Learning to teach

A ringer learns to teach from an experienced teacher;  you can’t get it just by reading this page, and indeed it would not be safe for you or a student.  These are notes that go along with one-on-one instruction.

A. Speaking to the student

Anyone who is ringing is preoccupied, so make anything you say to the student simple and short.

If possible, you should work out a brief list of things you are going to say, and practice (in your mind if not out loud) saying them the same way every time, so the student doesn’t have to figure out what you mean.  An example list might be:

  1. “Follow Through”
  2. “Gently, gently”
  3. “Give Me The Rope”
  4. “Less Oomph”
  5. “Let Go”
  6. “Long Straight Pull”
  7. “Miss It”  (don’t say “let it go”, that’s too similar to “Let Go”)
  8. “More Oomph”
  9. “Stand Back”

Don’t shout unless it really is an emergency.  Most students don’t respond well to shouts, for one thing, and also you want to save raising your voice for when you really need it so you can be sure they know whatever you’re saying is more important than usual.

B. Safety first

In addition to the safety items on the Learning to ring page, you yourself must ensure the safety of the student (and of yourself).

Be ready to reach in and control the bell

You won’t be able to control the bell unless you are ringing distance from the rope.  This means a fairly close interpersonal distance between you and the student, but that can’t be helped;  safety trumps etiquette.  Initially I suggest standing 180° from them, with the student in the normal ringing position and you on the inside of the bell circle facing out.  This helps you see their eyes when you need to, keep them focused, and be right there in case something goes wrong.  Later, to work on fine points of their ringing motion, you may find it helpful to stand 120° around for a different perspective, and also to give them a sense of being more responsible for what they are doing.

You must always be alert to what’s happening with the rope and the bell;  watch the student’s hands with your eyes moving up and down all the time.  You’ll need to continue this until they graduate, because if something goes wrong it can do so fast and you need to be quick and react before things get out of control.

Until the student has reliable control of the bell (typically this takes at least four hours of instruction and may take much more), keep your right hand running up and down in the air parallel with the rope, 6-12″ away from it, whenever the bell is in motion.  This is so when you see something go wrong, you can have your hand on the rope taking control in an instant, without waiting to get your arm moving and bring your hand from your side to the rope (by that time something bad may have happened).

As an experienced ringer you’ll be listening to the speed of the bell striking without thinking about it.  With a student, you’ll want to listen for when the bell is ringing down and thus striking faster, as this will happen frequently with a student and you’ll have to fix it with a long straight pull or two until they get enough experience to realize when it’s happening and keep cool enough to fix it.

Reaching in

Ideally you should reach in with your right hand and grasp the rope above the student’s hands.  That way you have maximum control of what goes on, no matter what the student’s hands are doing or which way they are moving.  For a tall student, you may need to stand on a box (this is normal when teaching).

You can grasp the rope below their hands, of course, and if that’s the best you can do in an emergency you’ll just have to go with it.  Same with respect to your left hand, if that’s the one you can get on the rope.

Practice reaching in and taking control on a backstroke, and on a handstroke.

Practice reaching in when the bell has rung down a bit and ringing it back up.

Taking the rope

You’ll want the student to keep hold of the tail, unless things go really wrong (you’ll know when this happens).  If the student freezes, or is doing something really unhelpful, or if you have already reached in but can’t get the bell back under control because of something the student is doing, you’ll have to take the rope.

  1. Try to get a hand on the tail before you say anything if possible, to ensure that someone’s got the tail all the time.
  2. Command the student “Give Me The Rope.”  You don’t have to shout (usually) but you have to make it clear that this is a command and it has to be followed Right Now.
  3. Once you have a firm grip on the tail, if the student has not released it, command the student to “Let Go.”
  4. If necessary, command the student to “Stand Back.”

Act quickly

Things can go wrong pretty fast, so you want to jump on any problem that arises and get it under control immediately.

You don’t have to rush, but you can’t dawdle.  It’s like catching the sally:  there’s plenty of time to do it, but you have to get a move on and make it happen during that time interval.

As a rule of thumb, you have at least one stroke and maybe more to take care of a problem once you spot it (assuming you are alert, listening for the bell to ring down, and keeping your eyes on the student’s hands).  Most of the time one long straight pull will fix whatever has gone wrong, if you get that long straight pull done immediately.

