Question: How to be a Good Martial Arts Teacher?

Remember 5 questions in 5 days? That seemed to go over well so I figured I would take some more questions.

This one is a doozy: “How does one learn to become a good teacher? Can lower ranking students teach?”

When considering this question I quickly realized that I couldn’t create a prescription for what makes a good teacher. There are far too many varied approaches that can work given the right personality and skillset. Nevertheless, I think I distilled some ideas that can help in recognizing the path of a “sensei” in the classical sense (that is to say, what a sensei was meant to be and what they can be in the modern world). Please enjoy:

I know this video is pretty extensive, so here is a breakdown of some of the main bullet points I touched upon for your notes and reference:

What a Good Teacher Isn’t

A Coach

  • A coach is responsible for the physical performance and readiness of his athletes.
  • Some modern instructors do fit that description, especially in the realm of MMA athletes and tournament competitors (like tkd olympics).
  • The classical sensei’s subject matter is far more pressing. They are concerned with their students taking other human life in their hands. They have to impart the mental and character skillset to recognize the repercussions of damaging a life, not just on the targeted person, but on their family, on the student, on the student’s family, and in a broader sense, deciding what kind of societal impact the decision process will have (will this individual go on to hurt others?).
  • There is also inherent right and wrong matters that a sensei must address. Whenever we see a martial artist doing something disgraceful, we suggest that his/her sensei should have helped him/her in controlling their abilities. In old times, every action of a student reflected upon the sensei significantly, so there was a deeper connection than mere coaching.

A Life Guru

  • Being a sensei does not grant someone automatic license to give advice on all life matters.
  • Most sensei are not professional trained psychologists, therapists, financial experts, etc. Therefore they are not qualified to give relationship advice, financial advice, etc etc.
  • In classical times, the sensei or sifu was a much more integrated part of village life. Their training often made them not just the most deadly individual, but also the best trained in medicine, herbs, physiology, and more general education like literacy, government policy, etc etc. These sensei were highly integrated into a town’s ecosystem. Sometimes farmers would ask advice for when to plant crops and parents would seek out help for naming their children (so as to avoid bad luck).
  • That is no longer the case for modern sensei. In our connected society we have real professionals that do all these other things, and modern sensei are not trained to be village counselors.

A Good Teacher…

  • finds the proper balance between coach and guru.
  • will focus on passing on the curriculum as it was handed down to them, preserving it as best as possible for the students to explore. They’ll resist the ego stroke of flavoring everything with their own flair.
  • will understand how to minimize the politics of rank and ego.
  • will find the balance between physical technique, mental tuning, and character development. Too much of one will begin to sacrifice the others.
  • will understand when to guide students strictly and when to allow them space to explore on their own.
  • will do their best to help their students surpass them, giving them tools when they are ready and without ego-based restrictions.
  • will recognize the difference between a student who is ready for higher learning, and one who has yet to develop the right character.

To learn how to become a good teacher, you need to pinpoint those unique aspects of instructors you’ve met and absorb them. You need to find ways to embody those things that a teacher should be and avoid those things a teacher shouldn’t be. That’s why lower rank students can help teach. They can assist higher ranks or even take classes once in awhile. But it takes many years of analyzing their instructor and understanding what makes him/her so special in order to integrate that into themselves, and be able to use it to benefit students.