Where’s my Teacher? – June 3, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Is that my teacher? No that’s a horse…

for those who are Terry Pratchett fans.

But the question did come up recently. Actually a couple of questions came up so I’ll answer them all here and trust that you folks will understand that I’m not your teacher. Unless I am your teacher.

First question was more of a comment to the effect that more information on teachers and students should be given to beginners in the art right away.

Aside from the patent impossibility of giving people enough information, it’s not my business to teach someone else’s students. If it was, how would I communicate with “everyone”. There was a time when the iaido-l listserver had close to five thousand members and there were very few other groups of swordsmen on the net. That was close. Then came the era of a thousand web-based martial arts discussion fora and now there are groups on faceplant, hookedup, and who knows what other “social media” which are more properly called “me and my little circle of buddies media”. There is no way to reach “everyone” and there never was. Even if you try to reach a specific group you run into trouble. I was my High School publicity director. From that day over 40 years ago until today I have been hearing people tell me “there should be more communication” which translates to “you should track me down and shout in my ear until I’m paying attention to what you’re saying”.

No, you put the information out there on the agreed upon distribution channel and you’re done. “It’s on the website” is enough if all members of the group have been told at sign-up that’s where the information is going to be posted. My inevitable response these days to people who want to know about grading requirements is “finding out when the sign-up deadline is, is part of the test”.

In the case of information to new students, the proper place to post it is in the mouths of their teachers.

Which brings me to the next question asked by folks who are sometimes at a distance from a teacher, sometimes picking things up seminar by seminar, sometimes in an art that is being passed along by fellow students. “Just who is my teacher”?

If you can’t narrow it down immediately, without thought, to a single person, it’s very likely that you don’t have a teacher. Rather, you don’t have a sensei in the sense that you’ve got someone who considers you his student, is responsible for your care and feeding, takes the blame for your bad behavior, and will bend the rules (modify the art) for you if necessary.

If you have no sensei it’s not a tragedy. Everyone, eventually, has no sensei. Your sensei will eventually pass on, sometimes to Zumba, sometimes to MMA, sometimes just pass on. You are left with what you are left with and you deal with it. One of the strangest concepts I’ve ever come across is the western student who studies for 30 years with a teacher and when that teacher dies, goes to another Japanese instructor who is actually younger that the student. What’s the point? Unless the new teacher can give you something other than a “connection to Japan” it’s a waste of time for both. I am reluctant in the extreme to take on a student who has been doing martial arts longer than I have and only do it after a very long courtship where I decide whether or not I’ve got something to teach and he’s got something to learn. I don’t “take on” a student, I realize I have a student bit by bit over years of practice together.

Which is the final part of the equation. You may be able to identify someone who seems to be a good candidate for “your sensei” but you don’t really get to decide that he is. As I mentioned before, not everyone in my class is my student, even if my class is the only one they attend. I teach anyone who is in front of me, I will loan some of them money, I will buy some of them beer, I will sign passport applications for some and I will house, feed and clothe some of them if they need it. Somewhere in there is the dividing line between a student and someone I teach a martial art.

So where’s my teacher? If you have someone who is teaching you a martial art who you know for a fact would put himself, his reputation and his career or his membership in your budo organization on the line for you, you may have a sensei. There are a few folks I would do such things for, but not as many as people might think. As a student, consider what a sensei would do for you, and perhaps don’t be so quick to claim one as yours because when you screw up, that sensei might just have to take the fall. I have been threatened physically and legally over the actions of my students, I have risked my relationships with my own sensei for students, and I have rarely told those students about it (unless there was a lesson in there to be given). This I consider the responsibility of a sensei.

Rewards? There are none other than the rewards you get when a son or daughter does well in the world. Students of a sensei are in the same class as children, you give but don’t expect to get in return, you just hope they pass on the genes / memes.

Don’t think the relationship is easily made.

What, you think it’s an honour to give a sensei your studentship? You figure you pay for dues and for private lessons and buy him beer it’s good? That’s hiring a teacher and there’s nothing wrong with that, please, buy me beer, but it’s not what I’m thinking about when I think of “my students”.

There are sensei out there who will accept students and claim students if it’s to their advantage politically as they move their way up the ranks, they will also claim sensei in the same way. This should not be a shock, it’s the human way to acquire followers and latch onto rising stars to get ahead in business, but that’s not the relationship I’m talking about here. That’s just playing the game and it’s fine if you understand what it is. Don’t expect your sensei in this case to bail you out of jail or come over and help re-roof your garage. Do expect to be denied at the first hint of legal trouble and do expect to be expected to come over and re-roof sensei’s garage.

OK gotta go paint the sauna, where’s my student?

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