Your safety

You will instinctively block the rope with your forearm if it sways out at you, which is the main risk to you.  You don’t want it to catch on you or anything you are wearing.

The main thing that will prevent it from catching on you (or the student) is not letting it get completely out of control.  If you watch constantly and act immediately, the rope will stay within safe bounds.

Keep your fingers together at all times, especially when you are reaching in or are blocking the sally with your forearms.  You don’t want to get the rope caught between two fingers, or get a finger caught in a tuck.

You will want to be sure your feet are flat on the floor all the time, in case the tail gets loose.  You’ll have instructed the student to keep feet flat on the floor, too, but don’t forget you have to do so as well.

C. Things to watch for

You’ll know when something’s going wrong;  your experience will alert you to it.  Here are some of the ones you can expect.

The bell is ringing down and the student doesn’t realize it

This is the most common problem you’ll have to fix.

You’ll hear the bell speeding up before the student realizes what’s happening.  Reach in and give a long straight backstroke to get it back up, or a handstroke if you weren’t paying enough attention and it has to be fixed before the next backstroke.

You want to do this before the student panics, which many learners will do once they catch on that things are happening fast (because the bell is ringing down) and they don’t know what to do about it.  You can set the bell and make it a teachable moment if you like, explaining that long straight pulls will solve the problem.

The student loses control of the rope

The most common cause is a student bungling the catch, and instead of catching the sally or making a clean miss, they knock it toward you or off to the side.  One hopes that they don’t then make everything much worse by trying to make a late catch, which never works, causes the rope to stretch and then dance unpredictably, and panics the student.

You should be making every catch (with your right hand, above where the student should be catching) along with the student until they get the hang of it and are reliable.  If you have your hand on the sally you’re in good shape to keep the rope from being batted out of control off to the side.  If you did not have your right hand on the sally, you almost certainly won’t be able to make a catcht;  give it a clean miss and concentrate on taking control of the next backstroke, just as you would if you were ringing, and get it under control then.

You may need to command “Miss It” or something else concise to keep the student from trying a late catch.  If they panic and try a late catch, you may have to tell them to “Stand Back” out of the way so they don’t get caught in the rope and you have room to work.  If so, be ready to take the tail if they panic and drop it.  All this is manageable;  you just have to be ready and respond immediately.

The most dangerous variant of this is when the sally and rope rebound against the student, against their arms or shoulders or against their neck and head.  You will need to block the rope away from them with your forearm if possible to ensure it doesn’t catch around them, and you may need to push them back for their own safety.  Forget manners, it’s potentially a dangerous situation.  Fortunately it doesn’t happen often (I’ve only seen a couple of times).

The student overpulls

If you have your right hand above the student’s hands you’ll be able to feel the student pull too hard, so you’ll be prepared to check the bell as it rises for the next stroke.  You don’t want the student to break the stay, of course, but you also don’t want the bell bouncing off the stay and coming down quickly.

If the student has progressed enough to be reliable without your hand on the rope at each stroke, you’ll have to watch for overpulling instead of feeling it.  You’ll want to reach in from time to time to double-check that they aren’t overpulling.

When they overpull, remember to tell them to ease off by saying “Gently, gently” or some other stock phrase you use consistently.

D.  Things to watch for at particular stages of the syllabus

Syllabus step III. Getting the rhythm

Goals:  You want the student to be used to moving their hands at bell speed before they have to do it with a real bell.  Make sure they know the hands should be accelerating, slow at the top and fastest at the bottom.  Their motion should be smooth rather than jerky.

Syllabus step IV. Pulling off: instructor handles everything else and sets the bell

Keep your right hand above the student’s hands for every pull-off.

  1. The student pulls the bell over the balance then freezes or doesn’t keep ahead of the bell.  Since you’ve got a hand on the sally above theirs you can keep it moving safely.  Watch to make sure they release in time and command them “Let Go” if they don’t.
  2. The student doesn’t release the sally.  This is so common, particularly for their first pull-off, that in addition to talking them through it beforehand you should simply plan on saying “Let Go” about the time their hands pass their face, just in case.
  3. The student overpulls.  Also very common.  Since you’ll have a hand on the sally you’ll know when it’s happening and be ready to check the bell’s rise on the way up.  Say “Gently, gently” when you sense it happening and explain after you set that they don’t have to pull that hard, and in fact it’s bad to pull that hard.  They need to learn in their muscles that there is a right amount of pull and it’s not very much, and this is the perfect time to start.
  4. The student pulls off unevenly.  You want them to pull off smoothly and evenly from the very beginning, so if you feel (since your right hand will be above their hands) or see them pulling unevenly, talk to them about it and get it straightened out immediately.  Don’t let them learn to do it wrong.


