When I think back to the most impactful teachers from my life, there is a commonality. They tended to push me hard, and really challenge my capabilities; but from a place of love. They had a strong backbone and were even strict at times, but also pumped out positive energy and passion. As martial arts teachers, we want to emulate this double-edged sword of strength and caring. We want to show our students that we have great self-confidence, but are not full of ourselves.
Check Your Ego at the Door
There is a fine line between showing off to stroke your own ego, and inspiring a sense of wonder into your students. Some of us have experienced instructors who are so strong, athletic, and capable that they are constantly showing off their moves. Don’t get me wrong, we need to show our students that we know our stuff, and I never recommend asking your students to do something that you would not do. But, your student base is not an audience, for whom you are entertaining.
Your students can smell nervousness or lack of self-confidence, and it keep them trapped in their own lower emotions. Walk onto the mat ready to rock and roll, even if you are not the world’s best at a certain technique that is on your class plan. You can be the best at teaching it and helping your students master it. Have a plan. When I have a plan, when I am organized, I feel like I can hit every note - the warm up, drills, games, techniques - they are all locked and loaded. I might know the ins and outs of a technique, but without a fun and varied class plan, I feel a little naked when I walk on the mat. Everyone is different - but walk out prepared and you’ll be brimming with confidence.
Leadership is a dictatorship not a democracy. Don’t let your students run class, don’t have them do whatever they want when they want to. You need to have a set of rules that must be followed and are consistently enforced. Many traditional martial arts have a set of etiquette that is to be followed. Even if you teach a modern martial art, it is incredibly important that you have a set of expectations before, during, and after class. This will help you maintain control without having to herd cats. Here are some things to consider:
- What happens when students show up late to class? Where do they go? Do students know that this is the procedure? (Make it known in the new student manual, or at the time of signing up, or a new student orientation class.)
- What if a student does not have their uniform? Does not have their belt, or does not know how to tie it?
- Where are students supposed to be before class begins?
- What if someone has to use the bathroom? (Have them raise their hand and respectfully ask to be dismissed).
- Is there a bowing procedure when walking onto the mat?
- Are parents and siblings/toddlers being loud? Do they have a place to go? Is it known that they should be quiet during class?
- What happens immediately after class? Do students linger about and joke with the instructor while the next group of students is ignored?
A great teacher takes an interest in their student. This does not mean that you should make an effort to be overly involved with a student outside of the school - visiting them at their house, hanging out, going to parties, etc. Clearly use your best judgement and set boundaries. But, how can we really show that we care? Here are some things that I do:
- Always greet the student and their family before class. I like to ask how their weekend went, how school is going, ask about sports, their job, or anything that really matters.
- Check on their progress. Address a certain technique or issue that they are starting to overcome, or ask if they have been practicing at thome. If you see a student struggling with something, give them a list of things to do at home, or show them a special movement that helped you to master that movement.
- Remind your students that you were a student/white belt once. Sometimes our students see us as superhero experts that never make mistakes. Tell them about mistakes that you made, or show your own vulnerabilities (perhaps in a new style you’re learning) and mistakes that you are prone to. Students like to know that you’re human too.
- Send an awesome job card, birthday card, or a quick email/letter talking about how well they have been doing in class. Getting a piece of mail from your instructor is not just worthy of being put on the refrigerator, but for many, is a momento that they will never let go of.
You are a role-model for all of your students - whether you like it or not. Not just for your youth students, but your adults as well. You’re the awesome black belt - you can kick over your head, submit any student, do 300 push-ups in a row...you have rock-solid integrity and are well-respected in your school and out. There is no reason to keep up a facade - it is okay to be yourself, but remember that your students want to emulate you. If they see you doing something rather questionable on social media or hanging out with an unexpected crowd or place outside of their training, it could really mar their viewpoint on you, and could potentially be a major “let-down.” Be yourself, but be mindful that others are always watching, and that can be an opportunity or a danger.
Like a Preacher in a Church
A great martial arts teacher is like a charismatic pastor of a local church. His audience is holding onto every word. They feverishly look forward to next week’s sermon and opportunity to bask in the glory of the group’s worship. They have great respect for this preacher because they know he/she is transparent, righteous, and has integrity.
If you walk into a hoppin’ school, you will get the same feeling. The student are intently watching, laughing, listening to every word and instruction. The harmonious kiais fill the room like the echo of a choir singing the gospel. The school is brimming with the energy of personal growth and moving up the rungs of self-mastery.
Michael Hodge is the founder & head instructor of Ultimate Bo, and teaches this art on the Global Martial Arts University. He also runs a kids-only private academy in rural North Texas.