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3 Words All Instructors Should Know

3 Words All Instructors Should Know: “I don’t know.”

If you’re a martial arts teacher, these are among the most important words you can speak in your dojo. Why? Because when a student hears you use these words, it can set the standard by which he or she judges you and your facility.

3 Words All Instructors Should Know
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THAT MIGHT SEEM ODD. As a sensei, after all, you’re supposed to know. That’s why you’re a sensei, isn’t it? If you signed up for a French class and on the first day you asked your teacher how to say “hello” in French and he said, “I don’t know,” you’d probably take steps to get your tuition refunded.

So, yes, if you don’t know the basics of your art and how to teach them, you shouldn’t be running a class. If, however, you have students who have trained for 10 or 20 years and you’ve raised them to high levels of competency, then “I don’t know” is some- thing they should hear, at least from time to time. And if it’s in response to a question from a beginner, answering with “I don’t know” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I’VE HEARD teachers admit that occasionally students — even beginners — will pose a question and they will have to say, if only to them- selves, “I’ve never thought of that.” It’s natural to feel embarrassed. Don’t wallow in that sentiment, though. Instead, use it as a catalyst to discover the answer.

The correct response when you’re asked a question to which you don’t know the answer is, “I don’t know; I need to investigate that.” Then do it.

Perhaps the question is historical or technical. It doesn’t matter. It’s your task as a teacher to find the answer and give it to the student. How should you do this? One of the best ways is to ask your teacher. Oh, you don’t have a teacher? Well, that might be something you want to reconsider. Are you really at a place in your pursuit of mastery where you no longer think you need a guide?

Perhaps your teacher has died or is otherwise unavailable. In this case, you should have colleagues or peers who can be consulted. The strength of your art depends considerably on having close relationships with other teachers. This is a good example of why those relationships are important.

As soon as you discover an answer or at least an explanation, it’s your responsibility to go back to the stu- dent. Tell him or her what the answer is — and how you discovered it. This serves a good purpose: It shows the student that all arts involve an ele- ment of cooperation and mutual effort. It also shows the student that no matter how long one trains, there will always be more to learn and that even for a teacher, a humble attitude is essential.

IF THE STUDENT who posed the question is a senior, the situation is apt to be more complex, more challenging. At this point, you may want to change your reply: “I don’t know; we need to investigate.”

All seniors need to accept the reality that, even though the teacher/student relationship will always imply a certain order, that relationship still changes over time. The student can never be “equal” to the teacher in the social sense. The influences that Confucian thought has had on the martial arts are too deeply imbed- ded. The student must always defer in some way to the teacher — just as we should to our parents. The senior and the teacher do, though, through many years of training, become like colleagues. The student respects the teacher’s position, and the teacher comes to respect the knowledge and skill of the student. More and more, they explore the path together — which is why I said both parties should investigate to find the answer.

THE FIRST TIME a student asks a ques- tion you cannot answer and you say, “We need to think about this and work on it,” it should make the student feel simultaneously proud and humble. He should feel proud because it signals his progress along the way. He should feel humble because it means he now has more responsibility. You no longer expect him to exclusively play the student. He realizes that he’s part of the process and must take a more active role in training.

When you, as the teacher, depend on a student to assist you, the study of the art becomes far more exciting and rewarding. Instead of being something the student does, the art becomes something the student is.

WHETHER YOU receive a question from a relative beginner or an advanced student, there’s another thing you should keep in mind: Your student doesn’t expect you to have all the answers. He knows any martial art is layered and complex, an endeavor that takes a lifetime to mas- ter. He doesn’t lose respect for you when you say, “I don’t know.”

Admitting you don’t know does not diminish you in the mind of your students. In fact, it can elevate your students’ sense of self. They see, in your admission, that the model of the sensei is not some fantastic goal, unattainable by all but a few whose powers are nearly superhuman. They see that you face the same challenges they do when they come to the dojo.

There’s a great deal of ego involved in the combat arts. As a teacher, you must be even more sensitive to this than your students are. One way to be aware of these problems — and to address them — is to use those simple words from time to time: “I don’t know.” 

This article originally appeared in a 2020 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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