How to Zoom With Your Sensei

I was talking to a friend a few months ago, about teaching through the pandemic. One thing that came up was how many people had been doing Zoom sessions. I understand why. We have not been able to gather in person as we normally would and Zoom has acted as a substitute. It has helped some dojo stay open and give their students the best experience they could in a difficult time. I have even heard some talk about how it was better, allowing more access to teachers and material without the need for travel, and at lower cost. Sure, it doesn’t allow for contact, or physical corrections, or breaking off into smaller groups or pairs to work on something, but it does enable certain types of training, primarily solo or form work, and a certain type of instruction, primarily lecture and demonstration. We realized we could balance the up and down sides, particularly as a stop gap during a pandemic. Some good some bad, but probably better than nothing. But the thing we kept returning to was that it just wasn’t as much fun.

Fun, that is, for us. From what I’ve heard students have mixed experience with the format. Some don’t like it, some love it. But regardless, the upsides seem to be primarily for the students, particularly those who are newer to the material. I’ve done a couple of Zoom classes, as requests and to see what I thought of the format. And yup, it was nice to see the students, as best I could in little boxes on the screen, taking in some of the material and having a good time. But indeed it just wasn’t as much fun.

What do I mean by fun? Well, I didn’t enjoy it as much, or feel I could actually teach. I couldn’t really see who was getting it and who wasn’t. I couldn’t read the room well enough to improvise, to add, remove, or change material to get the lessons across. I couldn’t touch people to correct them, offer appropriate pressure to help them better understand. I missed seeing the lightbulbs switching on as a shift in the class helped someone suddenly get what we were doing. And of course there was no partner work. It felt incomplete, because our art is interactive and without contact none of the movement has any meaning. Teaching itself is interactive. I can certainly talk (just ask my students) but in general there is a blurry line between training and teaching. I felt like I was lecturing to the group instead of trying to figure out how to meet each person where they were and working with them to move forward. And I missed the casual social interactions involved in a normal class, even a seminar or workshop class. Learning a little about the participants, benefiting from their experience, sharing a story that popped up because of a question, or getting another perspective on what we were doing that would make me think about my practice. Learning. Building relationships.

So yeah, not as fun. But so what? What does it matter if the teacher is having fun? We are used to thinking of teachers a certain way. Their role is to aid and assist, to inform and to help us grow. (Looking at how we treat school teachers, it seems credit for a selfless “giving” spirit is far more important than respect for a difficult profession or providing a good salary and working conditions.) Teachers give. The relationship is one way. And yes, most people who teach do so because they love it, because they want to share their art and want to see others succeed. Most also feel a responsibility to pass on what they have been given, to keep the art alive and growing. I certainly see all this in the people I know who teach martial arts. But that conversation about zoom classes make me think about what we should expect teachers to get out of teaching, and what students should perhaps be thinking of in regards to their role.

Why should a teacher teach you anything? Especially in a volunteer activity like the martial arts? Well, one reason is that you have paid for class and shown up. Ok, that is a reasonable expectation. But from there? And what if the teacher isn’t getting paid? I wonder how many students think about what they are giving to their teachers in return for what they are receiving. How does your participation help the teacher? The dojo? The art? What have you done to encourage the teacher to be there, to share hard won knowledge and experience with you? What brings them back time and again?

I think these are important questions for any student. Just think about it. You have no “right” to knowledge or instruction, no matter how much you want it. If your teacher isn’t getting anything out of it, maybe they will reassess. They might stop teaching. Maybe they will come to teach out of habit and not bother to figure out how to pass the hard stuff on. Maybe they will come to train, not worry so much about teaching, not worry if you can get what they are doing or not. Maybe they’ll focus on faces through the door instead of quality instruction. Maybe they won’t try to figure out how to work with you so you can keep growing and just let you get what you can. How many people keep doing something they don’t see any benefit to? Your teachers’ efforts are helping you to learn and grow. What are your efforts doing for them? For the rest of the group? For the art? Are you showing them why they should keep trying?

One way to look at this is transactional- what are you giving in return for access and instruction? Have you paid your dues, put in your time? But another way is relational. Is the relationship a two way street? If the teacher just gives, the power in the relationship is one way- the teacher has it all and the student is simply a receiver. But that is pretty juvenile. If you are both adults the student should be able to meet the teacher part way, provide something that adds value to the teacher, to the relationship, and to the group. This may be simple: funds for the dojo, a thoughtful gift, taking care of chores and such, helping find other interested students, engaging, working, and showing the teacher how valuable what is being passed on is to them. It may be more complex- adding knowledge from other sources (academic, medical, other training), doing web design or management, teaching classes, making connections and opening doors for new opportunities, working to become a training partner for the teacher so you can help them keep improving. (This last is, in my opinion, particularly cogent- without strong and challenging training partners the teacher’s skills get rusty and they stop growing.) But regardless of what it is, it is important. You may not know it, but what you are contributing is one reason the opportunity to train, to learn, exists.

I am not suggesting the student has more responsibility than the teacher. In a traditional Japanese sempai-kohai relationship the larger responsibility lies with the sempai (and a sensei is simply a sempai of another stripe). But the kohai has an equally important role to play. Just as your teacher is working to figure out how he or she can best meet you where you are and help you grow, you are supposed to be working on your own to figure out how you can help your teacher (and the group you are both a part of) grow and become more of what they want to be. To be an equal part of the relationship. And, honestly, that is hard to do over Zoom. And not nearly as much fun.

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