I was communicating with one of my readers and fellow bloggers yesterday (you know who you are) when I was reminded of my old dojo. Not “my old dojo” as in, where I used to train. No, I mean “my old dojo” as in, where I used to TEACH. That’s right, most of you know I practice karate by virtue of mentioning it in almost every post (did y’all know I practice karate?). But many of you may not have known that for a short time, I actually had my own dojo open. Some may assume that having practiced martial arts for over three decades, it would only make sense that I had a school open. But the reality is that teaching is a very particular beast and one that not every practitioner undertakes. In fact, I’ve known some fellow black belts who have been studying as long or longer than I have and have never taught. It happens.
At some point, a couple of years before I joined the Force, Sensei received an influx of requests for children to join the club. Although we accepted anyone who wished to learn, our teachings were a bit strict and rough for some younger children and Sensei thought that opening a second, separate dojo would be a good idea. With three current black belts (besides Sensei) currently training in the main dojo, it was agreed that I would undertake the project and take in these new students. I would come to understand years later that it might have been more productive to have a younger practitioner attend to the kids’ dojo, since they would “potentially” be more in tune with their students needs. But I was being offered a chance to open my own dojo and I leapt at the chance.
I was pretty excited to get to the dojo that night and even more excited to see how many students I would have coming in the door. More than a dozen children of varying ages were waiting for me with their parents nearby. It was a pretty slow first night, considering I had to cover off the basics and discuss dojo etiquette, as well as get all the kids registered through their parents and get certain forms filed out, etc… I still felt it went well and I was looking forward to the next class. Honestly, that first week flew by without too much difficulty and I thought I had found a niche in the form of teaching these young students. I would discover soon after that I was wrong…
You see, there’s a HUGE difference between the concept of teaching adults and teaching children. I’ve taught adults a LOT in my three decades of karate. For the most part, when an adult walks into a dojo they’re choosing to be there. I mean, I suppose it COULD happen that an adult would join karate because they’re being told to do so but I’ve never seen it. One can also expect that they’ll join for a number fo specific reasons relating to their health, weight-loss, wanting to learn a new skill or defend themselves. With children, they usually fall under two categories: they asked to be join or they are being MADE to be there by their parents. The unfortunate reality is that the majority fall under the latter category.
Another issue that I’ve noticed is that when you get an adult who joins and wants to learn, they’ll usually do everything and anything that’s required of them, even if they consider it boring or stale. Children don’t jive with that concept. In fact, for the majority of kids the curriculum needs to be kept dynamic and exciting. It needs to be fun or their eyes will start glazing over and you’ll “lose the crowd.” This is especially true of those kids whose parents have forced them to join and didn’t want to be there in the first place. It wasn’t my cup of tea but I could have learned and adjusted to this concept, given enough time. It turned out to be the parents who did me in…
After the dojo had been open for a period of time, some of my students were ready to start grading for their yellow stripes. For any non-practitioners out there, my style carries a yellow belt but for most students, the yellow belt is reserved for children and young practitioners who need room on their belt for growth over a number fo years more than their adult counterparts. Long story short, since I had never issued grading before, this was done under the supervision of my Sensei. Unlike many other schools out there, our students don’t have the luxury of testing simply by virtue of the amount of time they’ve been with the dojo. It needs to be a combination of how long you’ve been training, attendance and actual proficiency in the required techniques.
By virtue of this, not all of my newly-acquired white belts were tested for their first yellow stripe that night. While Sensei assisted in grading the students, I kept the ones who wouldn’t be testing busy. I know had a ranking system within my dojo, which should have been a good thing. Seniority can be an important aspect of karate, especially when taught in the Western world. This is because it gives the other students someone to lean on and aspire to besides the Sensei. I thought things were going significantly well for the next couple of weeks despite the fact that I certainly wasn’t made for “having fun” in the dojo. I had fun training, learning karate was fun in and of itself, but playing games and having a loud, boisterous class was weighing on me as it didn’t fit into the neat, compartmentalized image of karate that I had developed in my head.
Then, a cauldron of resentment and jealousy began to rear its ugly head as the parents of a few select students caught me before the start of class to discuss why their child hadn’t received a yellow stripe like many of the others had. I made the mistake of indicating that it was because they hadn’t been tested, which I thought would explain things. Much like a doctor who will explain something medical with the plain idea that it would explain everything, I assumed that provided an adequate answer. Instead, it added fuel to the fire in the form that the parents demanded to know WHY their children hadn’t been tested. Letting them know that they hadn’t yet acquired the level of skill required to grade for their stripe did nothing to assuage their concerns.
Within the next couple of weeks, I had a number of parents basically threaten to remove their child from the dojo if I didn’t give them a yellow stripe. This is actually a phenomenon that happens among child and adult practitioners. Some adults are pretty good at becoming petty and failing to realize that just because one has been training as long as a counterpart, it doesn’t mean you’re ENTITLED to the same belt. I had always made a silent promise to myself that a student would never receive a grading unless they’d earned it. I’m proud to say I’ve kept that promise, but it came at a cost. Once I explained that a student would not be tested for any grading until they had developed skill that would justify the rank, I began losing students. Within the next calendar month, the number of students I held and their dwindling attendance became almost non-existent.
Once it became abundantly clear that it was beginning to cost me more to run the dojo than I was making, I had to make the difficult decision to close my doors. Sensei was understandably not happy with this, but I didn’t feel I could bring myself to compromise my values and the value of the art I practiced JUST to satisfy the parents belief that “I’m paying, so you work for me,” or the jealousy their children may have felt at seeing their peers receive rank where they didn’t. I think it speaks to an ever-increasing concept of self-entitlement that the world has been developing for decades. In traditional karate, there are no participation trophies. You don’t get rewarded JUST for showing up. You want the belt, you gotta do the work.
Ultimately, I closed the doors of my dojo and we were able to absorb some of the kids into the main dojo (the ones who wanted to stick it out to learn and grow). Back then, I had often juggled with whether it was a good experience or a bad one, a good choice or a terrible one. The decision I finally came to was that there really aren’t any BAD experiences; it’s all in how we interpret them and what we learn from them. But I’ve come to learn that this is the direction the world has taken. People feel they’re entitled as opposed to working towards earning. And although I’ll be the first to admit that you gotta show up, you also gotta do the work. I would never attempt or continue to teach someone otherwise.
I never opened another dojo, after that. It was a combination of how the first one had gone down, mixed with the fact that once I joined the Force, I was transferring every few years, which I felt would be unfair to any practitioner who walked into my dojo. How bad would it suck to have someone commit themselves to my style, only to have me say, “Sorry, guys. Duty calls and I’m moving away…” only a few years into their training? That wouldn’t be fair to someone who genuinely wants to learn a style. But it also serves an important lesson to anyone looking to get into karate. If you walk into a dojo and the focus is money and EVERYBODY grades and passes when there’s testing, it may not be the school for you. I prefer to have closed my dojo than teach a watered-down version of my art to accommodate the ones who feel entitled. This is how an art remains true and pure. Food for thought… ☯️