Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Delicate Balance

Fellow martial artist and blogger Michele posted a question in her "Just a Thought" blog a few days ago about black belts teaching. Should it be required? Is there a responsibility to "give back" to help keep the art alive? What is it about becoming a yundansha (black belt) that makes a karate student magically eligible to teach?

The school I came through the ranks in has no strict rules about teaching. In fact, many of us had led class stretching/warmup/kihon more than a few times by the time we'd become second- or first-kyu brown belts. There's no real instruction on how to lead the class though; your sensei just calls your name and asks you to start the warmup or demonstrate X technique. Let's just say we learned fast that there's a world of difference between being told what to do/how to do it and telling everyone else the same.

Three of us tested for shodan this past May and within a few weeks, we were all leading groups of under belts through kata, self-defense and sparring techniques. Although I love teaching and enjoy helping other karateka, what I found was that once the teaching started, the learning sorta stopped. But if black belt is really the beginning of training, how do you continue on a path that has become a bit obscured by the lessons you now give instead of the ones you get? Understand, I personally have no problems with giving back, but learning more in order to have more to give would be a great, too. Unfortunately, I had to go elsewhere to learn more - which is how I ended up with Sensei S since June.

Think about the instruction you've gotten and it isn't hard to see that some instructors are simply better than others. Just because you know a thing does not necessarily mean you can effectively explain how or why that thing is to others. Sensei S and I had a conversation about why this is the case. He's a very thorough instructor and has a knack for explaining things in logical, practical ways. When I asked him how he got to be such an instructor, he said he was fortunate enough to have instructors who taught him how to teach. Hmmmm...

So, an open letter to my other senseis would probably read like this:

Onegaishiamasu - please teach me - how to teach before you toss me into the lion's den to fend for myself. Baptism by fire might not the best instructor make. And please help me help others by continuing to teach me more about this incredible art. Teaching and learning probably shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Domo arigato goziamasu.

Stepping off my soapbox now...


  1. Our dojo is simply too tiny to exempt anyone from teaching altogether. Our sensei does provide guidance on how to teach, though not very formally, more in the sense of providing hints and tips at regular intervals. All students orange or above are expected to spend some time helping teach students below them in rank. They are not expected to lead class, however.

    Thinking back, the only people who have ever been left in charge of a class are me or Sensei D (a san-dan). Which would make sense, except that I taught my first class as an orange belt(!), and continued to teach in emergencies a couple of times a year from that time forward, even though I wasn't senior student.

    Even aside from the pure practicality, though, we have a teaching requirement for purple, brown and black belts. You don't have to lead classes if you don't want to, but Sensei feels strongly that if you aren't at least capable of passing on what you know, you shouldn't be a black belt.

  2. Since a Ryu is a family, helping out at all ranks is expected. This is where Sempai and Kohai (senior and junior) come into play. An orange belt will be a sempai (senior) to a white belt (the kohai).

    Some schools are better at teaching/mentoring instructors then others. You should not be left on your own when you first start teaching either.

    You can also learn a lot when teaching. It should be an additional learning tool. Being able to explain concepts and figure out what is happening takes a deeper understanding then just copying technique.

    You will always need a teacher; but, don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone when asked to lead a class.

  3. It's good that you got some guidance from your sensei on teaching, Cindy. I wish I could say the same...

    Agreed - I firmly believe that until you can "give" something away, it isn't really yours, but I think it's not a good thing to 1. expect every sempai to be able to pass on information in a way that is conducive to learning - especially without any instruction on how to teach or 2. have any student teaching more than they are receiving instruction. What I absolutely love most to MA is that there is always something new to learn. While that learning might include fine-tuning/honing your teaching skills, if that is ALL that you're doing, frustration can set in - especially if you want to balance the amount of instruction you're giving with the amount you are getting. Unfortunately, this has become my reality and as a result, it is making me cut back the number of days I want to be in my home dojo soI can go elsewhere and get some learning in myself, as selfish as that may sound.

    Being afraid doesn't really have anything to do with it, Bob; I heartily accept the challenge of stepping into the instructor's space because it does force me to step out of a certain comfort zone. I just want to continue the learning, that's all. I compare it to my high school diploma; I'm sure I could have told others how to write a newspaper headline straight out of HS, but, once I went onto college then later grad school, I can now show others how to put together an entire news story - from finding sources to interviewing and constructing a solid lead (opening paragraph). Had I stopped learning at HS, my ability to do that would have been extremely limited, that's all I'm saying. For me, reaching yudansha is like flipping my tassel: still much more to learn.

  4. I can really relate to everything you talked about in this post, even as a 3rd kyu. Our dojang is fairly small and a lot of times in the past there would be as many as 20 students show up and only 1-2 instructors. In those cases, I was often called upon to lead exercises and in many cases, take a group of underbelts and teach -- sometimes for the entire night. My learning really slowed during this time, because there was very little of what I called 'blue belt time' for me and it was frustrating.

    There were moments where I really despised teaching because I was not getting taught in return. I know it was a great time for me to work on my ability as a teacher, and I learned through that, but the balance was just not right.

    Now we have a better balance of both learning and teaching, and when kyu ranks are asked to take some of the lower ranks to teach, it doesn't feel like being thrown to the wolves without being prepared. Now I love to give back when I get the opportunity and I feel more confident in that area.

  5. I'm glad you've been able to strike a better balance, CP. That's truly good (and encouraging!) to hear :-)