  1. You want the student to be keeping a little ahead of the bell.  No slack rope!  Don’t let them move on to the next step until they are keeping ahead of the bell;  at this step they can’t get into much trouble from not doing so, but at the next step it can be dangerous for them and for you.
  2. You want the student to release the sally.
  3. You want the student’s hands to be together still at the bottom of their stroke.
  4. You want the student aware that there’s a right amount of oomph to pull, and to start getting a sense of what that amount is.
  5. You want the student aware that the right amount of pull (at this stage) brings the bell up to the balance so you can set it.
  6. If by chance the bell bounces off the stay, you want the student to learn from that;  overpulling causes trouble, and bouncing off the stay is not good for at least three reasons — what might those be?

Syllabus step V. Backstrokes only, instructor pulls off and handles handstrokes

The primary concern here is that the student will have to keep the backstrokes going until you can set the bell.  Dont proceed to this stage until they’ve got the speed down cold in syllabus step IV, and are reasonably reliable in how hard they pull.  In extreme cases, you may want to do syllabus step VI Catching the sally next, because the student can make pull one handstroke then think about it while you handle everything, while in syllabus step V they have to keep pulling no matter what.

Keep your right hand above the student’s hands until they are pretty reliable with backstroke only.  Whenever your hand isn’t on the rope, keep it running up and down in the air a few inches away from the rope so you can reach in quickly when you need to (note:  not “if”, “when”).

  1. The student may drop the tail.  It doesn’t happen often but it does happen, particularly if things start going too wrong or the student gets distracted (so keep things from going too wrong, don’t let them get distracted, and watch them to make sure they are on top of things).  Before you start, talk them through the importance of keeping hold of the tail all the time unless you take it from them and say “Give Me the Tail”.  Be sure you don’t scare them, but make sure they know they have a responsibility to everyone on the room.  If they drop it, you’ll have to make sure they’re clear (“Get Back” or, if you have to, push them) for your safety and theirs, and you’ll have to regain control of the rope immediately (see Regaining control of a loose rope below).
  2. The student may not keep ahead of the bell.  Since your right hand is on the rope above theirs, you’ll be able to keep the rope moving.  You can’t take your hand off the rope until you are confident they are going to keep ahead of the bell all the time.
  3. The student may overpull.  Since your right hand is on the rope above theirs, you’ll be able to tell it’s happening, perhaps resist it, and check the bell on the way up.  Be sure you tell them “Gently, gently” and explain once the bell is set.
  4. The student may underpull.  Since your right hand is on the rope above theirs, you’ll be able to tell it’s happening, perhaps fix it with a long straight pull, and give the bell oomph on the handstroke and the next backstroke (with your hand above theirs) if need be.  Be sure you tell them “More oomph” and explain once the bell is set.
  5. The student may keep the bell from rising.  This can be from several causes:
    • overpulling then checking because they haven’t developed enough sensitivity to pull with the right amount of oomph;
    • overworrying about bouncing off the stay, because they haven’t developed a feel for when the bell is near the balance;
    • happening to be too high on the tail; or
    • simply not extending their arms at the top of the stroke.

    Figure out which one or ones of these it is and work on it or them.  As always, don’t give them the opportunity to do it incorrectly, developing a habit they’ll struggle to break later.

  6. This is the perfect time to help them work on the amount of oomph in their stroke.  You’ll be able to feel it as well as see it, plus they’ll be helping or at least watching while you set the bell each time, and it will be immediate for them in their arms, visually, and conceptually in their heads.  Say things like “More oomph”, “Less oomph”, and “Oh very nice!” to help them become more sensitive to what’s happening and more in control of how hard they are pulling.
  7. This is also the perfect time to help them if they are not pulling evenly.  Many students pull harder at some height in their backstrokes, which is a bad habit you want to exterminate immediately.  You should be able to feel and see the unevenness since you’ll have your right hand above their hands on every backstroke.  Talk them through it after the bell is set;  demonstrate what’s going on yourself;  say something concise and helpful at the instant when their pull is uneven;  etc.


