INB #20: On Becoming a Teacher

bgseminarA_1I’ve heard it said that most people get into the Martial Arts not simply to become Martial Arts practitioners but to become Martial Arts “Masters”. In hindsight this makes sense, as looking back on my journey I can see that I always had a goal of becoming an instructor. As a student I was hooked from day one and knew the only logical place to go was to become a teacher. What I didn’t realize was the odd and haphazard nature of it all.

My teacher kept telling me that I should teach, that I had all the curriculum, so I really needed to teach some people. I had done a little informal teaching under the guidance of an instructor, so I knew that I would learn by teaching, but beyond that I didn’t really have much of a plan.

It was about 20 years into my training that I decided to dedicate some time each week to the endeavor. In my line of work, it’s not easy to commit to a regular schedule of after-work activities, but I settled on telling my students that we would have to play it by ear in terms of scheduling.

One of the problems I encountered is that I forgot things over 20 years of training…sure I had all the basics and could teach a basic class, but I forgot some of the drills (that I remembered being so fun). I realized that if I was going to be a teacher, I probably needed to do what teachers do. Teachers create lesson plans. Right?

So I embarked on setting a strict path for people in their first three to six months. The basics they would practice, the forms they would learn.

With my new plan put to paper, I taught the martial arts like I was taught. I discouraged questions. I worked them hard. It was no fun. Just the way I liked it. To my surprise, I lost students…even my son. I chalked it up to the weakness of the students and how soft we are as Americans. I stuck to the mantra that I needed to get 100 students in my door to find each one that would stay and train the “old” way. I wore that as a badge of “traditionalist” pride.

I did have a student stick with me, though, who is also a good friend. He used to train under another teacher before me, and he asked questions. Boy, did he ask questions. Since we are such good friends, I couldn’t bull-shit him or put off his questions. I hated it, but there were a number of his questions that I had to answer with “I don’t know”. It killed me to admit the holes in my knowledge, understanding, or experience. To make matters worse, I trained in a system highly “technique-centric”, where the culture and tradition largely left to the student to deduce the principles of the system. With that, I couldn’t even blame my teachers…I had to look in the mirror.

Confonted with this problem, I made a pact with myself that I would no longer teach anything I didn’t understand or have good, reasonable, workable explanations for.

I looked back at my lesson plans and tried to make sure I could extract the essence of the lessons, the essence of my training and experiences. I asked my teachers and my mentors questions and I studied Western teaching models. I visited other schools, and I cross-trained in other arts.

Put simply, I allowed myself to grow beyond the boundaries of MY understanding of the traditions that were shared with me for so long.

Over time, I had a number of epiphanies:

I was reminded that good teachers don’t just give answers, they teach people how to learn. With that, neither a static lesson plan nor a large class would work. If I wanted to be a “good” teacher, then I needed to be content with having a small group of students to “guide”, rather than dictate to. My lesson plans softened to become outlines, guidelines, and checklists that would remind me what to teach, as opposed to telling me exactly how to.

I realized that Training Methods and Teaching Methods can (and probably should) be separated and modified. I brought in useful drills from other systems, created some, and modified yet more. My goals of teaching a tradition remain the same, but the methods of getting there have changed. I haven’t added or modified forms or basics, but I have done a lot to make sure the execution and understanding of those components of training have the necessary training wheels (for those who need them) and the most realistic, skill-inducing drills (for those who are ready for them).

I now believe that it’s probably OK to mix in a little fun (but more advanced) training early on, to remind the students that it’s not all boring and the most realistic stuff is just waiting for their coordination to increase.

A few years later, I’ve had more students come and go. If you’ve tried your hand at teaching martial arts, then you’ve probably encountered more than a few faces that you saw once or twice, never to return. They tell you the reasons they want to train, but the almost never tell you why they left.

After training in martial arts for so long, I think it’s easy to lose sight of just how weird, how foreign this “hobby” of ours is. People want to start training for so many reasons: self-defense, exercise, self-discipline, and the list goes on. I believe the reason they usually don’t come back is because their expectation doesn’t match what they are presented with. Either a) the teacher is focused on an area of the art that isn’t what they are looking for, or b) their expectation as to what martial arts are or should be simply don’t match reality.

To help alleviate this problem, I started spending some up-front time discussing the prospective student’s expectations as well as giving a good, reasonable expectation of what (my) martial arts ARE.

I take the opportunity to discuss all the areas of training from strategy, tactics, and principles to attribute training to specific techniques. I also take the opportunity to discuss how training changes over time, from individualized to more partner training, all the while becoming more and more realistic.

So, at this point, I’m a relatively new teacher, hopefully on a path toward becoming a “good” teacher. I know that some of the epiphanies I’ve had are having a positive effect, because my students are getting better, I’m retaining more of the new students, my son is training with me again, and I can answer (most of) the questions posed in class. I know that some people might not think me the “traditionalist” I once was, but to that I say that there is a long-standing tradition behind most martial arts I’ve trained and that is the “tradition of change”.

-Russ Smith


Russ Smith is a Florida-based Okinawan Goju-Ryu and Kobudo instructor. Russ also trains in Escrima, Five Ancestor and White Crane Gong Fu.

He can be reached at or gojuryukaratedo [at] Xing, Gong, Fa Shu Ha Ri Teaching Methods Basic, intermediate, advanced. To charge or not to charge. Teaching my son Exercise Keeping a notebook Cause & effect Children -Russ Smith

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