical issues have touched on subjects like short and long term goals, aspirations, "in a perfect world I'd love to...", my own needs as a student to HAVE expectations of me and to be held accountable for meeting or trying to meet them, how to ask for support or encouragement or a kick in the butt when I needed it, my needs as a teacher to be treated with a basic degree of respect. Other more basic things like pet peeves, favorite foods and drinks, what kind of time commitments were hoped for or wanted, and what the bare essentials were when one or both of us got too busy with mundane life, what sore spots there were for both of us have also had their turn on the discussion table.

The list goes on and on. Some of these things are important to some people and others are not. Find out what is important to both of you, and don't be stingy with time to sit down and talk about them. Play "what would you do if..." and "how do you think we should handle it when..." with each other. The more you get to know the way each other thinks and feels, the smoother the road will be.

It can be a very good idea to include significant others in discussions about teaching relationships, especially when the student and teacher are of opposite gender and have committed personal relationships. Teachers and students spending too much time or the wrong time together can put a lot of strain on relationships with spouses or significant others. Everyone knowing what to expect and having a say in what arrangements are made can go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings later.

You are probably going to spend more time with your apprentice than with anyone else in the SCA. You will both give your free time, your time at events, your project time, well beyond what you would each give to anyone else. Be as prepared for that as you can be. In short, spend time together. Talk. Do. Argue. Daydream. Fantasize. Decide on the ground rules, then let yourselves fly.

The teacher-student relationships I have had in and out of the SCA have been among the most rewarding of my life. Good ones can be remarkable. Bad ones can be nothing short of nightmares- and no one goes into this sort of thing hoping for the nightmare. There is no such thing as knowing more than you need to know before you take the plunge.


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