106. Becoming Sensei

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.


13 thoughts on “106. Becoming Sensei

  1. Your suggestions on teaching apply not only to the martial arts and chado, but to other disciplines in education as well. I’ve tried to imbibe my own students in English composition with the sense that writing was a life skill, something they should continue to practice after they graduated. I don’t know if any of them became writers, but a few went on to become teachers themselves, and I’m proud of them. Unfortunately, I encounter teachers who are better at crushing their students’ spirits than passing on their knowledge. When I run into students who seem to think they can’t learn, I know a good portion of my work with them will involve trying to restore their belief that they are in fact writers.

    In the same way, my sensei has taught me that I can be a karate-ka. In the beginning, I was so hopeless as a white belt I gave myself a black eye while practicing a kata. (Yes, really.) Now, as a middle-aged beginner, I feel far more capable of executing the basic moves, or perhaps, I’m better at learning from my mistakes. If I ever get to a level where I can help and teach other karate students, I’ll be eager to do so, out of gratitude to my sensei.

  2. Well written always. Wayne you have touched on several areas and methodologies concerning the art of teaching. You give your readers opulent budo decadence to indulge in.

    As I indulged in your blog, I starting to see something I didn’t before. I am sure you are aware of the old adage, those who can’t, teach. Yes, a bit derogatory to the individual and not to the noble art, but truthful for some. Is that what martial arts is for now. Martial arts decadence has come to simply a matter of a teaching program?

    I am reading the blog, I think the world has changed and so has budo. Both Koryu and Gendai seem to have lost their martial spirit which has been replaced by the goal to teach. I am thinking the change has eroded the quality of martial arts.

  3. Intriguing post! It’s funny practicing in traditional Japanese arts because the image of a sensei is of a very old very skilled person … which is often true … but what is also true in Japan is the early delegation of a teaching position. I think a lot of teachers are chosen at a time much earlier than they expect, even at a time where they don’t believe they can be a sufficient teacher, but that’s completely natural isn’t it? How can you be a good teacher without ever being one? A lot of people seem to want to be teachers so bad that that’s all they prepare for, but they will also discard the title until they “feel” like they can do it properly. In Japan you get slapped with a teacher role earlier than you like, and you probably suck at it first, but you do your best and eventually you will become the great teacher you can.

    Jon’s question seems directed at the author, and so only the author can best reply, but I have to say I disagree with the idea that the martial sprit has been replaced by the goal to teach. This is a HUGE general question requiring libraries to dissect, but briefly … I would agree martial arts have lost or changed the martial aspect, naturally because most people don’t use them to kill or control others physically in combat situations like they were originally intended. Do you mean they should be to retain their originality? If that’s the “martial core” of martial arts, then I’d say we don’t need it. Although I like the comment that the author wrote that we should accept and think about our roles as teachers … we don’t need that either. We practice these arts however way we like, for those that may be teaching, for others it may be honing skill, for others it may be dominating others. It is what it is to whoever is practicing, anything further is unecessarily limiting I think. Teaching is inherently part of the deal of martial arts, but it doesn’t have to be.

    Super difficult question to answer, I suppose … the mark of a good question.

    Thanks for the great inspiration through words.

  4. I am glad my question was addressed openly, and I enjoy reading the responses.

    Mr. Chan, thank you for addressing my question, enjoyed your insightful opinion.

    1. Mr. Chan, I was previously sounding, unintentionally, trite using “opinion.” I want to sound more sincere with your comment by saying it was insightful, well thought out, and enjoyable.

      1. How sensitive words can be! Perhaps budoka are guilty of looking at things too closely, but then I’d say we’d be fools not to see every detail. An opinion is all I can really give anyway. Looking forward to future posts.

  5. Very well presented. I’ve found that you have to accept the role of Sifu / Sensei as a tool to transmit the art properly. If you have the dubious honor of being the instructor and you don’t embrace that role, there is a friction that will prevent the fullest transmission of the skills in question. The shoe fits the other foot as well; students who refrain from embracing at least a certain level of the traditional teacher / student relationship keep themselves closed off.
    I believe that this mental obstacle has some kind of effect on the CNS that prevents “feeding” the student the proper feel. They won’t get it.

  6. Very well presented. I’ve found it necessary to embrace the role of Sifu, not out of ego, but merely as a tool to properly transmit the art.

  7. In our dojo we seem to have an opposite situation where, due to his job in the military, our sensei often leaves for weeks or months. This puts us, the sempai’s, in the role of teaching far more often than normal. During the past two or so years, we (28 and 20 years old only) have been teaching more than our main sensei.
    While we sure can bring many things on the table and learned quickly how to teach,we still are in our physical prime and could benefit from training with more intensity or trying other styles. Yet we force ourselves to teach the other students because, if we didn’t, it would to reduce our (already low) amount of classes. I would like to go and get more experience in judo and try some competition for example, but I would be afraid to come back to a smaller group of people, or even nobody left at all.
    The problem, in our case, seems to be that only young people (12-30) and old people (50+) have time to train, which leaves a big generation gap. This has become a cycle because advanced student in their 20’s don’t have a teacher and end up progressing much more slowly, so they often give up thinking there’s nothing left to learn… which only further reduce the amount of potential teachers. That is a shame but I don’t know how to fix it myself.

      1. I’m not a sempai (yet: I just don’t have enough time to practice right now), but I do have a background in managing educational institutions. The sensei of your dojo may be leaving its operations to the sempai for honorable reasons, but it’s not a good sign when the sempai are feeling ‘spread thin’ and are unable to expand their own skills with additional training and education. Samuel and his colleagues really need to flag down their sensei now and let him know how they feel. No, you don’t want the dojo to lose students or even shut down because the sensei is unavailable to teach: but it is the sensei’s dojo, and he should be taking greater responsibility for the training of his students. One sempai, no matter how qualified, should not be taking the burden on by him/herself. I can see this situation leading to burnout on the part of the sempai and loss of students from them feeling they are not getting the best effort from their instructors. Can your sensei not hire/ask a colleague, another sensei who is semi-retired, for instance, to fill in as the main teacher?

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