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It still feels odd to consider myself a Martial Arts Instructor or to be referred to as a Sensei. It feels…undeserved. I consider myself a student first, since there is so much I need to learn. But the events of the past year have thrust me into this position, and have forced me to learn what it means to be a Martial Arts instructor. And on my journey, I have made a few realizations.
I have been a part of Todai for quite a few years (since Jan. 2004 I think?); first as a student, then as an assistant, now as the owner. And while during that time I had taught classes here and there for my Sensei, I never really thought about what it means to be the teacher. I always enjoyed teaching – it’s fun, it feels good to help out, and it helps me learn – but I never thought much about the responsibility of it. After all, I was just covering the class until my teacher got back. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t impart any bad habits onto the students for my teacher to have to fix.
The Unexpected Shidoshi
Fast forward to September 2012. I’m getting ready to go to Japan for the first time by myself. My teacher is getting ready to try out for a job on a protection detail as earning enough from the Dojo to support his family has become increasing difficult. We discuss different marketing ideas to turn things around, and what happens if he get’s the job.
I leave for 10 days to go to Japan. It’s different going alone. When I went with my teacher before, there was this bit of ego; I wanted to exemplify how good a teacher he was and wanted to show I am a good student – I wanted to be noticed. And if I was,they didn’t show it. But I had hoped I reflected well upon my teacher. This time was the opposite – I wanted to go unnoticed. I didn’t have the safety net of my teacher or fellow students; it was all on me. Worse, I could be noticed in a bad way and bring shame to my teacher – and he had enough problems.
Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. It turns out on this trip, I would be promoted to Shidoshi – or “Teacher of Warrior Ways”, also known as Godan. Put simply, it was not what I was looking for (in fact I tried several times to politely refuse the promotion), and definitely a memorable experience. And the whole trip was amazing training. After the test, Shiraishi-Sensei said “see, now you can start your own school.” I thanked him for saying that – for trusting me enough to teach others this art, and humbly replied “I will support my school and teacher first.”
In truth, after the test, I still felt that I didn’t deserve my Godan. After all, I had Sempai (senior students) that had been training longer that I would now out rank. How did I deserve it more than them? I know it’s mostly because they hadn’t traveled to Japan to take the test yet, but still, it felt undeserved. I was measuring myself against their experience and skill.
Maintaining the Lineage
Fate wasn’t done with me yet. Soon after I arrive back, my teacher gets the job with one of the most prestigious executive protection firms in the country. As it turns out, he will have to move out of state – almost immediately, meaning that he can no longer teach at the dojo. While elated he can now support his family, there is the question of what will happen to the dojo. He explains that he doesn’t simply want to close the school – he wants all of us to continue training. The options are for either an outside teacher buy the school, or for someone within the school to buy it. If an outside teacher buys it, then it becomes something different, and no longer can be connected to him.
After some soul searching, I decide to buy the school to keep it in “the family”, to maintain the lineage to him. But that means I am the head instructor now – and must face those questions of what it means to be a Martial Arts Instructor. Along with all the business related questions, I have to figure out what I will teach, and how I will teach it. I can’t just “cover” classes anymore.
What is a Teacher
I decide first on the goal of the training: to get everyone ready to train in Japan. After all, that’s where I go to train, and should be doing what I can to get everyone else over there. So I start going through the tenchijin ryaku no maki, filling in gaps in my notes, tracing what comes from where and cataloging everything my teacher taught me. I look at myself as an intermediary between Japan and here, taking what I can and sharing it with the students.
One night, one of the Senior students reminded me of a story when our teacher was told by one of the Sensei in Japan (I believe Nagato Sensei) what it means to be a teacher. One of the Japanese Sensei took Shihan Woodard outside and pointed to an apple tree. He asked “would you like an apple?”
Shihan Woodard replied “sure.”
Sensei then got on all fours like a step stool and said, “okay, reach up and get the apple”.
“No no no …” said Shihan Woodard
Sensei got up and said “this is what we are to our students.”
The Stepping Stone
It struck me that this is a universal truth. We as human beings have progressed by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Every invention, realization, and leap in knowledge is built upon those same discoveries and ideas that came before us. It is how we progress, how we learn. It’s like that saying “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Except we can go one step further: “teach a man to fish, he can teach others to fish, and you feed humanity.”
It reaffirmed my original idea of teaching so that everyone can learn in Japan. I need to be the stepping stool for everyone to become better, more capable than me so that they can learn more in Japan and rise to even greater heights. So in the end, they become even greater than the Japanese Sensei I look up to.
So in truth, a Martial Arts Instructor is not so much of a guide as I once thought, but truly is a stepping stone for the student. A teacher must not only show the student where the teacher has been, but enable them to explore beyond the teacher so that they may help their students go beyond them into the infinite reaches of progress.
I am still a student, and still learning how to be a greater stepping stone; a taller stepping stool to reach higher into the tree for bigger apples of knowledge. In the end, it’s the student that matters. That’s what being a Martial Arts Instructor is all about.