I remember the first week that I opened my karate school’s kid’s class as a junior instructor. Boys, was I nervous! I’m not really sure why; I was qualified, well-trained and they were kids. I was in my late 20’s and there was nobody in the class older than 13 years old. But there was something particular about teaching the first class in “my” school. It only took a couple of weeks to find a groove and begin feeling comfortable with classes. And only a couple of months AFTER that for me to realize that teaching karate is not all it’s cracked up to be…
There’s a certain prestige that comes with being able to teach something to someone else, especially in the martial arts. After all, if you’re teaching someone else it probably means that you’ve learn said skill to a sufficient level that it allows you to pass on that knowledge to someone else. I had been a been a black belt for a few years at this point, and already accustomed to leading the class whenever Sensei would request it. But this would be my first foray into being the focus of attention if/when students or parents would be displeased about something.
Now, don’t get me wrong! I can deal with complaints with the best of ’em. After all, I’ve got years of management experience in retail, food service and public sectors so dealing with customer complaints is no problem. But karate is particular, because it’s personal. It’s not a job, it’s a part of my lifestyle that I not only study but thoroughly enjoy. And I’m not well-known for my ability to put up with other people’s bullshit. Enter: the league of disgruntled parents…
By the time the kid’s class had been up and running for six months, a few of my students had graduated a yellow stripe or two. My particular system has a LOT of yellow stripes for kids prior to testing for yellow belt, which is a good way to keep them focused and motivated. One of the disadvantages of opening a school from scratch, is that everybody starts off as a white belt and there’s no established belt hierarchy in place. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It’s good in the sense that you don’t have to worry about branching off your teaching to accommodate the different ranks. It’s bad in the sense that the first people to promote usually set off alarm bells in others.
Sensei and I had agreed from the very beginning that as a junior instructor, I would teach the class while he tested for stripes. I would assist him with belt tests, but until I developed my teaching legs, he would deal with pulling out the students who were progressing and issue the stripes as required. That was an easy agreement. But as a few of the students climbed in rank, the ones who didn’t began to question why they didn’t. This concern was obviously passed on to their parents who apparently felt this meant their kids were being ignored. Can you guess what happened next?
I began receiving phone calls and having parents confront me in the dojo, questioning my audacity in promoting other students but not their kid, especially when everyone had started at the same level. These were some of the same parents that would often bring food or drinks into my dojo, take phone calls or carry on conversations at the back while I’d be trying to teach. I believe in picking one’s battles, but these are issues I had to discuss with them on previous occasions.
I tried explaining to these parents that every child is different and that every child learns in a different way and at a different pace (a lesson the public schools should no doubt adopt) and that stripes would NOT be issued if a particular student had not reach the required skill and knowledge level associated with it. This was like throwing gasoline on a campfire and caused further indignation from parents. Although we were still a few years before the true advent of the snowflake and parents who believe their kids can do no wrong, these parents were clearly adamant that the promoted students were no better skilled than their kids and that it wasn’t fair of me to promote some and not others.
I closed out the argument by explaining to the parents that karate was not a generic skill and that there were things the students could do on their own time in order to improve and help ensure promotion when the time came, but that it wasn’t fair to the students or my school, in fact, for me to issue a promotion someone hadn’t earned. This led to all sorts of threats about pulling their students out and enrolling them elsewhere, to contacting the parents of students who had promoted and a score of other idle threats to ludicrous to repeat.
Between these issues, which unbelievably never really went away, and the fact that I moved to Ottawa about six months later led me to close the doors of my kid’s school. That’s one of the benefits of not doing it for a living; you can close your doors without destructive repercussions. It was unfortunate for the kids more than anyone else, but it was also a sad mix of behaviour on the parents’ behalf, who should have been supporting the growth instead of trying to influence it. Some of the kids transitioned into the regular class and continued to train, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Folks, karate is not a cookie-cutter art. What this means is that if ten people started karate at the white belt rank today, you will see ten different people at ten different skill levels and likely ten different ranks. This is because each and every person is different and every person learns and absorbs information in a different way. if you’re studying the martial arts, it’s important to remember that even if someone progresses to a higher rank than you, it doesn’t mean they’re “better” than you, it simply means that you need to grow in your way. Every person’s martial arts journey is their own. ☯