Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, April 10, 2015

What Makes a Good Martial Arts Teacher?

Today we have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein. The topic is: just what is it that constitutes a good martial arts teacher? I am sure that we all have our opinions. Enjoy.

What Constitutes a Good Martial Arts Teacher?

By Jonathan Bluestein

The standards of what it takes to be a martial arts teacher in today’s society are sadly very low. Any fool may present himself as such. Many make up their own titles, certificates and diplomas, while others receive them from those that did so before.
I have therefore written this article for two reasons:

1.      To be of personal inspiration for martial arts teachers worldwide, so they could live up to higher expectations of themselves.
2.      To help novice practitioners and those new to the martial arts know what to look for in a teacher.
All of the requirements you shall be reading below, I demand first and foremost from myself, and also from my own students wherein they wish to teach. In this is depicted primary quality of a teacher, and a leader of any kind – setting a personal example.

Let us talk about that last one. There should be an understanding that every martial arts teacher is, by definition, a parent. It does not matter whether one sees oneself as such. The students who engage in the martial arts under you come willing to learn things they do not know, and often have not the slightest clue about. Most among the students who shall last (even older folks) will develop the tendency to consider you as a parent; that is – a person guiding them through the unknown. In this process, the by-product of their mindset will be that they will look up to your personal example in all things, not only martial arts. You will not hear about this from most of them, but it is quite certain that you shall witness the consequences. The best and worst martial arts teachers are mirrored, on the personal level, by their students’ behavior outside of class. Your students will take a mental note of every gesture, word, act or step you make and take, because they have opened up their thinking and emotional mind to you. The martial arts teacher therefore needs to be almost a saint in his daily dealings with other human beings, at least as much as his students can witness, because any less will negatively affect the lives of others. Not all of us are perfectly well behaved, and some arrive at teaching with a shadier past, but once a teacher, one needs to aspire to be greater for the sake of his students.     
A good example for this would be something I was told by one of my teachers, Sifu Sapir Tal (Jook Lum Southern Mantis). He had quit smoking a while after he started teaching, as he realized he could not set a bad example for his students, who would sometimes see him with his cigarettes.     Otherwise, when bad habits that cannot be done with, they should be kept hidden.
Setting an example includes having Knowledge. An education. On what is relevant to one’s art and practice, of course, but in a very holistic and comprehensive way. An ignorant teacher is the breeder of naïve and uninformed disciples.        
He ought to be able to name his style and tell its exact origins (no, ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘Wushu’ are not names of styles, but umbrella terms for various Chinese martial arts. ‘Jujutsu’, ‘Karate’ and others also have many sub-styles). He needs to be fluent in the lingo and special terminology of the style. Movements, methods and techniques should be understood on multiple levels – Martial, Physiological, Anatomical, Kinesiological, Biological, Psychological, Philosophical, Historical, and more. In all of these in general, the teacher needs to have indulged in his study prior to his becoming a tutor of others. Many professions require one to have a single specialization, but the glorious occupation of teaching the martial arts demands one to be educated in multiple fields of study.

The teacher should always publicly name his teacher, teacher’s teacher and so-forth at least 2-3 generations before him. All martial arts styles should have a history. Even ‘completely new’ styles should be based on some past knowledge that came from somewhere. Not paying respects to one’s martial ancestors is utterly disgraceful. I know of many teachers who, because of bad blood flowing in their martial arts family, refrain from mentioning these origins. Such people are not worthy of being called teachers. It is to be expected that when the time comes, they will suffer similarly bad relationships with their own martial offspring. Though it cannot be asked for that each and every single martial arts teacher out there always maintain a good relationship with his teacher, having such relationship is preferable and important. Likewise, it is also preferable that the teacher will continue to have teachers of his own, even in older age.

It is to be expected that any man calling himself a teacher have had at least 4-5 consecutive years studying with his main teacher. This is to ensure that his knowledge and skill in his ‘foundation martial art’ has matured enough before he began teaching. This in turn should be demonstrated in Martial Ability. He ought to be versed in all or most of the art’s methods and techniques, and be able to explain in great detail each of them. It is not expected that any teacher should be the world’s greatest fighter, but at least in class, the teacher needs to have the ability to make every single technique work against a resisting student, under the right circumstances that this technique was created for. In addition, he should manifest the ‘flavour’ of the particular martial art being taught, in a way that makes it clear that it is indeed that style and not something unrelated.

