Ego Pt. 2: Students

One of the most common places to see ego in the martial arts is in the need for teachers to “be the best” with their students. On one level it is appropriate: the teacher is supposed to be the highest level practitioner in the room. But how that plays out can be unfortunate. It is easy for a teacher to structure training so that it plays to his or her strengths, to keep the students guessing, and to substitute parceling out information for developing understanding. By, sometimes unconsciously, doing these things teachers keep the student-teacher relationship consistent. The teacher has the information and skill and parcels out what the student needs, the student learns. Again, on one level that is fine. On another it is pretty dysfunctional.bow-to-your-sensei

A good teacher should be assisting the student in their pursuit of both knowledge and understanding, should be moving them towards mastery. This requires understanding the subject, knowing how to teach, and a desire to see the student excel. At their base martial arts are about control and power. That often permeates the dojo. This can be healthy, as in the ideal sempai-kohai relationship where the teacher is looking out for the student’s best interest. It can also be unhealthy, in dojo where the students are taught, implicitly or explicitly, never to question the teacher, that the teacher is somehow special and they cannot be as good. This can be pernicious; students, particularly early in their training when the skill gap is huge, easily get in the mental habit of thinking of the teacher as better. By staying in this habit the student can unconsciously limit himself, keeping the teacher in the position of superior skill, of greater power.

That unconscious limitation is dangerous. If we are teaching people to develop themselves, we cannot teach them to stay under our thumbs. Particularly if you are teaching self-defense it seems criminal to inculcate any sense that one is inherently inferior to another person. That is a terrible lesson to teach, and one that can have consequences.

To break this the teacher has to let go of his or her ego. He has to work get his students to excel, hopefully to be better than he is. This can be hard on the teacher, as a student with higher skills can call into question the teacher’s validity. But a good teacher can have a student who is better than he is in some elements of the art and still maintain his standing by simply being a good teacher, a good leader, and a good person. By gaining respect. But if you need the standing the teacher’s role gives you, you probably can’t do that.

Most people want to do a good job. I am betting that if you teach you are thinking “yes, that’s me, that’s how I teach. I want my students to excel!” But is it really? Have you gotten around your own unconscious desires to keep the power relationships where they are? Are you actively undermining your students’ sense of you as an unassailable authority? I wonder how you might answer a few simple questions.

If you have been teaching more than 10 years, do you have students who are better than you at any aspects of the art? Can you name them? Do you have students who understand the principals behind the art and can therefore build from them as opposed to just follow your direction? Do you say so when you don’t know something? Do you allow your senior students to question you? To have a different perspective? Can you describe the difference between respect and status? Do you participate in exercises with your students in which you can “lose”, and do you ever? Have you ever had a student observe and critique your technique? Have you taken this criticism to heart and changed what you are doing?bow

If you are teaching your students well they should know what to look for, and your seniors should be able to see mistakes and other divergences from the ideals you have taught them. They should be able to see them in you as well as in each other. Unless you are perfect, of course. Then your authority should be unassailable.

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