Tuesday, February 12, 2013


This is a mediation on instructing and teaching. It was brought about when considering the objective of my book: to teach both teachers and students.

What does Sensei mean? Apparently it is translated as 'one who is born before.' This may be used in a literal or metaphorical sense. The person standing in front of the class was 'born' in that martial art before the students in front of them.

Sensei is also used to refer to a teacher and to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill. Teaching and mastery are very different qualities. A distinction that is lost on so many, including many sensei.

Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.

Who do you want to be taught by? Those who can do or those who understand? The two are not necessarily related.

Morehei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, was a brilliant practitioner. Reading some of the interviews or biographies of instructors that came after him commonly refers to confusion surrounding his teaching. On the other hand Jigoro Kano, founder of Kodokan Judo, is often considered a mediocre practitioner but without exception a great teacher.

Jan de Jong knew, and he did. He understood, and he taught. But was he a good teacher? A professional teacher who was also a senior instructor of De Jong's would explain to me that, technically, De Jong was not a good teacher.

'The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.'

Using the above criteria, it cannot be questioned that De Jong was a great teacher. He inspired, not like modern coaches with pep talks and rousing speeches, nor 'tough love,' but through his sheer enthusiasm, interest and joy of what he taught and wanted to share with others.

Technically, I am a better teacher than De Jong. Inspiration wise, I'll never come close.

I know some experienced and knowledgeable martial artists and they worship practical ability while dismissing theory. There is a reason why many elite athletes do not go on to become coaches. They can do but they don't understand. Would you seek out Roger Federer to coach you in tennis or the coaches that produced Roger Federer?

'The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see.'

I may not be the inspirational teacher that De Jong was, but my work (including my book) most definitely is targeted at showing the teacher and student where to look. Most instructors only know how to do a particular move, they don't know the 'why' and therefore, if the student cannot replicate the instructor's actions the instructor is lost.

'Before I started (college), that's the advice my dad gave me. He said to pick classes based on the teacher whenever you can, not the subject...his point was that good teachers are priceless.'

Choose your instructor wisely. Be discerning. The teacher's ability is separate from their practical ability.

A practitioner has a 'use-by date,' a teacher with understanding does not.


  1. Thought of this article when I covered a class for my instructor last night - I tried to be a good teacher, don't know if I succeeded but I tried! Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. SueC - thank you. If it makes us think a little more about our teaching, hopefully it'll make us better teachers.


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