Part one
In the more than twenty-six years that I have been a student of Shotokan karate, I have yet to meet a teacher that I was willing to follow, who claimed to know it all.
As my teacher, Shihan Kenneth Funakoshi, 9th Dan, Chief Instructor of the Funakoshi Shotokan Karate Association, has often said, "in karate-do everyone is a student for life".
I for one could not agree more.
In all the years that I have been teaching, and in every class that I have ever taught, I like to think that at the end of each lesson I had learnt just as much, if not more, from watching the students, than they had learnt from watching, and listening to me.
The simple truth of the matter is, that in karate, no matter what your rank, you must never stop learning. The way I see it, the day you even start to imagine that you have learnt just about all there is to know on the subject of Shotokan Karate, thid is the day you should probably consider handing the task of teaching over to someone else.
On the karate road above all else, you must always be honest with yourself, and more importantly, honest with your students. That is why you must never, ever, be afraid of admitting as an instructor that you don't know it all, or for that matter ever will.
Besides, I for one don't know many students who would willingly follow a "know it all" for very long. Maybe it is because the "know it all" often comes across as having a very inflated ego, or maybe it is because they usually give off an "I am better than you and I will prove it to you" attitude, either way listening to someone who claims to be an expert on absolutely everything there is to know about Shotokan karate can get awfully boring, awfully fast.
Are there expert Masters the likes of, Funakoshi sensei, Kanazawa sensei, Nishiyama sensei, Kagawa sensei, and the many others far to numerous to list here, who have lifetime of knowledge, and a true wealth of karate information, that all of us should be willing to follow and to learn from?
You bet there are.
But, if we are going to tap into what they know we all better do it quickly, because that generation of Masters like the rest of us, is ageing by the minute, and you can be sure that when they are finally gone a great deal of their knowledge and expertise will go with them, no matter how many students of high Dan rank they leave behind.
Yet even these great Masters I am willing to venture, would tell you if you are brave enough to ever ask them, that even they don't know it all.
After all "student for life" means that learning is never ending, no matter how old you are, or how high your rank.
To me admitting that you don't know it all is the first step towards success as an instructor, because just as students who are egar to learn usually make the best students, instructors who are egar to continue learning usually make the best teachers.
From past experience here are six simple guidelines that I always try and follow in order to help me walk this same path, since I learnt long ago that you can not quench your thirst if you always try and drink from an empty cup:
1. An open mind will help you to overcome ego, without ego the truth is much easier to find.
2. An open mind will always acknowledges a good opportunity and quickly seize upon it, but always for the benefit of others, not just for the benefit of the self.
3. An open mind must always gives credit where credit is due, and accept honest and accurate answers to any question from any truly authoritative source, regardless of who or what that source may be.
4. An open mind is rooted in honesty, and as such does not judge individuals, or ideas with pre-determined prejudice.
5. An open mind does not look for validation from others, but instead gives validation to others, even if their ideas and beliefs are contrary to your own.
6. An open mind accepts the out come of all things over which it has no control, while at the same time acknowledging that all events are controllable.
These days, as in the past, "open mindedness" is not a trait found in everyone, but in a Shotokan teacher I believe it is essential. The sheer depth of the art of Shotokan karate makes this a vital necessity.
So as an instructor, teach whenever you can, but always make a point of learning while you teach.
Practice your basics with honesty.
Approach all your katas with a beginners mind.
Experiment with bunkai.
Read, write, talk with your students, and talk with your peers, but never, ever, stop learning.
Instill in yourself a hunger for knowledge, for knowledge is the food of an open mind, and an open mind is a sure sign of dedication in any karate practitioner regardless of their style.
Part two
As we all know instruction within the dojo is not always limited to lessons taught by the Chief Instructor of the dojo.
Often Sempai's of various ranks are given the privilege of assisting their Sensei by teaching an occasional class, or perhaps just a small groups of students within the class structure. Now suddenly instead of simply being expected to follow along in class like everyone else, these Sempai's now find that they are expected to be a knowledgeable leader, not only able to demonstrate all of the basic techniques and katas as they should be performed, but to also pass on that knowledge to those students now in their charge.
A hearty task indeed for a seasoned Ni Dan, let alone some newly decorated Sho Dan with little or no wear and tear on their obi.
With that in mind I long ago compiled a short list of points that I expect all of the Sempai's in our dojo to keep in mind when ever they are practicing their teaching skills in class.
I offer them to you in the hope that they will be of some help to you on your own journey through the tangled web of the art that we call Shotokan karate.
1. Teach facing the class.
Having the attention of all of the students, all of the time, is extremely important. Teaching facing the class will allow you to notice when a students attention wanders in another directions, plus, doing so will allow them to be able to better see and understand what it is you are trying to convey. In addition always be sure and demonstrate techniques clearly, and slowly, since it is important that all of the students, regardless of their rank, get your message.
2. Never try and teach everything you know.
When teaching a particular technique, combination of techniques, or a kata, stick to the basics, and only share as much information as the students in your group can absorb based on their current rank and level of expertise. No matter how knowledgeable or advanced your group may be, do not try and prove to them how much you know by trying to teach it all. Many basics kata movements for example have more depth to them than might first appear, and so focusing on good basics, and constant correct repitions will be more than enough to keep the students busy. There will always be another day and another opportunity for you to expand their knowledge with additional information.
