INB #06: For the Head Instructor: Your Team

ama_log4A school rides the backs of its instructors. It’s that simple. Take away the mat, bags, mirrors and even (God forbid!) the Sauna, and you still have Kung Fu. Take away the instructors and you have a deserted spa.

My instructors know this. I make sure they understand how important they are in the transmission of the arts. Also, personally, how much I appreciate their work.

Like church picnics the running of martial arts schools is mostly through volunteer effort. Some styles require so many hours of such teaching for advancement. This has been called “slave labor” by some and I tend to agree; with a reservation.* All my instructors teach out of their love for the art, not because they must to achieve ranking.

This phrase “slave labor” does bring up an important point. Instructors should not be exploited. It’s better to be specific with duties. Too many times their responsibilities are so unspecific they end up being occasional stand-ins and random surrogates rather than scheduled teachers. No. It’s better to have an instructor committed for only one hour a week of teaching, but that hour specified, than use them as whimsical pinch-hitters only when you are in a bind. An instructor who knows his job can develop a sense of continuity and a pride of accomplishment in the work. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help on vacations, during emergencies, for special situations. But instructors who haven’t been worn out by your fickle change-ups are far more like to respond positively.

It’s likely that your instructors respect you as head instructor. Otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen them. The point should be extended that they also respect one another. It should be made clear, thoroughly, that they not contradict one another in the presence of students. First there’s rarely a need. Secondly, regardless of which instructor proves to be right the school ends up being wrong because it supplied the erroneous instructor (from the student’s perspective).

Even a head instructor should not contradict one of his or her staff. However they may be corrected, even in public. Correcting instructors in front of beginners is acceptable if in the spirit of true teaching. In fact this reinforces the idea that we are all here to learn. Official policy should encourage instructors to say, “I don’t know. But I’ll find out.” Perfect instructors don’t exist. No one knows it all. Students with good questions should be told, “That’s a good question.” On the other hand instructors generally are qualified up to certain levels. They should feel free to tell students, “I don’t handle that. I’m just introducing you to the form.”

And last, instructors should not be slid into some quasi-chummy relationship where you are actually giving them the short end of things. I had a flaky partner once who missed his scheduled lesson with one particular instructor over a dozen times in a row. I guess the message was “He’s an instructor. He’s got plenty to practice.”

What you are, as a teacher, your instructors will become.


*That one exception is when someone wants to be certified to teach independently. In that case I require some teaching under guidance to be absolutely assured of competence.

Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

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