  1. You want the student to be keeping a little ahead of the bell.  No slack rope!  From this step onwards, slack rope is dangerous.
  2. Remember that the student’s understanding of what’s going on is still quite incomplete, so no long explanations.  Stick to the essentials at this point.  Give helpful aphorisms like “Long Straight Pull” or “Follow Through”, show what you mean as well as explaining what’s going on and why the student should do what you are suggesting, but don’t drench a student with buckets of explanation;  it’s counterproductive.  Watch for glazed eyes when you are talking.
  3. You want them to develop a complete top-to-bottom motion, as a single gesture.
  4. You want the student’s arms to be almost fully extended at the top and the bottom of the stroke.  They will probably be struggling to control the bell and rope completely and need to be making use of the entire length their arms can cover.
  5. The student has to learn to follow through:  accelerate (speed up) all the way down, flip wrists at the bottom, send the loop down to the floor.  The fastest motion is at the bottom of each stroke.  You can point out that sending the rope straight down means it will come straight back up, and if the rope is doing that the student is following through properly.
  6. You want the student to be pulling exactly enough to bring the bell to or nearly to the balance.
  7. You want the student to realize that sending the bell near or to the balance (but not bouncing off the stay) is what makes it ring nice and slowly.
  8. You want the student to internalize the fact that if the bell is ringing too fast (i.e. ringing down), or the rope is dancing around, then a long straight pull or two can fix it.  The student needs to see that this is true, and have enough negative experiences (but not dangerous ones) that they fixed with a long straight pull or two to believe it and make it an instinct.  Teach them to say to themselves that if something’s going wrong, a long straight pull is almost always the answer.
  9. You want the student to learn rather than panic.  The way to achieve this is to keep them out of real trouble.  They need to get into minor trouble (and don’t worry, they will do so spontaneously and frequently) and get out of it with a long straight pull or your help, but you need to be sure they never get deep enough into trouble for it to be frightening or dangerous for either of you.
  10. When the student panics (and they will), make sure they don’t get into real trouble.  If you think the student can get out on their own, say something concise (you’ll have time to say only one thing) like “Long Straight Pull”, then step in if the student can’t fix it within a stroke or two or immediately if the situation deteriorates.

Syllabus steps VI. Catching the sally and VII. Handstrokes

Don’t let them start catching until they have the rhythm right.  Explain that the motion is essentially the same for both backstroke and handstroke:  their hands accelerate all the way down, moving fastest at the bottom of the stroke.  This will be after they have released the sally for the handstroke, of course.  They won’t know enough to understand about the followthrough that lets them control the rope, but you should go through it at a high level and make sure they know that fast hands at the bottom of the stroke when they are flipping their wrists is what makes the rope flow up and down vertically and calmly.

Be sure they can clap their hands on the sally at the right instant first, then grasp for an instant with thumb and forefinger, before you let them grasp with their full right hand.

Be sure they know to let go at the right time before you let them catch even with one hand;  you’ll have to tell them several times.  It’s helpful to figure out at what height off the floor you’re releasing the sally, then show them saying “You have to let go no lower than here off the floor.”  This is useful because the height off the floor is determined by the mechanics of the bell, and is independent of the ringer’s height.

Be sure they know that each catch is optional, and that if they bungle a catch they need to let it go.  “A good miss is better than a bad catch” is a helpful saying to teach them.

Be sure they know to speed up on the way down, with their hands moving faster and faster all the way down.

Teach them to keep their hands together after the release

Once they have those basics, here are some things to watch for.

  1. They will probably struggle to catch at the right spot on the sally.  Talk to them (“Too high”, “Too low”, “Good!”).  While the bell is set, talk them through how they can tell if they are catching at the right height namely, if their arms are almost extended (but not completely straight or elbows locked);  and why, namely so they have the maximum amount of control.  It may help to explain that if they catch too high, they’ll stop the bell from rising and it will ring down.
  2. They may pull unevenly.  You’ll be able to tell because you’ll have your right hand on the sally above their hands.  Help them even it out as above for the backstroke, and talk to them about it after the bell is set.
  3. They may overpull, and if so they will probably release too late.  Remind them that the most important part of the handstroke is letting go of it in time, and that the way the wheel is set up prevents them from putting very much oomph into a handstroke no matter what, so don’t try.  Help them avoid this bad habit from the start.