3. Once you have made your point stop talking.
There is an old saying, "silence is golden". When the time comes for the students to practice what they have been demonstrating allow them to practice for a short period of time as a group, or on their own, and most importantly without interruption including the sound of your voice. In this way you allow them to focus on the task at hand and give them the opportunity to test the limits of their understanding. Yes, they will make mistakes, but by allowing them to do so for a limited period of time you can see what aspects of the lesson need additional attention. Often you will discover that as the students practice they will start to "feel" their mistakes and in doing so they will learn to correct themselves before you have to say anything. However, corrections should of course always be made right away if the student wanders to far off the desired path, but knowledge both good and bad always comes from individual practice.
4. In the beginning ignore the bunkai.
Kata is kata and it stands alone as a means of improving a students skill and understanding. A such it is not important to always teach the associated bunkai for every movement or technique found within a specific kata. For many reasons this type of specific information is often better dispensed once the kata has been practiced by the student for a considerable length of time. In this way the student will focus on learning the proper embussen, movements, and techniques, instead of focusing on specific applications for each movement found within the kata. Since there can be many bunkai applications in a single kata movement once you feel the student has attained the appropriate level of skill as far as the basic technique is concerned, then and only then should a bunkai applications be added in order to further enhance their learning curve.
6. Be careful where you put your hands.
At some point during a lesson you may find it necessary to physically put your hands on the students you are working with. While this is often an excellent way to convey information so that it can be more easily, and properly understood by the student and their "body's memory", you must always be sure that you are doing so because touching the student is the best course of action. It is important to remember than not everyone is use to being touched, and as such always be sure and do so slowly so the student can be prepared for it, and always be sure and do so in a respectful, and non-offensive manner, regardless of gender, age, or rank.
7. If you are unsure of how, when, or why, always ask.
If you are ever in doubt as to any particular aspects of a movement or a technique that you are attempting to teach, or if you are unsure of how a kata movement should be performed, then do not attempt to teach those movements or techniques. Only teach what you are "100% sure of" based on your current level of knowledge and understanding. As mentioned earlier do not try to impress the students in your group with what you think you know, let alone with what you do not know. Your task is to make sure the students come away with correct technique, not an inflated opinion of your abilities.
8. All techniques must be focused.
Whether kihon, kata, or kumite, make sure that the students make a point of "looking" in the direction that they are meant to be going at all times. There is nothing worse than watching a student moving in one direction in a kata, while looking off into space in a completely different direction at exactly the same time. Proper focus should be a hallmark of every exercise you teach, and that includes physical, mental, and spiritual focus as well. From beginning to end, everything the students do during class must have their full and undivided attention. Half hearted effort is the foundation of poor karate, so make sure you instill in the students in your care a desire to give a 100% to everything they do.
9. Look to the feet first, then work up from there.
Whenever a student looses their balance, or demonstrates poor stability as they move across the dojo, it is most often due to a problem originating with the lower portion of their body. Consequently the feet are the place to start looking for a solution, since Shotokan Karate is truly done from the ground up, not the top down. A good foundation at the start of any movement followed by proper balance, timing, rhythm, and focus throughout the entire movement, will inevitably result in a good stance at the end of the movement. So look to the feet first, then the knees, then the waist, then the torso and so on. In between the top and the bottom lies the answer, the trick in finding it is knowing what to look for, and where to start.
10. When teaching remember that little things make a big difference.
In standing basics, in moving combinations, in any kata, or for that matter while practicing any series of movements, always pay attention to the little things. Correct hand position, proper weight distribution, elbows tucked in, shoulders back, head up, eyes forward, low stance, hand on your hip, and oh yes, remembering to breath. All of these things and more must come together properly in order to create a quality techniques and quality kata.
11. Do not teach all the students the same way.
Whenever you are working with a group of students it is important to realize that they will differ in many respects, even though they may be of similar age, or rank. No two students are completely alike. As a result no two students will learn in exactly the same way. Often on the surface this fact may not be clearly evident, but you must never the less take it into consideration when you are teaching. So vary how you teach from student to student if necessary, there is nothing wrong with this. Always bearing in mind that the ultimate goal is to successfully teach the lesson at hand to everyone you are working with.
12. Learn to observe from a distance.
If you always remain in close proximity to the students you are working with their errors may not always be obvious to you. There is an old saying, "you can't see the forest for the trees". Distance creates perspective, and having a good perspective will create plenty of opportunities for you to observe the students entire range of technique and movement, and to make adjustments where needed. Distance will allow you to focus closely on all things.
13. Learn to identify physical limitations.
Knowing the physical limitations of each of the students you are working with is often very difficult to determine, especially if none of the students seem to have any visible injuries. Never use age as a means of measuring what you think a student can or can not do. No matter what limitations a student may have they should always be encouraged to push themselves within reason to the next level of performance.
14. When you don't know the answer admit it.
There is nothing worse than watching someone who clearly does not know what they are doing, trying to fake it. Trust me no one knows it all, and so there is never anything wrong with admitting when you don't know something and then asking for assistance. Since a dojo is a hierarchal society it is always best to address any questions you may have to the highest ranking person in the room at the time. This may be your Sensei, or perhaps in his or her absence a senior Sempai. In the end trying to fake your way out of a situation will only succeed in making you look foolish, and ultimately decrease the level of respect that others will have for you within the dojo society.
15. Reward effort.
And lastly, always reward effort. While there are always exceptions of course, most students work very hard during class and as such it is always a good idea to rewarded each of them at some point during your class. A simple "nice stance", or "good kick, well done", will not only be appreciated by the student as a recognition of their effort, but it will also go along way towards helping them to continue even further down the karate road.
Life is a journey, and so is karate.
If we as teachers can help students to stay involved with karate,
and to make karate an integral part of their every day lives,
the better off we will all be as "students for life".
Part the clouds - see the way.
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay