Have You Hugged Your Sensei Today?


Have you hugged your Sensei today? It is “International Appreciate Your Sensei Day” after all. … Okay, I made that up. But really, isn’t every day really one in which you appreciate that which you receive from your Sensei and other instructors?  I am particularly appreciative today for a reminder lesson I recently received on effective teaching methods.

Now, I do have a little tea in my blog cup on this one. I’ve taught in special education classrooms, in residential treatment facilities, and in public schools.  I’ve coached middle school soccer, track, and basketball.  As a graduate student, I regularly lectured to 500 or more University students. I’ve presented or co-presented research at national and international conferences in front of thousands of professionals.  Oh man, despite such fairly extensive experiences, did I ever get schooled by a 10 year old boy a few weeks ago on how a one size fits all approach to teaching is a recipe for massive failure.

At our annual training workshop with the US Director of our karate federation, I was tasked with helping run a lesson on use of the bo (staff).  We’re spinning; we’re spinning; we’re spinning the bo when “plink …. plink  …. plink, plink, plink, rattle, rattle, settle”  Ah, the distinctive sound of someone dropping the bo on a basketball court floor. (Cut me a little slack, how would you describe the sound?)  The guilty party – a 10 year old green belt from our dojo.

“Oh, ten pushups,” came out of my mouth – a reduced sentence for dropping a weapon while training.  The student had picked up the bo and stood at attention, eyes forward, back straight, heels together, bo and hands to his sides – he didn’t move.   …  With a hundred people in the gymnasium, I thought the noise had prevented the student from hearing me.  “I know it’s usually 25, but you can just do ten,” I clarified.  Nothing.  I stepped into the student’s line of sight, “it’s okay, you can do them now and then we’ll all move on to the next exercise.”  There was no ambiguity at this point – I had eye contact with the student.  I had spoken gently but firmly.  Drop a weapon – do some pushups.  It’s just the way it is.

The student dropped down and made it about half way down on number 1.  I immediately realized that I had COMPLETELY BLOWN IT.  His arms shook under the weight as he struggled to push himself back up.  Trying to redeem myself, I quickly instructed “you can just owe me the rest.  Let’s get back to work.”  He got up and we all moved on as a group.

During the next break, I stopped to talk with the student’s mother.  “I’m sorry Mrs. X (not her real name).  I think I was a little tough on Student Y (nope, not his real name either).  I may have inadvertently upset him.”  I told Mrs. X what had happened.  She understood immediately.  She explained that her son has a hard time with pushups and that they usually do them at home so he can work on his upper body strength without everyone watching.

Let me recap.  There are 100 people in a gym with you, many of whom you don’t know.  You’ve been working hard – you’re hungry, you’re tired.   You are the cause of a sound that makes everyone pause, albeit momentarily, to take notice of the associated event that we all know so well.  Under these conditions, you are then asked to perform a task which makes you extraordinarily self-conscious.  You are 10 years old.

Options?  The student could have cried. He could have stomped his feet and thrown a temper tantrum.  He could have wet his pants and gone running for his mom.  I likely would have done all of the above at age 10.  Heck, now at 44, I probably still would.

He didn’t though. Despite the frustration and anxiety he likely felt inside, this remarkable 10 year old didn’t even flinch.  He did one of the most respectful things he could do  – he stood in a perfect attention stance as he contemplated how to handle the situation.  When the time came to do the deed, he didn’t talk back, he didn’t roll his eyes, he didn’t walk away.  He dropped and did the best he could.

I’m proud of him.  Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate-Do, once said “The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants.”  At age 10, this young man demonstrated more character, resolve, and respect than is shown by many adults with whom I interact on a daily basis.  Hopefully, by now, Student Y has forgotten my blunder.  I, however, will not forget the valuable reminder he gave me that day.

You see, long after the world has forgotten whether you failed or succeeded, were slighted or wronged, won or lost, it will remember with great clarity how you conducted yourself under such circumstances.

So, what does all this have to do with International Appreciate Your Sensei Day?  Nothing really.  I kind of got off on a tangent and liked where I ended up so I went with it.  Sorry.

It is funny sometimes how the lesson learned through the study of karate-do has little, if anything, to do with the material being practiced. That happens to me quite a lot actually. I think I’m heading in one direction only to find myself arriving at a different but equally interesting destination. It’s okay. Eventually I end up where I thought I was going. It just takes me longer. I am fortunate that my Sensei is patient and understands this about me. It’s like at a Nitan Bo seminar last year when I was struggling to learn a kata. I overheard our Sensei’s colleague (respectfully) pointing out “Shawn doesn’t seem to be getting this.” My Sensei’s response, “It’s okay, he will.”

Indeed.  I did … eventually.  Similarly, I will get to my black belt and beyond someday – but at my own pace and on my own path.  If I am lucky, I will have plenty of side lessons like the one above along the way.   You see, my Sensei teaches me karate, and, in doing so, provides me an ever growing repertoire of jaw-droppingly lethal techniques I hope I never have to use.  More importantly, my Sensei and instructors walk with me, encourage me, and guide me in my exploration of karate-do as a framework for living and a way of being.   With every step along that path I become a better person.   Hmm. Maybe this post really is about Appreciating your Sensei after all.





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