Pick your fights – Kim Taylor, Feb 10, 2017

Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023

What does it mean to be a martial arts sensei? Part substitute parent, part spiritual advisor, part drill sargent…

Really? That’s a lot of work, especially for an unregulated non-profession. Give yourself a break and take the title for what it is. “Gone before”. Yes I know that words rarely have the meanings their etymology would say they do, but that lack of regulation? That means you can define the role any way you wish. You’re just a guy who knows some dance moves and are passing them along to those who want to learn them.

Me, I define “sensei” as “the guy up front who teaches anyone who shows up in class”. Makes life so much simpler, you don’t have to apply for admission to the dojo, I don’t have to vet you. Probably a good idea anyway since I teach in a public venue and more or less have an obligation to teach anyone who wants to join. If you want to pick and choose your students it’s probably best to own your dojo.

Now, just because I teach lots of drop-in folks doesn’t mean I consider all of them my students. The “student” thing goes both ways and I’m sort of careful about who I have to risk my career and peace of mind for. Yes, call me old fashioned but I figure if I take on an apprentice I have to feed and clothe them. The modern equivalent would be to support them in the art and maybe even bail them out of jail if they need it. Hasn’t happened, yet. Did get a nasty letter from a lawyer once, after supporting a student’s ranting on the internet. Turns out my connections to the big shots were good enough to fix things, but there you are. I’d rather go to court for someone who is a student, not someone who paid a month’s fees.

My students get to use my cottage, they get to use my sauna, in many ways they are like the old style apprentices, part of the family.

On the other hand, my students help build and repair said cottage and sauna. It goes two ways. What they don’t do is fawn over me and buy me beers (more than is reasonable) and pay me to teach them. They pay the University to get in to the class. Oh I keep forgetting, they actually do pay a “club fee” of $5 a semester now. That’s $1.25 a month fees. Don’t ask me why, likely a way for the department to keep score in their software. No button for “free” in software these days.

How do I choose my students? I don’t really, they come to class and eventually I learn their name and some time after that they show up at the cottage I guess. It’s a gradual thing, more about time spent than formal contracts and agreements not to share the secrets. Relax, I don’t know any secrets so the secrets are safe.

I actually don’t know much at all, which is why the selection process is more or less done on the student side. They stick around if they’ve picked me as their sensei.

Why am I going on about this? Mostly because I’m going to suggest that as an instructor you pick your fights. You pick the person and the thing you’re going to get mad at. First, check to make sure the irritating little begger in the second row is your student. That’s what I was saying above, figure out if you’ve got the duty to have an argument over whatever it is. If a student of some other sensei comes in to your class and stands in the wrong place or lips off about how some technique ought to be done, ask yourself if it’s your place to correct them or not.

If you decide that everything that goes on in your dojo has to be done your way, you’re going to spend more time correcting stuff that doesn’t matter (OK yes, my opinion) than teaching the stuff that does. I mean, how much time in every class do you want to spend explaining how you line up and how you bow? Last evening someone asked whether the students were supposed to call the bows with me. I explained that sensei usually doesn’t call the bows at all, the senior student does. At that point the senior students started looking around at each other, sort of thinking “how do we figure out who that is”? I saved their butts with my own but, “but we don’t do that in this dojo”. The proper etiquette is to pay close attention and do what they do in any dojo you’re visiting. That’s it, simple and effective. Polite isn’t a discussion, it’s doing what your hosts do, or doing what your club does when you’re home.

But it’s not my job to fix OPS (other people’s students). “OPS field in effect” is my mantra when I look up and someone is in need of an attitude adjustment. Not my student, Not My Problem.

It’s different if the situation is disrupting the class of course, then it does concern your students. I’m just suggesting that you make sure it’s not you who is disrupting the class by teaching some other student the error of his sensei’s ways. Yes it is in fact, impolite to fix someone else’s students. If they are in your class they have their sensei’s permission to be there, or they are attending without permission, either way you teach them by not teaching them. You teach by teaching your students in front of them. They can listen or not, not your students, not your problem.

You better pick the fights you have with your students. You should make sure it’s worthwhile to argue with them, just in case it goes all the way down to “get out of the dojo”. If not, well most things will actually fix themselves. If what they are doing isn’t actually dangerous, but not very helpful for them, well they have wasted a class. If you plan on keeling over tomorrow and have one last lesson to impart before then, sure yell at them and make them see it your way, otherwise, they will get it next week or next year. Students listen at their own pace.

I’m not talking about teaching here, I’m talking about arguing. If they get it in their head that they ought to be up at the end with the seniors, let them stay there and flounder around for a while, chances are they will drop back down eventually. That situation wouldn’t happen in my class, we mix the seniors up with the juniors by choice, we have a constant influx of beginners, people wander in and out depending on exams and the weather, so there’s a lot of “trying to catch up by looking around at other people”. It’s a traditional way to learn I tell them.

Also a hell of a way to weed through potential students. If they don’t like the class they are gone and no hard feelings on either side. I don’t have to deal with it, time fixes all things.

What does occasionally happen in my class is someone getting it into their head that some way they read in a book is better than the way I’m teaching. OK fine, if I’m grumpy I tell them what I think of that. Mostly though, if a student says “this is the right way to do it” I figure it’s a teenage thing and it’s good for them to win an argument with the old man once in a while so I nod and smile and say “carry on”. Eventually they realize the old man may just have been around that block before.

Pick your fights, the fewer the better for your peace of mind.

Kim Taylor

Feb 10, 2017


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