Sunday, 28 September 2014

On being a teacher

I often repeat a mantra to my students that I learnt from Sensei Robert Mustard (yes, that would be Robert ‘the bastard’ Mustard) – “the hardest part about Aikido is getting to the dojo, once you’re there you just do it”.  Often my fellow instructors and I play the ‘whose attendance is worse game’.  This conversation often degenerates into disgruntled moaning, which is rarely useful to anyone.  This got me thinking, that perhaps my latest blog entry would be “on being a teacher”.

Being a teacher was never a natural choice for me.  I began my martial arts career when I was 6, studying Karate.  My Karate career lasted me until I was in my teens.  Having worked my way through university I returned to martial arts for no other reason than attempting to regain some fitness.  I first attempted to re-enter the world of Karate, but found that as an art it no longer interested me.  Next I joined a Tomiki club, but felt that Saturday training only was not enough for me to regain any semblance of fitness.  This led me to shop around, where I eventually found Shinkendo swordsmanship.  Twice a week started to feel like a work out, when behold I found a third class in Aikikai style Aikido.  Training 3 times a week certainly helped get me fit, but it is also where I first experienced the martial arts bug.

Sensei Obata describes the 5 levels of being a martial artist.  In simple terms they looks as follows:
  1. Fleeting interest - unlikely to stay more than a couple of lessons
  2. Casual interest – comes and goes from time to time
  3. Practitioner – takes training seriously, is dedicated
  4. Semi-professional – begins to understand the deeper ethos of training, begins to teach others
  5. Professional – teaches other, runs own dojo 

Curiously most people end up travelling this route through their martial arts career, if they stick with it that is.  Training 3 times a week pushed me into level 4.  Why?  That’s a question I ask myself often.  As an individual, if I do something I naturally want to do it well.  No one wants to go to an obscure university by choice.  Instead many would prefer the prestige of going to Oxford, if they are able to.  So it was with me.  I was training to get fit when I was bitten.  It was then that I figured to myself, if I’m going to do this I might as well do it properly.  This caused me to attend one of Sensei Obata’s seminars where it was clearly apparent to me that he was an expert.  The analogy above applied in my simple brain.  It was clear, Obata = Oxford, and I had to go there.  This led me to travel abroad and learn from him and the rest is history. 

Perhaps this story sounds like martial arts snobbery, and if it does then yes, I am guilty of this – unashamedly so.  Later I would return to normal life where I had to find a way to continue training.  I essentially had 3 options:

  1.  Join an existing club – though this could interfere with what I was learning from Sensei Obata
  2. Practice on my own – not an option for Aikido
  3. Start a dojo – to train with others

Starting a dojo also had 1 other benefit, being accountable to others forced me to commit myself to being  a teacher and training, and by extension developing in these arts.  The unspoken contract I would make with my students was for as much my benefit as theirs.  So here I am all these years later reminiscing on this unspoken contract and wondering what happened?  The answer is, I graduated from level 4 to 5 – that being, I began to understand that running a dojo and teaching others is not as simple as just training with likeminded individuals.

To teach on a basic level all you truly need to know is:
  • The techniques – waza
  • The order of sequences
  • Names of moves
  • Historical understanding
  • What principles they teach and
  • How they really work 
Most of us understand this and expect it from our teachers.  What is not considered are these:-          
  • Organisational skills (events/seminars)
  • Motivating others and people skills
  • Budgeting and insurance
  • Time management, specifically in relation to family/dojo/work life
  • Marketing and attracting new blood
  • Website management
  •  Promoting the martial art to others (cross sector seminars)
  •  Developing your “talent” to become your next instructors

 Every business needs to factor these points into their business plan, but hey, we’re martial artists – what do we know about business plans?  Using my martial arts career as an example, I began to run a dojo to selfishly help myself train and develop – I didn’t go through an MBA or management program which taught me these skills.  This I believe is a difficulty that all martial arts teachers face, and as an industry this is something I believe we should take better care to combat if we are to survive.

