The Sensei Speak: Part 2

The Sensei Speak: Part 2
By Kim Taylor

Out of the way, old man
Speaking of moving things along, we also discussed the movement of the “pioneer generation” up the ladder to make room for their students who are grading toward their level. Several of our seniors in the various arts were pioneers in Canada, and in many cases we noted there was actually a fight between our instructors and the organisation over “bumping them up” in rank. This might seem mysterious to some students just coming along, but there does come a time when you feel that: 1. You don’t really want, deserve or need a higher rank; 2. You really don’t mind if your students move past you on the ladder.

This of course is not good. A student will not, and should not feel good about passing an instructor in rank. From a rational point of view it will inevitably happen that a student will pass a teacher in skill, nobody improves until the day they die unless they die early, but to pass a teacher in rank is kind of like when the parent becomes old enough that the child must become the parent. It is not the natural order of things.

So, the pioneers are pushed along to make room for the students, sometimes against their wishes.

Borrowing Authority
As these things go, talk of our instructors brought up thoughts of how best to teach and we went on to discuss beginning instructors. I suspect we all did it, we all started out saying things like “In this situation my sensei said we should…” or, “Sensei says that at this place your hand should be…”, and so on. In other words we were speaking not from our own authority, but from that of our teacher. We were borrowing authority.

Note this was not just telling an instructional story about the teachers of the past, but we were actually trying to steal some respect. Not such an unusual thing for a beginning instructor to do, and at least we “sons of the pioneers” were speaking with a single voice (our teacher’s). We did take note of a rather concerning trend in this age of the internet, that of the junior instructor who borrows from multiple sources, who says, “Fred-sensei says this but then such and such is what Al-sensei recommends.” Can you imagine being in a class and having four instructors trying to tell you how to move your hand from here to there with feeling? Indeed.

None of the folks around the pitcher do this borrowing any more. We all agreed that you have to teach from your own knowledge and the karate instructor put it best. Teach what you know, and what you can show. If you get a question about technique, show them that it works, then teach them how it works.

Teacher to Coach
Of course, being the oldest by far sitting at the table, I had to put in a word for changing your world-view from teacher to coach. In my own arts I’ve seen several good teachers drop out of the arts when they became injured or too old to demonstrate. In fact I’ve had discussions with Hanshi who are struggling with the concept. Nobody likes having to show their students their weaker side, or admit to themselves that they aren’t the man they once were and have to tell rather than show. But if you live long enough, you start to shrink, proven fact. The one thing that doesn’t shrink is your experience, and that’s what you will be taking out of the art if you quit when your body does.

Of course if that experience includes knowing when your movements are not correct, it just makes it harder to experience that loss of physical skill.

Changing a habit
On the other hand, there are those who don’t feel correct from incorrect movement. One of my students who teaches elsewhere mentioned that a student who was in class with us recently “got” a movement but was unhappy that he couldn’t get that feeling back again next class. We decided that it’s actually not that hard to change a habit while sensei is right in front of you giving you external feedback – “That’s right, no, no, yes, no, yes.” It’s when you get back on your own that the feedback disappears, and the old habit comes back. In this case, the student had enough self-feedback to understand that he was not doing it “the new way” and so he has some feedback that will let him break his habitual movement.

You have to know you’re doing it wrong in order to do it right, whether in the shape of a strike with a stick, or living with other people.

Second dojo
The conversation went on for quite a while, and I’m sure the students who were there will become more thoughtful instructors in the years to come, which brings me to the concept of the “second dojo”. This is a term that is popular around here but often means “going for a drink” in a way that really just means going for a drink (no quotes). What you’re doing is sitting around with sensei in the hopes that he will get chatty and tell you some of the stuff you would need years to understand from swinging weapons in the dojo.

Be around the pitcher when sensei is chatting. You know this pouring of beer for sensei that Westerners sometimes have a problem with? Where do you have to be to pour a beer for sensei? Next to him maybe? Even if you come over from across the bar to pour him a drink he will often tell you to sit down and chat for a few minutes.

Have a question ready. There’s never a time when you aren’t learning and sensei is not teaching.

Kim Taylor
May 1, 2014