I have a great respect for teachers, a respect I wish I had when I was actually a student in school. I remember struggling to stay awake during class and considering a lot of the material boring and unimportant. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate the importance of acquiring knowledge and how important those who were trying to pass it on were to me. As it pertains to karate, teaching is a very specific flavour that not everyone’s palette can appreciate. Myself included.
Having a good teacher is an integral part of a good martial arts journey. Too often, I hear about instructors who are either too violent with their students, refuse to provide certain levels of instruction or coaching or are simply more concerned with showing off their own skills than actually passing on their knowledge. These are all good signs that you’re in an ever-so-lovely “McDojo,” and you should exit, stage left if you ever find yourself in that kind of a teacher/student relationship.
I remember my first experiences with teaching karate. i was still a white belt, albeit a couple of stripes in, and I was tasked with teaching basic movements and the opening of our first forms to students who were starting classes for the first time. It was a fun experience, and it showed me some of the shortcomings and errors I was committing myself. Occasionally, I would been have a student who would recognize something and say, “Isn’t it supposed to be THIS way?” It was good, because it kept me humble and reminded me that there’s always learning to be done, even when it’s something you’ve learned already.
When I started to climb in rank and reached a senior belt level, I enjoyed taking the occasional class when Sensei wasn’t available and I continued to teach beginners and some higher belts as my own knowledge base increased. Teaching beginners was always a good thing, because it provided me with a refresher of my own materials and knowledge, which most martial artists tend to ignore as they climb the ranks. After all, it’s usually way more fun to practice that fancy, complicated kata instead of the basic one you learned as a white belt that essentially looks like you’re walking back and forth, right?
But the ability to teach and impart knowledge is a specific skill; one you don’t necessarily acquire simply by virtue of having “been there, done that.” the ability to impart knowledge is learned skill and a kept skill, but also one that has to be suited to one’s personality and overall abilities. This is a lesson I unfortunately had to learnt he hard way. And that lesson came in the form of teaching a kids’ class. When I graduated to black belt, Sensei approached me and asked if I would be willing to be the new Sensei for a kids’ class. he explained that he was getting increased pressure from some local parents to open one up again, but he simply no longer had the time or motivation to do so. He asked if I would do it, along with his silent assistance in the background.
I have to admit that I was happier than a pig in shit and very much looking forward to being an instructor. A head instructor of my own school, at that. So I got set up, sent out applications to the parents who wanted their kids to learn karate and started taking in students. During that first month, I had over thirty new kids in the class. That first class was reasonably decent, considering the children were reasonably quiet, compliant and following instruction. It helped that it was a new environment for most of them and as most children do, they were shy and withdrawn for those first few classes. then, all hell broke loose…
See, children have this thing they do where, once they get comfortable with an environment, they start getting cheeky and hyper. this is exactly what began happening in my dojo. With every passing class, it almost seemed as though I spent more time telling everyone to settle down and try to calm them to follow instruction than I was actually providing instruction. I also made the mistake of having some classes where i tried to introduce grappling by playing “king of the mat,” which resulted in the kids wanting to do nothing else.
After that first month, the total number of students dropped by half for a variety of normal reasons, including some who decided they didn’t like it, parents who thought tuition was too expensive (good luck finding another karate school that only charges $20/month) or children who had to be gently expulsed from the dojo due to refusal to follow instruction and such. It began to feel like a struggle and I quickly learned that teaching children was not my cup of tea. Within six months, I had approached Sensei and told him I would be stepping down and asked him who my replacement would be. There was none.
It was heartbreaking but I realized that teaching was beginning to take the joy out of karate for me. I didn’t want it to suddenly become something I no longer enjoyed, so despite having no replacement I made the difficult decision to close the doors of my dojo. Some of the slightly older children and the ones who showed proficiency were able to transition into the regular class and some of the parents were pretty miffed, but I closed my first dojo under a year of opening its doors.
Where am I going with this? Well, the lesson today is threefold. First, one needs to recognize that high rank does not make a teacher. It needs to be learned, inherent and wanted. Just because someone has reached the level of black belt (which isn’t the be all, end all BTW) it doesn’t automatically make them an adequate teacher. So the rank doesn’t necessarily come into it, to an extent.
The second point follows on the first, which is that you need to want it. If you start teaching others simply for the prestige of having them call you “Sensei,” then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Unlike classic Kung Fu movies where the aged master always retains a few key techniques for himself, true Senseis will teach their students everything they know in the hopes that the student will someday surpass the teacher.
Lastly, be clear on why you want to do it and know your niche. once again, teaching young children wasn’t my thing. I’m unfortunately too used to having structure and discipline in the people I teach to manage the chaos and lack of attention that accompanies most children. It takes a special level of patience. this is why I have the utmost respect for school teachers. When I think of the difficulties I often have trying to teach my 6-year old something important, I weep for the school staff that have to deal with him all week in tandem with a classroom full of his peers. I think they may be the true warriors… ☯️