One of my instructors, Ann-Marie Heilman, has a rather intense day job. She has to guide children with autism and other special needs in a classroom environment. As you might suspect, her job entails slower lessons, more attention per student, and emotional understanding. But it also comes with random bouts of violence and sporadic launching of bodily fluids.
The real challenge of this job is the bureaucratic freeze placed on teachers and administrators regarding what they can do to defend themselves and control the children. Teachers must essentially cover-up and take beatings handed to them (don’t underestimate the angry violence 11-13 year olds can dish out). Luckily Mrs. H has years of training to guide her in protecting herself while caring for the children and keeping them safe. Other teachers are not so lucky and have been choked, clawed, and hit with blunt objects to the point of unconsciousness.
I have a few other dojo-mates who are teachers in the public school system. Luckily for them things aren’t often as severe as Mrs. H’s encounters, but they face their own special obstacles.
In public school, children are forced to attend. This can create an innate resistance which becomes even more acute when things get difficult or boring.
Teachers, therefore, are in an interesting position where they must rely on the educational infrastructure combined with personal creativity. They must figure out ways to engage students, even during times of resistance. Unfortunately, many teachers are too lazy or fearful for their job to chance unique ideas. Even if they do try something special, the educational institution frequently squashes that which doesn’t fit neatly into the ‘bigger picture’. Furthermore, too many parents are ready to hand off complete responsibility for their children to teachers, but then complain about anything that doesn’t fit their sensibilities. The parents won’t spend the energy to understand the teachers motives, allowing easy ignorance to make their choices for them.
Fear and laziness are a very real and potent combination in this world.
Tools of the Sensei
Different from both of the roles discussed above is that of the martial arts teacher. The “Sensei” is a unique figure in modern culture, as he/she is not a school teacher, nor a coach, nor a guidance counselor. The Sensei is somewhere different, with an intriguing mixture of tools and responsibilities.
- One of the most powerful assets of the Sensei is a student’s commitment. Martial arts are voluntary, which means there is a higher probability for emotional investment on the part of the student. Therefore, the Sensei needn’t fight the constant uphill struggle presented to public school teachers. Unfortunately, this can also breed laziness in an instructor. When the burden of creativity isn’t forced it can be forgotten, to the great detriment of the students.
- The Sensei possesses the ability to ‘expunge’ any student or parent who is belligerent or intolerant beyond repair, unlike school teachers. If a parent refuses to allow his/her child to bow because he/she is too lazy to understand the true meaning of a bow, then that parent can take their business elsewhere.
- Dojo ownership has the added concern of business. Just as public school teachers have to worry about ‘teaching to the test’ in order to appease the higher-ups, so are Sensei compelled to give a ‘product’ as desired by the paying clientele, be it in the form of ranks, achievements, quantity of material, etc etc. All too often Sensei find themselves in moral conundrums where they are being pressured to offer what will sell vs what they believe to be true art. While it is possible to reconcile the two through creativity and hard work, instructors are often too lazy or scared to engage in such a task (opting instead for easier and safer blueprints of martial business).
- A martial arts instructor has the right to make physical contact with students, as it is inherent in the curriculum of the place. This can be highly beneficial as an out-of-control student can be more easily, and even more gently handled with physical restraint. Unfortunately this same right can manifest itself in very negative ways when instructors choose to abuse students or enforce ego superiority.
- Senseiship comes stock loaded with a bit of mystique and trust. Due to the cultural heritage of the position, students and parents are more inclined to take a Sensei’s word and suspend disagreement. While this can be a great benefit, if misused the Sensei will likely be the recipient of a barrage of disparaging verbal attacks and public defamation.
The added freedom of Senseiship brings with it added potential for abuse.
Becoming a good educator requires an understanding of the framework you operate under as well as an intense desire to do the best you can for the charges under you. If you find yourself in the role of Sensei or educator, what tools do you have at your disposal? What limitations? What’s holding you back from doing an even better job?
As a martial arts instructor and writer I spend a lot of time talking about the outstanding benefits of training. The self confidence, comradery, self defense skills, culture, etc etc. However I also feel that it’s my responsibility to make people aware of the more unpleasant side of the martial arts world; the manifestations that come with individuals who achieve positions of power and influence when they have no right attaining them.
Becoming a martial arts instructor is as easy as being able to lie. There is no national governing board that separates the real teachers from the phonies, and even if a given instructor has great skill there is no saying he/she is mentally and emotionally stable enough to handle the authority that comes with the position.
Insidious instructors often have an impulse to use their authority for sexual gains. In fact, grooming and manipulating students is part of the draw.
The movie “Foot Fist Way” is a comedy, but actually strikes a few martial arts problems right on the head. This is one of those instances. Check out the following clip:
You probably found that a little bit cringe worthy, which is good. Unfortunately there is very little comedic exaggeration in that clip.
Today I did a quick Google search for “karate instructor arrested”, just to see what kind of results came up. In this month of August, the top 8 results were as follows:
Orange County youth soccer and karate coach charged with molesting boys – A 29-year-old soccer and karate coach charged with molesting two 8-year-old boys is expected to be charged with molesting three other boys when he is arraigned next month.
Waco-Area Karate Instructor Freed: Time’s Up On Sexual Assault Charge – Danny Ray Passmore, a former Waco area karate instructor who was arrested May 22 on a charge of aggravated sexual assault, was released Thursday from McLennan County Jail after the state failed to secure an indictment within the required 90 days.
Martial arts instructor released, then arrested on new charges – Shortly after being released on bail on Wednesday, a Fulton martial arts instructor charged with criminal sex acts with a child was arrested on new charges relating to a second victim.
