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106. Becoming Sensei
I have reached a surprising (well, surprising to me, at least) benchmark in my life in that, in the martial systems and tea ceremony that I focus upon in my spare time, I have achieved a dubious distinction of becoming one of the senior members. I’m what we impolitely call an “old fart.” Lest it seems an exalted, superior position, it comes with the heavy burden of shouldering more responsibilities.
As a senior, I am in that funny moment when I’m transitioning from sempai (older student) to sensei. In some systems, I’ve been teaching for a while, but I always would shy away from having the club members call me “sensei.” Now no longer. I need to become a sensei, not just for me, but for my students.
As one of my teachers said, “Even if you know only one kata, then you can teach that one kata. It’s not the number of kata you know. It’s the quality of your instruction that counts.” Assuming that mantle also gives me the position to develop, nurture and protect my charges, to certify them and to authenticate their training, raising them up to become the next generation that will pass on the system.
It’s not a responsibility I really wanted. I just wanted to train hard. But it comes with the territory of having your own little dojo, running it your own way, and having a direct connection to your headmaster.
And sooner or later, anyone who has trained for any length of time will end up teaching. Whether it’s as a fully certified instructor, or more informally as a sempai to newer students, you are always teaching others from the moment you first learn something for your own self. It’s inevitable in a social environment.
In my professional life, I also teach, primarily digital art and photography, which is experiencing a surge of interest among youngsters. My classes are always filled, thanks to the relevance the field has in this day and age of electronic media. Prior to teaching college, I taught for some ten years at a high school, so I’ve had over 20-odd years’ worth of experience teaching.
One of the things I’ve learned is that formal teacher training is a real plus in your kit of tools, but it only prepares you for half of the reality of running a classroom or dojo. Taking courses in education gave me the theoretical framework of education philosophy, the technical essentials of lesson, course and program preparations, and the psychology of teaching and learning. But how you perform “on the ground” as sempai or sensei really depends on how you can bring out your unique positive social traits to the fore.
I’m not by choice a naturally gregarious person. As my wife observed, unlike her, I could be pretty satisfied just working in the yard, walking our dog and reading, and I seem to get enough socialization just with her and a small group of friends. So getting up in front of a classroom or in the dojo was a stretch for a reclusive guy like me. But I’ve learned to “put out,” to a point where teaching has become somewhat enjoyable.
And so, as an oldish codger, here’s my advice: the sooner some of you realize that part of your responsibility for being in a ryu is passing it on to the next generation, the better. It’s not only the role of the sensei. The sensei needs your help, if you’re a sempai. If you abrogate it and keep pushing that responsibility away, you’re forcing the teacher to shoulder all the burden, and you infantilize yourself. That’s not how real teaching and learning occurs. In a free-wheeling classroom environment (watch kindergarteners or elementary school kids), the teacher is the one-to-many center of knowledge who passes out information and controls the classroom, but there is ample room and time for kids to teach other kids. This is called peer-to-peer or collaborative learning. To shirk this and shrug, “I dunno, I’m not the sensei,” is false humility. You’re not the sensei, yes. But you may know something more than the guys who are newer than you. So you help them, like an older brother or sister helps their sibling figure out a math problem. You’re not the teacher, but you can help.
That’s not to say you lord it over your kohai (younger student) like a mini-dictator. I’ve seen too many blue and brown belts in a karate or aikido class take on airs of superiority well above their station. They’re not trying to help. They’re trying to assert their tiny little bit of snobbery because that’s all the status they think they have in their pathetic lives.
I remember donning a white belt even though I had four years’ worth of aikido training and over ten years of competitive judo (plus some karatedo), becoming one of the main uke for my sensei, when I entered a new aikido dojo. I paired up with a young, smug blue belt who needed a shave and a bath, and as I tried to refine my shiho-nage, he kept poking me in the armpit to suggest that I was open for a counter. I was trying to move slowly to refine my movement, but he kept smirking smugly and poked me as we did it to each other, me slowly trying to take apart the kata and he doing it as fast and as strong as he could to impress and intimidate me. I thought, “This guy shouldn’t be doing it this fast to a white belt. He’s not that good, and he could hurt somebody who was really a newbie.” I could handle it. But he wasn’t trying to help me by working with me. He was just immersed in his own ego gratification.
Finally, I thought I got the movement just right, and I had about enough of his poking me in the armpit, so I threw him at full speed, disbalancing him and then slamming him and bouncing him on the floor. He had his fingers all set to poke me again, but at that exact moment, my disbalancing threw him off, and then before he could recover, I had slammed him to the mats. The bulging-eyed look of fear and surprise in his eyes was priceless. He bowed out and subsequently avoided training with me for the rest of my stay at that dojo.