At the Head of the Class

A Sensei, the good ones run deep.

There exists in every dojo a unique relationship. It exists between the students, and their teacher, who is referred to in class as, "sensei". For a great many reasons this relationship is often difficult to explain. Especially to anyone on the outside of the dojo looking in. Since for the most part these people only tend to "see what they think they see".

To some of these onlookers the sensei may simply appear to be the person who stands at the head of the class and gives instructions to the students. Which they then follow until the class is over. To others, the sensei may simply be seen as someone they can entrust their three children with, so they can then go off shopping at the Mall for an hour, or two. While to still others the sensei may simply be seen as someone they pay money to each month. In the hope that the children they drive to the dojo will finally find the manners, courtesy, and respect that they feel are lacking both at school, and at home. 

Things in life however, are often not what they seem to be on the surface. And a sensei is no exception. So just what is a sensei? That is a question that few people will ever really find the answer to and for a very simple reason. To truly find the answer to that question what you must first to do is sign up for karate classes, put on a gi, then step inside a good dojo and then train under the watchful eye of a very dedicated and reputable sensei for a good many years. Even then there is still no guarantee that you will have the answer that you seek. At the end of twenty years though, I can assure you that you will at least be walking in the right direction in your search for that answer.

If however, you are like many people in our fast paced, fast food, need to have it now world, and you want the answer "now" rather than later, perhaps you might take a different approach. Start by asking some of those students who do enter a dojo each day and willingly leave their sweat on the dojo floor in partial payment for all that they will learn. For the knowledge they seek is not free, and it can not be bought with just money. It must be paid for in a different way. Payment comes in the minutes, hours, days, months, and years that a student spends in proper repetitive practice under the sensei's constant gaze. In a dojo where a good sensei plays no favourites.

At each level of their progress the student will find that the intensity, and the work load will constantly be increased in keeping with any new rank that they achieve. To new students the sensei will be patient, and understanding, gently giving over the basic building blocks of the art Shotokan Karate. While at the same time making it quite clear that there is always room for improvement.

To the middle kyu ranks the sensei will be more demanding, seeking more accuracy, and even greater effort. Leaving no doubt in the minds of these students that the effort that got them to where they are, is not nearly enough to take them where they want to go. Still more practice is needed.

While to the senior kyu ranks on the other hand, the sensei will be a hard task master. Seemingly never satisfied with their any of their technique, or the effort they put out. Instead the sound of "mo ichi do" (one more time) will constantly ring in their ears. Especially, as they draw ever closer to their Sho Dan exam, and its tightly held promise of a black belt, and the title of, sempai. It is often at this point in time in a student’s journey down the karate road that their understanding of what a sensei is will start taking shape.

Built up over their many years of loyalty, and hard training under the sensei's guidance senior black belts might if asked categorize their sensei as, a mentor, a father figure, a confident, an inspiration, or perhaps even a friend. Yet in truth a sensei can be all of these things at once, or none of these things at all. But one thing is certain. As a teacher, motivator, and a student’s main source of information on the why, when, and the how of karate-do, a sensei will see a student in a way that they rarely see themselves. With an unbiased viewpoint a sensei will always know what to impart to each individual student, and when they will need that knowledge. For the primary goal of the sensei above all else, is to take those students in their care as far down the karate-do road as possible. Always with the hope that for the student it will become a life long journey.

I for one hope that as a karate-ka you already have a true sensei. Someone you can trust. Someone who persists in teaching you even when you think that you will never get it. Someone who gives, but doesn't take. If you do find that person may I suggest that you hold on tight, and never let go. Respect them, follow their lead, and learn by their example. You will find that they will ask for no reward save that of loyalty, dedication, and a never endling willingness to challenge your body, mind, and spirit. That is why they are Sensei.

And in time if the fates are kind to you, after many, many years of training for the love of the art, you too may one day find yourself standing at the head of a class.

Remember: "Understanding what you think you know is the hardest part of learning".