Polk officials arrest seven Tampa Bay men in child sex sting – Joshua Adam Hunt, 19, of 7402 Pierce Harwell Road, Plant City, is accused of going to Polk County to have sex with a woman in the presence of children. Hunt told detectives he worked as an assistant karate instructor for people ages 8 to 20 at the Planteen Recreation Center at 301 Dort St. in Plant City.
Chairman of county ethics panel arrested in sex assault – Chavez has taught karate and is a certified instructor in non violent crisis intervention and has completed coursework with the Texas Institute for Public Problem Solving.
Mr Ehrlich plans to market a unique youth development programme in East London – The former karate instructor was found guilty by the East London Regional Court in 2003 of 14 counts of indecent assault on boys.
OC karate instructor sentenced for indecent exposure – He pulled down his jogging pants and started to masturbate as a woman holding her baby walked by, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Bail Reduced For Karate Coach Accused Of Molestation – A judge Monday reduced bail from $1 million to $800,000 for a karate instructor accused of repeatedly molesting a 13-year-old boy who took classes from him.
I was tempted to dig a little deeper, but I think this gets the point across. We are looking at results from one generic Google search for one month, from students who actually dared to speak up. A small amount of research into sexual exploitation cases will show that reported incidences are a mere fraction of actual cases.
My goal here isn’t to scare parents and students away from training, or suggest that they need to blow a safety whistle every time an instructor touches them. Far from it. Instead my desire is to see parents become better educated about the role of martial arts instructors, and the possibility of encountering a bad person in an influential position.
One common symptom that allows these teachers to continuously get away with criminal behavior is the shield of well-wishers they put up around themselves. They spend lots of time becoming “a good role model” and “part of the community” in the eyes of hundreds of casual on-lookers. It creates an environment of comfort where no one would possibly suspect dangerous behavior. Anyone who begins to sense trouble or tension is quickly shuffled away.
The “Sensei” is an interesting position in that it has built-in respect and influence. Individuals who would normally not accept abuse or manipulation allow it to happen because they aren’t sure of the “rules of the dojo”, and what should be allowed. They don’t want to seem disrespectful or out of line. Manipulative instructors know that and use it whenever possible.
Some Simple Advice
The dojo or dojang can seem like a whole different world, and in some ways it is. However, that doesn’t mean common sense and instincts should be left at the door. Parents should get in the habit of spending time with their children at the dojo and not rely on it as a day care. If they can’t be in attendance, they could instead develop a rotating system with other parents to ensure someone is monitoring things at all times. Children should not be handed off for trips or excursions without some sort of adult supervision.
Older students (teen and up) should realize that they are in no way obligated to be a confidante of the instructor, or connect with them in any way deeper than a teacher and student. There is no mandate to discuss relationships, love life, or anything of that nature. Your instincts will tell you when physical contact is normal training and when it is not.
Remember – there are lots of fantastic teachers out there who really want to do the right thing and help in your development as an artist. There is no reason to stay in a bad situation or keep quiet about inappropriate behavior.
The town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado is known for its outstanding natural hot springs. None are more famous than the Hot Spring Pool nestled in the town proper.
This immense swimming area is filled naturally with mineral water from beneath the Earth and is built like an Olympic swimming pool. One end features diving boards, swimming lanes, and water slides. The other provides a tranquil wading pool lined with natural rock benches.
My girlfriend Lauren and I realized that we couldn’t miss the chance to attend this hot spring, and were extremely excited at the prospect of a “night swim”. As we returned to town after a day of hiking, we decided to grab our suits and trek down.
As amazing as the scenery around the hot spring was during the day, the setting evening sun was even more stunning. As night fell, lights came on all over the facility and created a relaxing and soothing atmosphere.
Lauren and I settled onto a rock bench between an older couple and two young girls between the ages of 16-18. As the benches were long and public in nature, everyone simply shared the space together.
At first Lauren and I were occupied by the unusually hot water and the slight sulfur smell around us. It was a shock to the senses and warranted quite a bit of remarking. Eventually though we acclimated and began a quiet, restful dip.
As our conversation dwindled we couldn’t help but see and overhear what was going on right next to us. The two young girls were conversing with a slightly pudgy man of middle age. He was unassuming looking and quick with a smile.
The man chatted with the girls for awhile and asked questions about their trip to Glenwood.
What shocked us as we sat there was not that a middle age man would try to chat up young girls (that’s all too common), but the careless answers which the girls gave.
When asked if they had family in Glenwood one girl responded: “Ohh no I have some family back home. They actually don’t even know I’m out here. I basically do whatever I want.”
When asked if they were there with anyone they responded: “No it’s just us. We’re out traveling and having a good time.”
When asked if they had seen the whole town yet one girl responded: “Ohh no we’ll probably do some more exploring tonight and tomorrow.”
If you were to create a checklist of “things young girls should not do or say”, these two would have accomplished most of the items on that list. Whether or not the middle aged man was actually a predator, the girls gave him all the information he would have needed to know that they were alone, unaccounted for, and easily manipulated.
One would think that in today’s society of easily accessible news and increased awareness of rape and stalking cases that young women would be on high alert for this kind of behavior. However that assumption would be dead wrong.
With youth and adventure comes a sense of invincibility, and young girls (especially entitled and potentially sheltered ones) never get the dose of reality that it takes to actively avoid potentially risky situations.
As martial arts instructors it is not our role to give boy advice or dating tips, but it is our role to improve situational awareness and the ability to place oneself in a defensible position. This situation was a stark reminder to me of yet another way martial arts training can help young individuals who walk through the door. I hope those girls turn out ok, and I hope the young women at all of our dojos take a note here of what not to do!