When should I teach? – 28 March 2016, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Teaching is a difficult subject in budo, at least when you start. Just when are you ready? In some cases it’s not that hard to know but in others, the decision can go on for years. Understand I’m talking mostly about non-commercial groups here, those where it doesn’t really matter how many dojo are within one territory, but even commercial dojo often find that their territory is surprisingly small.

Let’s look at the easiest case, the one where you have no choice. You are the only person in your area who knows what you know, there are no instructors in weekly reach and you need to have a space to practice. Unless you can build a dojo in your back yard or the weather is good year round, you’re pretty much stuck with gathering up some bodies and getting a space. That was my deal with iaido in 1987 when I started teaching at the University of Guelph, I needed a room and the easiest way to get one was to have a few folks who would practice with me. Now, I must say that I had been teaching Aikido for a few years already, and I suppose I could have signed out a room for myself to practice, in other words I didn’t really need to teach in order to practice, but I wanted the art to grow.

Which is the second case, you want to promote the art. After many years of thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best, perhaps the only way to increase the numbers of students in some martial arts is to increase the number of dojo. It would seem that some arts, iaido and jodo included, tend to max out at a smallish number of people per dojo. There are exceptions of course, Japanese cultural centers tend to have large numbers of students simply because those centers are where students would expect to find iai and jo. But for your usual small town the numbers of students tend to be less than 20 and often less than ten per room. I know that my own numbers at the University have been steady at about 14 for decades, with 6 to 10 being the usual practice size per class.

So what rank should you have when you start your dojo “because you have to”? Whatever rank you have. There is no real-world minimum rank to teach, if you know more than your students you are qualified. Of course most arts have some sort of minimum experience requirement, a minimum rank or some such, but that’s an artificial standard. The fact of the matter is that anyone can teach as long as they have something to teach. Will the students of a one-year experienced instructor be very good? I don’t know, it depends on how good that instructor is and how good a teacher he turns out to be.

The other “rank” you need as a short-timer who is teaching is ego. You ought not be teaching if you don’t believe you can teach. That doesn’t mean you should be an arrogant fellow who thinks he knows stuff, in fact that fellow will make a bad teacher. No, you need to believe you have something to pass along and you need to believe you can pass that along. Having faith in the art and in your own instructor will help. Knowing you will have continued instruction for yourself and help with your students will help. Ego is not a bad thing, but perhaps if we call it “perceived self-efficacy” it might help. You have to believe you can do it.

In areas where the arts are just new and growing it is critical that these inexperienced instructors be encouraged and supported by the few higher ranked instructors who will have taught these juniors. In fact, if the senior instructors discourage such juniors they will not even consider going out to teach. There are cases of this, and these arts do not grow.

Is teaching a good thing for the inexperienced? Absolutely not, but teaching-to-practice is better than no practice at all. As long as these juniors are realistic about their own skills and their need for further training (and let’s face it, I’m talking about ranks requiring up to 20 years and more here) they will be OK. Most of the teachers I’ve met in this situation, who were successful, are just fine, as are their students. The egomaniac who just wants to be a big shot is easily spotted and his students never stay beyond a year or two.

From a selfish, grow the art point of view, even these guys are fine, they tend to be good self-promoters and bring in the students, and those who get hooked tend to move on to the better instructors.

Let’s move on to the case where there is no necessity to teach, where there are dojo with senior teachers in weekly reach. When should those students consider going out to teach?

Well, if there is a complete grading system in place (and very few cases exist of incomplete grading systems) then the easy answer is not before you get the recommended/required license to teach. In the kendo federation this is usually thought to be 5dan. I haven’t read the Canadian bylaws for a while, or those of the FIK or ZNKR so I don’t know if this is actually described as “teaching rank” or not. It is the rank at which an instructor can sign the grading request for a student so it’s usually called “teaching rank”. If you have instructors of lower rank it’s not hard to get someone of higher rank to sign papers. Some groups may make a big deal out of this, others may not.

If there is an incomplete grading system, as there is here in Canada with Jodo in the kendo federation, an ad-hoc requirement will appear. Our system stops at 3dan, so 3dan becomes the top rank and therefore, 3dan is absolutely the teaching rank (or the art dies). We are fortunate to have 5dans in jodo around who sign everyone’s papers but if they were not there it would simply fall to a 5dan in one of the other arts, iaido or kendo, or failing that, the president to sign the papers. Of course if we had no 5dans we would not be grading 3dans and the president would be signing for those students to grade in another country. The point is that signing authority isn’t really a measure of teaching permission, it’s a measure of signing authority.

So what is teaching permission? Well in most systems it’s when sensei says “get out and teach”. Some sensei won’t ever say that and there are clubs around with many, many senior ranks under an even more senior rank. If the area has plenty of dojo to satisfy the demand for instruction, there’s no real problem with this, except that too much rank in a single dojo tends to create “washerwoman” problems. Who won’t get a bit irritated on occasion with being fourth in line after 40 years of experience? Who wouldn’t erupt in an occasional bout of complaining over the back fence if they were still cleaning the toilets and organizing the parties at 6dan? Better to be cleaning your own toilets somewhere else one might think.

A true teaching license is not the administrative permission to sign a form, that can only ever be an effort to ensure some sort of minimum standard for the organization. No the true teaching license is when your sensei says “I’ve taught you all I can, or at least all I’m willing to teach you right now and you’re a snotty know-it-all so get out and torture your own students for a while” which is budo for “wait until you have your own kids, then you’ll know”. After three or four years of practicing Niten Ichiryu with Haruna sensei I knew I had a teaching license when he said “where are the other students?”. I took that to mean “I’m not wasting my time teaching you if the art isn’t getting passed along” and I started forcing my iaido students to learn Niten so that I could continue learning.

All these teaching grades and permissions/orders from sensei are well and good, but don’t really create instructors. That happens when the student in question believes they actually have the ability to teach. No amount of paper or yelling can change that, it has to come from the student himself. The other reality is that even if you have the grade, the permission and the belief that you can teach, you still need a place to go teach. Curiously, in a small town this is hardly ever a problem, while in the crowded city, along with lots of other dojo in your own and many other arts, it can be a real problem.

When should I teach?

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Bwahahaha you thought that meant something else?

Kim Taylor
March 28, 2016

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