Brian Kagen pick: “From the Teacher’s Corner: What Makes a Good Teacher?” by Douglas Tong

“This question is constantly in my mind, being a schoolteacher. But in terms of martial arts, where we put our faith and decades of training in the hands of one person, how do we know if we have a good teacher or not?

Some people say, I know a good teacher when I see one. Ah! The approach based on intuition and feeling. We depend on our 6th sense to inform us if we have a good teacher. Or maybe it is about feeling, how I feel after a class, how I feel about this teacher. I may like the teacher and maybe this is all that counts. But I still haven’t answered the question: is he or she a good teacher?

Others believe that to depend on feelings alone would blind us, blind us to the teacher’s shortcomings. As they say, love is blind. Some teachers are very charismatic, even though they may know little. They can turn on the charm, and we are mesmerized. But what are we learning and what are they teaching us?

I talked to a student of mine recently who had studied at another school and when he asked the teacher what style of kenjutsu it was that he was learning, the teacher told him “Oh, don’t worry. It’s all good stuff.” But the teacher had nice cuts and showed one amazing technique where he threw the sword quickly from hand to hand. The explanation? It is a technique designed to confuse the opponent.”

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  1. If the teacher is commercially successful, that’s one strike against as far as I’m concerned. As far back as Musashi ‘the flower is valued more than the fruit’. So, if the person is popular… Or, it seems to me that ‘style’ is easily visible. For that matter mistakes are pretty easily visible to even beginners. I wonder if, fundamentally, style is the condensed essence of a practitioner’s remaining mistakes, possibly compounded with their body characteristics? If so, an obvious style…

    I judged my first teacher by his shodan and nidan candidates. Personally I think he had major personality and character flaws. Never felt he did me any favors, either. And he had uniformly successful test candidates who were notable for their strength and technical skill. But by my own criteria he lacked something. He was charismatic, thus commercially successful, and he had a flagrant stylistic expression.

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