INB #17: Assistance on Assistants

At last! Your classes are well enough attended for you to need some assistance. You have carefully run through the list of your top students and found some promising assistant instructor material. Great! Now you can delegate some of your duties while growing more of that community spirit which has been your goal from the moment you began teaching.

INB17But now that your “second generation” is on the floor there is a teeny bit of tension. Your instructors—who really are young, skillful and enthusiastic— sometimes unknowingly hit your aggravation button. Though it’s evenly spread through the whole crop, let’s say—for the sake of example—we blame all the problems on your newest helper: Tom.

Even though Tom occasionally says things that make you want to leave the floor, you wouldn’t hurt his feelings for the world. His heart is, after all, right where it should be. So, tactfully, you figure you will bring all complaints up at the next instructors meeting (you do have periodic classes for just instructors, of course) in a general way. You will clarify that there are principles which they are will be able to use appropriately for the benefit of the newer students.

With an aim in helping you put these principles across we have here some of the points, compiled from many instructors and, literally, centuries of experience.

Don’t teach all the secrets on the first day, please.
Tom’s just really mastered the crescent kick. He’s improved 100% because he’s clicked on the timing and execution. And, of course, every spare moment he is showing some beginners how to improve their own crescent kicks. Big-hearted, he wants to help them skip a few steps in the learning process. Unfortunately his charge, let’s call him Brian, is not quite ready for the entire DaVinci Code. This scene happens for a number of reasons. One is that Tom just became an instructor and though he can perform all the basic material like Form #1 he can’t actually remember how he learned it. He remembers the crescent kick, though, because he was working on that just last week. What Tom will soon learn is that the student mind is specific and task oriented and the instructor mind is comprehensive. You have to help Tom by teaching him the basic material in a step-wise fashion again. It won’t take time, just a rapid retracing. Oh, and suggest that Brian, who is falling down over at one corner of the mat, may not be ready for the crescent kick just yet.

I’ll ask.
Tom is justifiably proud of being an instructor. In his day job he drives a U-Haul truck and doesn’t have that many technical or theoretical talks with people. So when Brian, an undergrad, asks questions like, “What’s the relationship of Qigong to Religious Taoism?” Tom stiffens a little then launches into everything he’s learned from watching the old and new Carradine shows. Rough shoals ahead! Tom certainly doesn’t want to dishonor his new instructor’s patch (belt, shirt, etc.) by appearing to be a boob but he has to know that not knowing is o.k. as long as he’s willing to go find out. The solution is that there should be a section in the instructor’s group just for student questions. Some will even stump you, but when you handle them in the right manner by finding out then reporting back faithfully, the tone will be set.

Duties and Privileges.
A studio is a community. The effect on people’s lives is astonishing, long lasting and deep. The instructors are a positive sub-community and need to understand that. They may differ from each other on methods but their goals must be the same. From these shared goals and experiences you will develop instructor policy. Yours may well be different from mine but taking twenty minutes and writing your concerns will be a big help. Here are common points of concern you can address among your instructors. Is there a school dating policy? How much do you work with another instructor’s student? What are the rules on after hours work outs? What about student/instructor socializing? What office duties, like answering the phone, should the instructors do? It’s important. I was in the school where one of the enterprising black belts had put up a counter, selling equipment. The school policy was that the instructors had to interrupt their teaching every time some yo-yo (I mean customer) came in from the street to buy a pair of pants. What a disaster!

Everyone is a critic.
It should become clear from the instructor’s class discussion that you, as head instructor, didn’t take kindly to instructors criticizing one another in public. Tom has a perfect right to say, “My variation is like this…” That’s fine. But Tom should refrain from saying that some fellow teacher got it all wrong. This is especially true if Tom is talking about this instructor to student Brian. This is the purest example of the “no win” situation. If Tom does not convince Brian that the other instructor is wrong then Brian will be suspicious of Tom from that point on. If he does convince Brian then the natural question is, why did the studio allow such a bozo to be an instructor in the first place? Either way the studio loses face.

Never forget.
Tom isn’t just teaching, of course. He’s working hard on improving his own technique, honing his skills and perfecting his form. In my opinion this is crucial. One rule I had in all my schools was that people, unless they were very advanced, had to maintain a student relationship while they were instructors. The one thing you didn’t want is the middle level teacher who had stagnated in his own training. It doesn’t take long for this fish to begin to smell. The instructor did not necessarily have to be studying with me, but someone. This way, I found out, was the guarantee that no instructor of mine would forget the feelings of awkwardness and clumsiness so many students strive to conquer.

Teachers do more than just save you a little time. They bring their personal touch and experiences to your studio giving it another layer of meaning and family feeling. A little advice, a real concern is all that’s needed sometimes to make this family pull in the same direction.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts; probably more than at 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. Indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincere handling of informed viewpoints.

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