It has always been important to me to be a good instructor ever since I first started coaching beginners courses in Australia with a good friend of mine. We would plan our courses to make sure we were teaching all of the basics and then practice our delivery so that the instructions were clear. Aikido, like life, is not a science and most of what you learn is through experiencing the art rather than reading about it and studying it. O’sensei himself did not allow students to take notes as he intended them to learn purely through their experiences.
One good way to learn and improve yourself is by watching other instructors. The good and the not so good will become evident. Hopefully their mistakes become your lessons as much as their successes. Despite all of this analysis it is easy to sometimes get lost in the details. To become critical of the instructors whom you don’t see doing well or spending too much time focusing on the successes that happen along the way.
After 15 years of teaching in a number of capacities I have found out that it all tends to boil down to one very simple concept. Keep yourself focused on the student and not yourself. This seems obvious but it is very easy to get lost along the way. The details will take the front seat and the means will seem to justify the ends. We can fixate on a point to the exclusion of everything else not realise that we are suddenly communicating something very different to what we intend to.
A great example was something that occurred recently in an Introductory class that our dojo was running. One of the junior instructors was so focused on being a good ukke (training partner) for one of the beginners that he had not realised he was presenting something very formidable and impersonal to them. After quickly asking him how his day had been (obviously a hard day at his workplace which is very demanding and was still with him) and gently pointing out to him that he was not communicating with the beginner on a personal level he was able to bring himself back to the present and broke out of that shell.
We each have our own way of being for and about our students. I was recently talking to that same friend whom I started with at a training camp overseas. I haven’t seen him for a long time but he is a wonderful person who has a dojo that is so full he cannot accept new members. He was telling me that when the students call him sensei, this reminds him of his responsibility to them. The way that he explained it to me clearly showed that for him this truly was about his own students and works well for him*.
Losing focus on the students is easy. You begin to think that your rank is important and will “help” in some way like attracting students.
That is not too far a reach from becoming the kind of instructor that surrounds himself in the trappings of his rank within Aikido. Creating rituals that are designed to remind people of their status and seeing themselves as above other people. This kind of instructor rarely has many students and will have a tendency to lose them rather than attract them. Most people who step into a dojo recognise this behaviour as something that they do not wish to be associated with.
In contrast the head of our Aikido family is a wonderful Japanese Shinto priest. At the last training camp he took a day out to cook a feast for all of the other instructors, regardless of seniority. He probably would have done it for the whole school however logistics would not have made that possible. Most people think it is an honour to do something for this person, however he prefers to do it for his students instead. He does not follow any elaborate rituals other than those demanded by his practice of Aikido and Shinto. I see him always striving to bring people closer, not make distance.
Many little things are important to keep the focus on the students. Always keeping in mind the level of the student that you are practicing with is very important and being sure to adjust your technique appropriately so that they can experience it at their level. Not spending too much time explaining the intricacies of a technique but instead encouraging and helping them to practice so that they can find the way that best works for them. Looking after the dojo, persevering and always being available to teach the students that wish to come and learn. The list of details is endless and less important than the approach and focus.
I have been practicing this, subconsciously and consciously, for many years now and I can see it working wonderfully. My students, some of whom now are instructors, have a generous and giving attitude. We all enjoy our aikido and express this clearly to anyone who walks in and as a result most stay. I believe in O’sense’s mission to bring peace to the world and the attitude in my dojo is a working example of his teachings whilst still being a work in progress. As long as we all never stop learning by focusing on our students this will always be the case.
A dojo after all is there for the students, not for the instructor. Always keeping this at the forefront of our training is worthy of the art and anyone who teaches it.