Syllabus step VIII. Full strokes

Don’t rush this.  A student is unlikely to combine both strokes successfully until each stroke individually is reliable, and if they try too soon and muff it the result can be a loss of confidence and a long struggle for both of you.

Beforehand, talk them through how the two strokes should be indistinguishable in their rhythm, speed, verticalness, follow-through and wrist flick, keeping the hands together, etc.  The only difference is that during the handstroke they are merging their hands with the sally temporarily as their hands trace the same path up and down as on the backstroke.

Present it to the student as something you will try for a bit before going back to handstrokes (or backstrokes if that’s what you were working on);  it’s a treat because they have been doing so well, and it’s an illustration of how the motion of the two strokes is identical, but it’s really too early.  Then if they are successful they will be even more proud, and if they are not they won’t worry about it.  Expect that they’ll go back and forth between working on one stroke or the other and trying both strokes together.

Since you’ll have your right hand on the rope or sally above their hands (almost certainly), you’ll be able to feel as well as see what’s going on.  They need to have:

  • a long, straight backstroke pull that’s vertical and stable enough to keep the sally from swaying around and frustrating their catches;
  • a reliably close-enough catch, not too high on the sally, so that the bell rise enough on the handstroke;
  • a “strong enough” handstroke that the bell doesn’t ring down, keeping in mind that only a little oomph is needed if they are letting the handstrokes rise far enough;
  • a backstroke that also lets the bell rise high enough.

You’ll probably see the bell ringing down because their strokes aren’t quite right enough.  Reach in and get the bell back up before they panic and lose what form they do have.

If they have too tight a grip on the tail, it won’t shift properly to cross the sally, on the side facing them, to extend to the right.  It’s best not to make a big deal about this, as it’s difficult for the student to visualize and impossible to see;  instead, encourage them to relax their grip on the tail.  You can point out that the tail stays put somehow, as if by magic;  you can show how the upward movement of their left hand is pressing the tail into the crook of their hand.

Syllabus step X. Raising and lowering the bell

By this point they are ringing both strokes together reliably.  Raising will be good exercise for their ringing muscles and will challenge their follow-through and form a bit more.  Be sure they can manage the coils before you let them raise.  Explain what the rope is telling them if it is swaying around and hitting them in the face (they are throwing out, probably;  in general, they aren’t pulling vertically), so they can benefit from the feedback rather than developing bad habits in response to it.

E.  Regaining control of a loose rope

Easier than you would think.  We’ll do this at a separate session because it’s better if there’s no guinea pig in the room, and the room will have to be set up specially to keep the loose rope from wrapping around anything.

It’s best shown, not explained, so I won’t say anything here.  As with everything else we’ve been talking about, if you spot it immediately and act at the first appropriate moment, it’s easy.  It only becomes dangerous if the tail is on the loose for more than two strokes, as the rope will leap around more with each cycle up and down and the amount of leaping builds on itself.

F. Don’t give the student opportunities to develop bad habits, only good ones.

The reason the Learning to ring syllabus is set up in that sequence is so that at every stage the student has plenty of opportunity to spontaneously learn to do one right thing, and as much as possible has no opportunity to do an unhelpful or dangerous thing.  If you see a student starting to exhibit a bad habit, jump on it immediately, back them up in the syllabus, and stamp it out before you let them move on.

G. Watch what’s happening, diagnose where it goes wrong, suggest a solution

Your ringing instincts will come to your aid more than you might think.  Watch the student’s hands.  If there is another teacher around (the ideal situation), ask for help;  one can watch the student’s hands for safety, ready to reach in, while the other watches the rope, the sally, or other things going on.

You will probably think “how can I possibly see what’s going on when there is so much happening so fast?”  Pick one thing (like the student’s hands) and watch that like a hawk;  you’ll see much more than you’d expect.  Until you get substantial teaching experience, though, you won’t be able to take a general look and see anything useful;  focus on one thing and watch just that, and if that didn’t work focus on the second thing and watch just that.

Here are some things to watch for, and suggestions for fixing them:  Diagnosing problems with your pull.

No matter what, if the first solution doesn’t work after a reasonable number of tries, try another one.  Different people respond to different suggestions, and ideally you’ll have several you can deploy.

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