The language of a teacher should be clear and honest. Too many teachers are busy scheming politically among their students, and using cunning speech to manipulate others. Confucius said: “Human beings live in honesty. Those who are dishonest, live feeling their lives are fated”. The dishonest are unfit to be teachers. Dishonesty in the world of martial arts is a social disease, which causes great suffering to many. People often invest a lifetime in the training of an art, and such individuals are especially prone to damage from dishonest teachers. Every teacher should consider that one act of dishonesty on his behalf, one directed misinterpretation, can send a well-intended person to stroll the wrong path for a lifetime. Such acts are beyond cruel. Vagueness is not much better than dishonesty, for it allows the naïve and uninformed to come up with wrong interpretations. Though some answers should be found be the student without guidance, it needs be clear for him or her where they should be headed. Without knowing what to expect, most will be lost.
It is important to keep in mind in this respect that what is obvious to us as teachers is not the least obvious to most students. A teacher should know how to avoid the all-too-common psychological error of considering the other as he considers himself. That is true for knowledge, but also for the unique personality of each individual, his or her learning style, their history and background, the state of their health, etc. Very important to take note of by the teacher are the different goals of students, which do not always align with what he has in mind. Myself, I am very much interested in the martial aspects of my arts, but with self-honesty and common sense I must realize that many of my students are not highly enthusiastic about such matters. It is therefore my responsibility to portray a decent among of liberalism and acceptance, allowing these people to best find what they look for by learning from me, while keeping them in the boundaries of reason and good taste. While they should ‘go along with the program’, there is a limit to how much one ought to force his own aspirations, vision and ideas upon his students.

It should be clear to any teacher that the indulgent in lowly politics is contrary to the spirit of martial arts. A teacher must not act like a parliament politician. Promises are to be kept. Personal conduct is paramount. Rank or status should not be handed over to a person based on ‘deals’, ‘favours’ or personal preferences. Official ‘appointments’ are better done without.  Money, while important for making a living, should never ever be the deciding factor in a teacher-student relationship. Tuition should reflect real worth, but also be fair and reasonable towards students. Contracts are for lawyers, not martial artists. Competitions and their management are great for business, status and fame – not for personal development. Students should not pay for competitions, and their personal safety is more important than this or that medal or trophy. The charging of more money from more veteran students is nothing but greed, and is shameful. Selling accessories and attire is nice, but a teacher should remain a teacher, and never cross the line into being a part-time store owner.

Finally, a good teacher should allow the student to politely and appropriately pose questions concerning the art and the teachings in a multitude of ways. Inquisitive minds are to be encouraged. A student ought to have full access to the teacher’s body – being able to openly request the teacher to demonstrate a given method or technique, observe these and also allowed to touch the teacher’s body as he is demonstrating them. Direct, hands-on contact is one of the most important keys for establishing a complete transmission of a martial art.  

Be the change you want to see in the world, and the world will pay you back with kindness.


Jonathan Bluestein is best-selling author, martial arts teacher, and head of Blue Jade Martial Arts International. For more articles by shifu Bluestein, his books and classes offered by his organization, visit his website at:

You may also subscribe to Shifu Bluestein's youtube channel, which is regularly updated with rare and fascinating martial arts videos:

All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein.


Michael Babin said...

Nice article from a traditional perspective. Sadly, we often put our teachers on pedestals that they never wanted to be on and then we complain when they slip off that unwanted perch by being human.

Even a martial education should take into account the advice of Anatole France: “An education isn`t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It`s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don`t.”

Rick Matz said...

Excellent observation! Welcome to Cook Ding's Kitchen, Michael.

Compass Architect said...

Good post. ... Mr Matz.
Good comment from Mr Babin.

I knew a few teachers who put themselves on a pedestal. Their school slowly and subtly becomes a small time cult.
I also agreed w. Mr Babin's point.
The quote from Anatole France fits the situation.
The first step of intelligence is
classifying and categorizing what one knows.
The next step is to compare one's own knowledge to what other people know before determining what is the truth.
To study anything relevant, it is all about knowing the truth.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing the post regarding what makes a good martial arts teacher. Martial arts teacher teaches students that they can channel their energy in a positive manner. In addition, teaches them to respect others regardless of their status in society. Muay Thai in Connecticut

Tracy Klein said...

Sadly I know a teacher who does all the bad things brought forth in this article, including selling of tshirts and other stuff to support the Moore's Martial Arts Organization, which in itself is a bit of a cult, and he even indoctrinates people to the point that all they care about is themselves and nobody else.
When I started revealing the garbage he did to me, and other stuff that went on in the past including what he did to someone that meant a lot to me, he booted me to the curb, and if he would have had his way I would be doped up on pysch drugs right now, cause my former teacher darn near destroyed me mentally. Heck even the grandmaster of the system, Al Moore II, wouldn't even come to the local school where I live, and straighten this mess out. Within weeks afterwards, I had it confirmed to me, by Jim Clark head of Red Dragon Shou Shu, that the kind of stuff I was revealing including far worse stuff go on with the Moore's Martial Arts Organization.
Right now, I really don't care if I ever get back in to martial arts, after what happened to me, as I'm leery of getting in to the mess I got out of again.
A lot of people including me, are starting to say, that my former teacher shouldn't be teaching martial arts.
Great article by the way.