The role of the teacher is a complex and difficult role to fill. Many different skill sets and personality characteristics help to shape the type of teacher that a person becomes. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this topic over the last couple of weeks and would like to share my thoughts with you.
A teacher should be firmly anchored within an art/tradition. The tangible anchor should be the teacher-student relationship that the teacher has with his/her teacher (s). The transmission of martial arts almost always takes place within the context of a student-teacher relationship. One would expect that the longer the direct relationship, the more extensive the transmission of information. I emphasize direct relationship, because spending ten hours a year learning from a shihan at seminars is vastly different than spending one-hundred hours learning from a shihan in a class setting during that year. This is not to say that an exceptionally talented person cannot make significant gains from those ten hours a year, but that it becomes an onerous task for anyone to accomplish. However, that teacher might have a substantial time spent as a student to another teacher with a greater degree of experience. Obviously, the farther away from the “source” that one gets, the harder it is for a deep transmission of information to take place. The time spent with a teacher should serve as a foundation for the majority of the personal work/practice that should be done to truly learn a martial arts tradition. I believe that the harder one works on one’s self, the greater awareness you will have as to the depth of the teachings and traditions that you are learning. This pattern establishes you within the living history of the art that you will now directly teach. Every head of an art form that I have spoken to has talked about how he/she is constantly learning more about the art that they are representing. This foundation of life-long learning should be a critical, continuous link down to the newest student in a particular art/tradition.
It should be important to know what traditions/arts a teacher is teaching and what relationships does that teacher have to his/her teacher(s). I would be very wary of answers that lack the depth that a tradition and long-term, student-teacher relationship has. The martial arts world is filled with self-proclaimed experts who have discovered “the secrets”, “have the answers”, “have put the best of different arts together”, etc. The hubris that is typically observed from people who make those claims should be enough to raise some significant concerns. I would certainly want to know why a person has not been able to maintain a long-term, student-teacher relationship. I would be wary and look to see if this person has any genuine humility that is fostered in long-term, student-teacher relationships. I would be concerned about this person’s ability to maintain relationships with others when they are equals or of lessor status to others. This concern would be even magnified to a greater degree if this person does not have his/her own school, let alone a tradition to pass on. The specter of problems relating to others would be a huge hurdle for me to overcome in order to want to learn from a person like that.
The strength of a long-term, student-teacher relationship is typically revealed in a true openness toward learning. This requires a deep and sincere degree of humility. This teacher displays a passion about sharing where he/she is on the path to learning that art/tradition. This position includes the awareness that what might be taught now is likely to be different to what will be taught in a couple of years as the teacher continues to evolve within the art/tradition. The person who proclaims that they can tell all simply by looking, or by a brief “hands-on” with someone and then insists on controlling how something should be viewed, understood, taught or learned is displaying a degree of hubris that far exceeds what should be an honest teaching and learning experience. A teacher can clearly state that this is what they perceive at a particular point in time, framed within the tangible limitations that are presented. A teacher can clearly ask that you replicate what he/she is teaching. These assertive positions should be framed within the context of greater learning by all. There should be nothing wrong with acknowledging one’s own personal limits. There should be some honest acknowledgment that there is not simply one way, but a way that this person knows and uses at the present time. I am reminded of a remarkable exchange between my teacher and his most senior student. The senior student raised a concern that the way that Sensei was teaching something that was substantially different than what he had taught many years ago. Sensei said that everybody changes, including himself and that this person had changed as well. At the end of last year’s holiday party, he openly acknowledged the importance of “Shu, Ha, Ri” and acknowledged the validity and worth of that senior student’s style of Aikido to be unique to that person. The honesty and humility of my teacher, who was a direct student of O’Sensei, serves as an example of the kind of teacher that I seek to emulate in my teaching to my students.
The teacher should display a genuine passion toward the art/tradition and in the honest transmission to the students. This is a critical aspect that I look for in the people whom I call my teachers. These teachers’ passion for what they do is clearly evident. Imaizumi Sensei’s life centers around teaching his classes. It is not to building an organization, it is not geared toward how much income he can earn. It simply revolves around passing on the art of Aikido, which reflects what he has learned from his teachers and from what he continues to learn from his daily practice. My other teachers reflect their true passion for what they do in ways that are genuine reflections of who they are and what art/tradition they teach. Imaizumi Sensei has had such a profoundly positive impact upon my life that I am now teaching Aikido myself. I feel a deep obligation to pass on the gift that has given directly to me. Jokingly, I describe this transition as my “mid-life crisis.” Some men buy sports cars; some men take their 18 year-old secretaries to the Fountain-of-Youth Motel. I dropped a large chunk of money to open my school! I know my wife was certainly happier with this choice than others….. I try hard to emulate my teachers. I try and put as much of myself into the learning of and transmission of the Aikido that I have learned as I possibly can. I constantly push myself forward, driven by an acknowledgment of how much more I want to know and teach. I continually strive to find ways to be the best teacher than I can to my students.
The teacher should demonstrate respect and caring for their students. This respect and caring should to be genuine, overt and consistent. We simply need to reflect upon the sincerity, commitment, sacrifices and gains that have come from our path in our chosen art/tradition. There are so many possible directions that a person can make today. There are typically more than one choice within a local community of martial arts teachers. We should be thankful and truly humbled that other people have placed their trust in us that we can do a good job at teaching them the art/tradition that we represent. We should work hard each and every day to earn that continued trust. We should genuinely care about our students and their progress. It is easy to support and respect a student who learns well, but what about the least capable student in the class? People learn at different paces and not all students benefit from a particular teaching style. How much responsibility to we have when a student is not “getting it?” Some students want to become teachers, others view the training as a past-time, while others are just “testing the waters” to learn about themselves. Should our respect and caring be linked to the particular type of student that we would prefer? I believe that my role as a teacher is to be consistent in my caring for and respecting of my students, regardless of why they are training at my school. I can think of nothing worse that a student thinking that he/she has the respect of their teacher, only to find out later that the teacher has been speaking unkindly about them to others. It is akin to going to a doctor for a physical. The doctor sweet talks you about how they can find out about your health in the most gentle and non-evasive manners and the next thing you know, a sigmoidoscope has been unceremoniously placed where the sun does not shine! We should be honest with our students in an atmosphere of respect and caring. Obviously, the student has given us the respect, by virtue of his/her presence at our school. We should have an obligation to respond in kind.
I am thankful to have a dojo that continues to grow in membership numbers, but more importantly in the depth of the learning that is taking place for all of us. I do not pretend to have all of the answers as a teacher. I overtly acknowledge the limits of my knowledge base, expressing a true desire to be able to share a deeper understanding at a later point in time. I am honest with my students about the positives and the negatives of my own progress. I try my hardest to present myself as an honest and caring student who is learning through the process of teaching. I take a genuine interest in the lives of all of my students. I personally thank every student at the end of every class. This thanks is a deep and sincere thanks for all that they have given to me to allow me that opportunity to teach and learn from the class that has just ended. It is a tangible link to the teacher-student relationship that is the heart and soul of what we do with our art/tradition.
Marc Abrams Sensei
(Original blog post may be found here