Don’t Call Yourself Sensei…

The word Sensei is popularized in the Western world and sometimes used a little too often for comfort’s sake. Putting aside for a moment that the title of Sensei should never be self-given (except to explain to a new student that you ARE the Sensei), the word essentially translates as “the one came before,” indicating that it’s a person’ who’s been there and done that. In martial arts circles it mostly used as a title of respect used by the student body to the lead instructor, which is why I say it shouldn’t be self-given; it’s a word that your students should be using to address YOU, not to identify yourself. But as usual, I digress…

Teaching can be a difficult thing and is in fact, a very strange creature. Most people who DON’T teach, assume that all it involves is passing on knowledge that you know something about. Although that’s a part of it, teaching has a great deal to do with HOW you impart that knowledge, how receptive your students are to what you’re providing and the communication that takes place and control methods used in order to achieve that goal. Teaching is not for everybody; a fact that my wife and I have learned in great detail over the past month from trying to take ownership of Nathan’s “at home” learning.

From a martial arts standpoint, it isn’t enough to have the rank and experience to know what needs to be taught. This is especially true of kids’ classes, but it holds to all students. Having the dynamic methods to impart said knowledge to the students who wish to learn takes a number of different steps on behalf of the instructor, most of which I learned the hard way. I had my own dojo for a few years in Northern New Brunswick before moving out to the Prairies. And I learned a number of different things about how to properly impart the knowledge necessary for a student to learn karate…

Focus On The Foundation: While it may be impressive to start the first open class of your school by demonstrating a triple spin kick, couple with a backflip while holding a sword may be impressive (and redundant in a real fight), it won’t help your students to learn from the beginning. Most people who have been doing something for a number of years won’t relish going back to the beginning. Most of us want to keep moving forward. But that new student who is beginning on Day 1 needs to learn those basics that you mastered so many years ago. Not only is it NECESSARY to impart these foundational skills on new and even intermediate students, it can be a good revisitation for the instructor as it’s important to remember one’s foundation;
Explain The Rules: The dojo can be a confusing place, especially to a Westerner who’s never done martial arts before. They’ll need to be told and come to understand that they have to bow before entering the dojo, refer to the instructor as “Sensei” and how to properly line up. This needs to come BEFORE you start hammering them with all those knuckle push-ups as a punitive measure. This is one of those instances where ignorance CAN be an excuse, unless you permit it to continue;
Use Your Voice: If you’ve ever watch a show or movie centred around karate and the martial arts, you’ll notice that there’s often a lot of yelling going on, the instructor is walking the rows and correcting students’ movements, etc… This is important. Even if you know what you’re doing and you’ve told the class to mirror your movement, you can’t stand at the front like a mime trying to get out of the box. The class needs to feel your presence and receive correction. Maybe that student at the front needs a foot adjusted. Maybe the student at the back has to be reminded to focus instead of staring at the female student in front of him (true story). Be present. Be vocal;
Admit When You’re Wrong/Don’t Ask Anything You Won’t Do Yourself: With over thirty years of karate under my belt, there are still things I don’t know. It’s extremely important as an instructor that you be willing to admit if you don’t know something. Trying to circumvent the question or making something up not only makes you look ridiculous, but it can damage your credibility. Once that happens, good luck trying to teach the class. And if you intend on having the class drill through a couple of hundred kicks, you best be ready to do it as well. Nothing damages an instructor’s credibility like having the students sweating half to death while the instructor calmly and dryly walks around doing nothing. Don’t forget that even if you’re the instructor, you’re ALSO there to work out. You can’t do that from a still position. Never ask your students to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself;
Be Prepared And Have A Focus: As much as it shouldn’t be necessary, your students will need to be kept engaged and interested. If you walk into the dojo and perform the exact same warm-up and the exact same workout during every class, it won’t take long for people to start yawning in class (which is an incredible sign of disrespect, but shame on you if you’re the cause). Keep your warm-ups dynamic and different. Don’t be afraid to change it up, not only to keep it interesting but also because it will keep your muscle groups guessing and work more body parts. Every class should be thought out and planned before the class starts. Focusing on kicks? Next class, focus on punches or blocks. Doing break falls tonight? Maybe focus on pressure points or throws during the next class. It’s perfectly fine to have a class where you work lines of techniques for an hour, but that should be your EVERY class. Planning and preparation will ensure the you’re moving forward with the program and that your students will progress;
Acknowledge Ranks But Don’t Let Them Define Partnerships: It’s important to understand that the white belt that started last month won’t be able to perform some of the techniques and may not have the staying power that the green or brown belt may have. But there’s no reason why a beginner can’t be partnered up with an advanced belt for paired exercises. This is a common misconception in most dojos. Even my current dojo has a nasty habit of saying, “Try to pair up with someone of similar size and rank…” Although this isn’t done maliciously, the pairing of students at different ranks is important to the learning process. Honestly, the head instructor can’t give one-on-one focus to every student during every class. This is why it’s important for junior belts to interact and be involved with the senior and advanced belts. That way, they get the additional coaching they need and the advanced belt can also learn a lot from junior belts;
Push Yourself, No Matter What’s Going On: Life doesn’t care about your plan, and sometimes things may try to get n your way of teaching the class. One good excuse is getting sick. Now, I’m not referring to getting the chicken pox or something dangerous and contagious. But I’ll always remember the times when I’ve had a basic cold and still went to karate. It’s important for the instructor up front to be motivated and driven with the same level of enthusiasm, regardless of anything personal that may be happening or whether or not they are sick. Nothing sucks the energy out of a class like a sluggish instructor who isn’t pushing themselves.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I just took stock of how long this post has gotten, and I’m barely halfway there. Teaching can be a challenge. And since I’m going on about keeping one’s students interested, I’d also like to keep my readers interested so I’ll cut the list short before y’all fall asleep while reading it. Hopefully, it gives any prospective instructors a foundation on which to start teaching. And it should also provide a certain level of clarification for students who may be reading as well. Martial arts is meant to be a give and take. There must always be a balance. ☯

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I am a practitioner of the martial arts and student of the Buddhist faith. I have been a Type 1 Diabetic since I was 4 years old and have been fighting the uphill battle it includes ever since. I enjoy fitness and health and looking for new ways to improve both, as well as examining the many questions of life. Although I have no formal medical training, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge regarding health, Diabetes, martial arts as well as Buddhism and philosophy. My goal is to share this information with the world, and perhaps provide some sarcastic humour along the way. Welcome!

2 thoughts on “Don’t Call Yourself Sensei…”

  1. I would say teaching is a skill and it does take time to learn to be a good teacher. It can be fun but also can be frustrating. When I’m to help teach I actually quite enjoy it. It gives me a bit of a buzz when someone I have been teaching finally gets a technique right that they have been struggling with.


    1. Yes, I agree. Although teaching is not everyone’s cup if tea, there’s certainly something to be said for watching a young child grow up and develop skills, knowing you contributed to that journey.


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