As Sensei Ken Robinson once said to me, running a dojo will kill your hobby – and how true he was.  Being a teacher requires bags and bags of energy.  If you have a bad day at work, lose a contract, get fired, run over your dog on the way home, get ill – none of these things matter.  You are required to turn up to your lesson with a smile and run your class like nothing has happened regardless of the day you’ve just had or the demands on your time.  In addition, as your hall fees are a contractual requirement all you can see are £ signs, which cause you to worry – will my attendees be enough to cover my hall hire fees?  All these things build up into a mental anxiety even before you start the class.  The pervading thoughts are:  my worries don’t matter, I have to teach my class as others are depending on me, and I hope enough people will attend to ensure that I don’t suffer a loss on the hall fees.

Gone are the days of care free I just want to train to develop myself mentalities.  Additionally your students are hungry to catch up to you, so you have to ensure that you continue to develop yourself so that they don’t better you.  Saying that, this is something that you long for!  Occasionally you remind yourself, oh yeah, I began to teach so that I could train and develop myself – except, because of my skill level I need others on a similar playing field to me or I can’t really train at the level I am at.  To facilitate this you want people to get to your skill level as quickly as possible so that the more difficult training can begin, which no doubt you’ll enjoy if you can get there.  In your mind you segregate the development blocks, this week we’ll do A, next B, week after C – and eventually we’ll get through the whole alphabet which means that with this student we can have fun in X many weeks.  The plan sounds so simple but then the fatal flaw appears.  Students don’t appear every week and so the lessons they experience begin to look like – B, F, H, R, S, Z – clearly not the correct order.

As if to compound the issue the business needs yet again re-arise as the rent becomes due.  Your students aren’t reciting a full A, B, C – as their attendance has been sporadic.  Your chance to train has for this month stalled and again your life put on a hold to cater for the needs of your class and so the cycle continues.  Months turn to years and after a while the initial aim and desire begins to seem like a distant memory.  And then, one day you look around and two things happen.  One of your students appears to have got it.  They know the alphabet, though you’re not sure how or when that happened.  In addition, they have graduated from level 3 to 4 and you feel like, wow – I did that.  And then another thing happens:  someone comes to you explaining they have seen what you’re doing and they want a piece of it.  In those moments it all feels worth it.

The duties of an instructor are often burdensome.  Our primary duty is to our students and when that student begins to get it the feeling of accomplishment is astounding.  I consider myself a little more encumbered than others as I have the duty to spread Shinkendo throughout the UK.  I own this duty to my teacher who took the time to invest his knowledge in me when I was just a snotty nosed kid.  When another sees what I am doing and remarks on the beauty of what they see, again it feels worth it.  Being a teacher is not easy.  Often I feel like I want to shake my students and say to them – “you’ve had a bad day?  So what?!”, or “you don’t have the time, what about me and my life?!”, or “you feel ill/lazy, I don’t have that luxury!”. 

I believe that these are all natural feelings that every human being is bound to experience – but then I am reminded by Sensei Obata, the training scale is 1 – 5.  Not everyone is at level 5, most sit at level 2.  Yes, many will never get it or move onto level 3.  Sometimes the cycle feels self-defeating and doomed to a Sisyphus like process, but then again this is what it means to be a teacher.  Occasionally others remark to me that they’ll never be as good as me, and it is at these times I remind them – the only thing that separates me from them is that I have more time on the mat.  My journey and my bug were caught the more time I spent in the dojo, which as Sensei Robert reminds us, getting to the dojo is the hardest part.

As one experienced teacher to others – this cycle is brutal.  It saps energy, tries your patients, and sometimes tests you to the point of breaking.  To go through this cycle and survive is what it means to be a teacher.  To all students, if you want to be as good as your teachers the key is mat time only.  Make your teachers sweat, push them to be better as often they’re there for the same reasons you are – to train and develop.  In Japanese this system is described as Sempai/Kohai.  Embrace it and above all else enjoy it.  Becoming a martial artist is a life long journey, one day you too will experience this cycle and become a teacher.

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