I have reached a surprising (well, surprising to me, at least) benchmark in my life in that, in the martial systems and tea ceremony that I focus upon in my spare time, I have achieved a dubious distinction of becoming one of the senior members. I’m what we impolitely call an “old fart.” Lest it seems an exalted, superior position, it comes with the heavy burden of shouldering more responsibilities.
As a senior, I am in that funny moment when I’m transitioning from sempai (older student) to sensei. In some systems, I’ve been teaching for a while, but I always would shy away from having the club members call me “sensei.” Now no longer. I need to become a sensei, not just for me, but for my students.
As one of my teachers said, “Even if you know only one kata, then you can teach that one kata. It’s not the number of kata you know. It’s the quality of your instruction that counts.” Assuming that mantle also gives me the position to develop, nurture and protect my charges, to certify them and to authenticate their training, raising them up to become the next generation that will pass on the system.
It’s not a responsibility I really wanted. I just wanted to train hard. But it comes with the territory of having your own little dojo, running it your own way, and having a direct connection to your headmaster.
And sooner or later, anyone who has trained for any length of time will end up teaching. Whether it’s as a fully certified instructor, or more informally as a sempai to newer students, you are always teaching others from the moment you first learn something for your own self. It’s inevitable in a social environment.
In my professional life, I also teach, primarily digital art and photography, which is experiencing a surge of interest among youngsters. My classes are always filled, thanks to the relevance the field has in this day and age of electronic media. Prior to teaching college, I taught for some ten years at a high school, so I’ve had over 20-odd years’ worth of experience teaching.
One of the things I’ve learned is that formal teacher training is a real plus in your kit of tools, but it only prepares you for half of the reality of running a classroom or dojo. Taking courses in education gave me the theoretical framework of education philosophy, the technical essentials of lesson, course and program preparations, and the psychology of teaching and learning. But how you perform “on the ground” as sempai or sensei really depends on how you can bring out your unique positive social traits to the fore.
I’m not by choice a naturally gregarious person. As my wife observed, unlike her, I could be pretty satisfied just working in the yard, walking our dog and reading, and I seem to get enough socialization just with her and a small group of friends. So getting up in front of a classroom or in the dojo was a stretch for a reclusive guy like me. But I’ve learned to “put out,” to a point where teaching has become somewhat enjoyable.
And so, as an oldish codger, here’s my advice: the sooner some of you realize that part of your responsibility for being in a ryu is passing it on to the next generation, the better. It’s not only the role of the sensei. The sensei needs your help, if you’re a sempai. If you abrogate it and keep pushing that responsibility away, you’re forcing the teacher to shoulder all the burden, and you infantilize yourself. That’s not how real teaching and learning occurs. In a free-wheeling classroom environment (watch kindergarteners or elementary school kids), the teacher is the one-to-many center of knowledge who passes out information and controls the classroom, but there is ample room and time for kids to teach other kids. This is called peer-to-peer or collaborative learning. To shirk this and shrug, “I dunno, I’m not the sensei,” is false humility. You’re not the sensei, yes. But you may know something more than the guys who are newer than you. So you help them, like an older brother or sister helps their sibling figure out a math problem. You’re not the teacher, but you can help.
That’s not to say you lord it over your kohai (younger student) like a mini-dictator. I’ve seen too many blue and brown belts in a karate or aikido class take on airs of superiority well above their station. They’re not trying to help. They’re trying to assert their tiny little bit of snobbery because that’s all the status they think they have in their pathetic lives.
I remember donning a white belt even though I had four years’ worth of aikido training and over ten years of competitive judo (plus some karatedo), becoming one of the main uke for my sensei, when I entered a new aikido dojo. I paired up with a young, smug blue belt who needed a shave and a bath, and as I tried to refine my shiho-nage, he kept poking me in the armpit to suggest that I was open for a counter. I was trying to move slowly to refine my movement, but he kept smirking smugly and poked me as we did it to each other, me slowly trying to take apart the kata and he doing it as fast and as strong as he could to impress and intimidate me. I thought, “This guy shouldn’t be doing it this fast to a white belt. He’s not that good, and he could hurt somebody who was really a newbie.” I could handle it. But he wasn’t trying to help me by working with me. He was just immersed in his own ego gratification.
Finally, I thought I got the movement just right, and I had about enough of his poking me in the armpit, so I threw him at full speed, disbalancing him and then slamming him and bouncing him on the floor. He had his fingers all set to poke me again, but at that exact moment, my disbalancing threw him off, and then before he could recover, I had slammed him to the mats. The bulging-eyed look of fear and surprise in his eyes was priceless. He bowed out and subsequently avoided training with me for the rest of my stay at that dojo.
On the other hand, I’ve been in some really well-oiled dojo where senior students were incredibly helpful without any hint of smugness. They would be patient with me, pointing out problems, helping me to fix them, reworking my footwork. Coupled with the sensei’s direct instructions, progress in a dojo like that would always be rapid and enjoyable.
So everyone teaches, even students, in a smoothly functioning dojo or classroom. But there’s a difference between helping to teach and feeding your own ego.
