From Dojo to Academia, How Teaching Martial Arts Made Me a Better Professor

How long have I been teaching? I would love to simply reply “since I was 13” or “almost 20 years”. Unfortunately, more often than not I end up qualifying my response. I’ve taught martial arts since I was 13 and taught academically since I was 25. Employers, colleagues, and new acquaintances all inevitably seem intrigued yet skeptical at the same time. I remember how nervous I was my first semester teaching at a university. That same skepticism trickled in as I wondered if I was ready. Six years have passed since that moment and I am convinced my time in the dojo is my greatest asset as an educator.

My philosophy on teaching has been shaped by a wealth of experience that has mostly been in the dojo. I believe teaching in any context will help you grow as an educator, but I believe specifically martial arts instruction develops qualities that the best educators have. After much reflection I’d like to share four professional qualities I owe to teaching martial arts that separate me from my colleagues in academia.

Ability to Multitask

Imagine having to watch over 30 kids ranging from age 6 to 16, beginner to black belt as they try to punch and kick each other? That’s what I call Monday. After getting over the chaos that is sparring class it’s important to focus on the fact that everybody learns differently. Some learn fast, some learn slow. Some learn through reading and/or hearing, others prefer to observe, and still others need to get their hands dirty and do.

As a martial arts instructor you learn to accommodate all of this. I’ll pair an advanced student with a beginner, trusting they’ll work with them responsibly and knowing that next round I need to challenge that student as well. I’ll split off a small group of four or five students because they all need to practice the same techniques. I’ll pull a student to the side to talk them down after a bad stretch knowing the next week it will be a focus of mine to build them back up. I’ll praise another student for the strides they made remembering I challenged them to practice last week and improve on a specific technique. Then the 45 minute class is over and it’s time for the next one.

Multitasking is so much more than simply watching a lot of students at the same time. It’s the ability to provide individualized instruction when necessary while maintaining the overall flow of the class. It’s the foresight to balance both short and long term goals for students as well as the recognition that each student has unique needs and should be challenged differently. All while building towards a common goal — their black belt.

The Importance of Building Relationships

During my time training new instructors one of the questions I get asked most frequently is “how hard should I push a student?” Unfortunately for the new instructor my answer is always “it depends”. There are a myriad of factors that influence how you instruct any given student on any given day including class size, the student’s mental/physical state, and the student’s current short and long term goals. Compounding those day-to-day factors is the harsh reality that challenging a student to grow demands the upheaval of pushing them outside their comfort zone. Reflecting on my own experiences as a student, the trust I had placed with my instructor was a guiding force giving them the benefit of the doubt that these sweat and tears were worth it.

If I worked in retail, the restaurant industry, or other service-based fields I would agree that consistency and equal treatment is a paramount focus; however, I have never considered teaching a service-industry, I am in the development industry. My focus is to develop my students to the best of my ability and often times that means treating individuals differently. Now this doesn’t mean I help some students and ignore others. What it does mean is I am consistent in my capacity and willingness to help each student, yet the exact strategy and handling of each student may vary. The hard-working student lacking self-confidence and the brilliant albeit lazy and unfocused student demand different strategies from me as an educator.

Ultimately the only way to find out how to treat your learners is to get to know them. Aside from helping you make informed decisions about your teaching practice, the simple act of expressing interest in a student goes a long way in improving student engagement. Getting to know my students is second nature from teaching martial arts. I have some black belt students who I have known since they were 5 and now we’ll go get a beer after workouts. I know coming into class that a student is dealing with bullying in school so I take a gentler approach while another student responds well to competition so I challenge them to be the best in class. In University I have a student who is excellent at following a process but struggles with knowing when each problem solving strategy is appropriate so I speak to them at a decision-making level rather than spending time fully working out problems. I know that English is the third language of another student so I focus on the semantics of word problems.

Getting back to that new instructor who wants to get the most out of their students, the first and most important step is getting to know your students. Earn their trust and you earn their effort. If I ranked all my teachers by trust, regardless of discipline, that list would look identical to the ranking of how much effort they put into connecting with me and it would look identical to the ranking of how hard I was willing to push myself for them.

An Appreciation for Mechanics

I’ve never been the strongest, fastest, or tallest person. Yet, I’ve learned through proper technique I can overcome any physical disparity with my opponent. In addition to the competitive edge I gain from excellent technique, I have become fascinated with the act of mastering mechanics because to me it is a tangible outcome of patience, attention to detail, and determination. Just like a kick or a punch, learning is a skill; a skill whose development is the accumulation of habits, both good and bad. However, unlike a kick or a punch, we as teachers cannot so readily observe a student’s thought process and subsequently assess their learning.

Students must learn and demonstrate a form (also known as a kata) to be promoted to their next belt. A form is a sequence of techniques that are often as old as the art itself. Most students equate learning with practicing their forms, so much so that when we practice individual techniques they look at me perplexed as to why we aren’t learning the curriculum. What they fail to see is that the individual techniques are what make up the form; we are simply drilling down to improve consistency and detail in a manageable chunk. This same phenomenon happens outside the dojo. If I did 10 push-ups every time I heard “Is this going to be on the exam?” I would be too sore to type this article! The workplace is no different. Time after time I review training courses where employees are instructed so specifically that a small variation in circumstance would leave them paralyzed and unable to adapt.

What is overlooked by less advanced martial artists is that “drilling” or practicing specific techniques is both a short and long term strategy. In the short term they are practicing a small section of their form, but that technique or section is likely to appear in future forms or be a building block for a new technique. By focusing on their mechanics we are setting a stronger foundation for growth. I’ve adopted this mentality when teaching in any context by emphasizing process with my learners. I’ll often have students solve problems in front of the class or in small groups so I can observe their process and guide them towards better practices. The end result is students who are able to better adapt to new challenges and apply their learning in new contexts.

Leading by Example

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate the title ‘professor’, it sounds so one-dimensional. I much prefer “teacher” because to me it implies other roles such as mentor, coach, role model, and leader. From a young age we are taught in martial arts to lead by example. When I began taking class this meant “do the right thing so others will follow” and its meaning hasn’t changed much over my 20 years of practicing martial arts. Now in a position where I am teaching others instead of being the student, leading by example is a compact way for me to express that I do not consider myself above my students. The behaviors that are expected of them should be demanded of myself. If I have my class do 50 push-ups I need to be willing to accept 50 push-ups under the same circumstances. Often I will participate in exercises with my classes for the sole reason of proving to them that what is being asked of them is not excessive and is in fact worthwhile.

Leading by example also communicates that I have a vested interest in the success of my students. I have always measured my success by my ability to reciprocate student effort and transform said effort into achievement. I genuinely care that the effort of learners does not go to waste. Like a soldier whose general is willing to march into combat with them, I always am willing to work together with my students rather than distantly presenting and watching them sink or swim. Unfortunately too often I hear and see a combative relationship between learner and their organization. An undergrad who is assumed guilty until proven innocent, or who is told to “go to the tutoring center” because their skills are weak, or who feels bounced from one faculty member to another will continue to grow disenchanted. It is at this point the student is no longer an active driver in their development but rather a passenger in the system giving minimal effort and certainly unwilling to pay their debt forward.

Originally published at on May 27, 2016.

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