HOW do you teach? Ah, there’s the rub. There are as many ways to teach as there are personalities. Given the basic format of a ryu, or the expected content of a class, how you present the material is a matter of the teacher’s personality, experiences, and also how much the teacher relies on his own teachers’ examples.
Recently, a question arose in a koryu discussion group about how different dojo teach koryu in different ways, as if, perhaps, there was only only a couple of “right” ways. I’ve been bumming around enough dojo long enough to realize that there are many, many ways, and many of them can be construed as “traditional.”
Setting aside the kinds of teaching that are just plain bad (and you definitely know when you have an awful teacher, just as college students know when they have an instructor who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t know how to teach), there are many ways a sensei can structure a class. The structure will also depend on the kind of students he encounters, the number of students in the class, and the a priori technical abilities the student brings to the class. In a small group, you don’t have to have such regimentation in training. You work more one-on-one on particular strengths and weaknesses, going at the individuals’ own speed. In a very large group, you have to move the entire group along en masse or learning would be more chaotic. The happy spot for midsize groups is somewhere in between one-on-one and large-group production-line training.
In terms of different teaching styles, I had one teacher in iai who would observe your kata and then simply say, “That’s wrong. Do it again. And keep doing it again until you get it right,” and then he would walk away. That’s about all the instruction he would usually give, leaving it up to his sempai to teach you what, in fact, you did wrong. He was gruff and spoke very little, but he was also one of the great perfectionists among the teachers I knew, and my jai improved greatly under him and his capable sempai. I had another teacher in iai who was the exact opposite. He would elaborate on a new kata, show me the technique several times, correct me, and explain any esoteric meaning that might be attached to the kata. He would linger to watch me long enough to say, “Well, you got it more or less, but you need to do this, and that…” and then he would wander off to help another student. The two teachers taught on different nights. Together, they improved my iai incredibly fast. So there’s no right or wrong way in terms of these approaches. They both seemed to work, especially in tandem.
For the most part, however, the modern shinbudo and older koryu teachers I stuck with usually had similar attributes. They were superlative examples, technically. They could demonstrate, discuss and break down the kata. So they could show by example and also explain verbally. They could also observe and correct my own movements to get my technique right. How they structured their classes, exercises and led kata training, however, was all over the map.
The daunting task, therefore, of a teacher is to first be a good example for your students. That is why my koryu teachers, when I told them I was returning to Hawaii, encouraged me to teach. Both my iai and jujutsu sensei said, “You can’t improve much on your own. You need to have people around you. And if you teach, even if you think you don’t know much, you will be forced to think about the kata more deeply in order to truly grasp the waza, and so by teaching, you are furthering your own learning.”
I am reflecting on this aspect of training, too, because I just finished the New Year’s celebrations for my tea ceremony group. We held a large chakai (tea gathering). As usual, nobody wanted to be “first guest” at the event because that’s the highest position of honor for the guests. It goes to the person with the highest status, and the first guest is responsible for representing all the other guests assembled in the tatami mat tea room. So we spent the usual few minutes trying to sit in places other than the exalted first position, close to the host. Finally one of the tea sensei in the preparation room came out and said, “Wayne, YOU are going to sit there,” because they needed to get the chakai started. All this “enryo” (holding back out of humility) was taking too damn long.
I was, in fact, the chief operations officer for the group, so that position did hold some amount of relevant prestige and weight, but I also realized that more and more of us middle-agers have to step up to the plate. The second guest sitting next to me was retired, in her mid-80s. The other ladies after her were largely in their 70s and 80s. There was a scattering of younger teens and middle aged folk, but not enough. If we more seasoned but still relatively “young” folk always keep holding ourselves back, we run the risk of opening a huge gap between our generation and our teachers. Our sensei in tea (and in koryu) are aging before our eyes. They need help. They need the younger people to step up to the plate, not just as main guests and taking charge of hosting, but also as teachers and leaders.
So folk of my generation and younger, those of us Baby Boomers and the tail-enders, we’re seeing our teachers hitting their twilight years. We’re being encouraged (or not) to teach more, to run things more. Maybe some sensei are still afraid of letting go. They’re like parents who are having a hard time letting their children go off to college. It’s our responsibility to at least help them with things that they do let go of, because pretty soon they’re going to be gone, not in a matter of decades, but in a few years. Or even, God forbid, months. And we ourselves are in transition, heading into our own autumn years. As I look over the broad scope of decades of training in tea and koryu, I see that we’re just a link in a long chain, and even as we have to assume responsibilities, we also need to push some of the responsibilities down the line, to younger folk. To teach them not just how to train, but how to teach, because we’re not getting any younger, either.
A good teacher, therefore, especially in mid-career, is not just teaching students to be students. He/she is teaching students to become their own teachers, their own fountain of knowledge. To forever make a student dependent on you, to hold a student back, is to forever infantilize the student. It only shows the insecurity of a teacher to do so. And a student who only wishes to be spoon-fed everything, even after years of training, needs to grow up, to stumble more on his own, to pick himself up and try again, as we did, and as our own sensei did years before us.