My Way of Teaching – Hate It Or Love It

These past weeks I have been indulging myself in a fat bunch of newly purchased Karate books. Sort of like early Christmas presents for myself.

The result has been new, fresh, ideas (along with the compulsory sleep deprivation).

I think I will maybe review some of the books later, but for now I want to talk about something I read in one of the books:

The book is “Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques” by Mark Bishop. However, this book is not new.

I have had it for some years.

But the thing is that I have now met many of the people (in Okinawa) described in the book, in person, and therefore the book feels like a whole new book, now that I read it again!

And one thing that strikes me is an interesting quote by Zenpo Shimabukuro (hanshi, 10th dan, Seibukan Shorin-ryu). If I remember correctly, when the author asks what Shimabukuro’s take on teaching is, he replies something along the lines of:

“Why should I beat my body up for students, only to have them pass me by on the street later unnoticed [when they have quit]?“.

As you can see, he is expressing his feeling about students who quit. He feels that he is training/teaching hard every evening for them, but still they sometimes quit, and he seems to feel almost betrayed or let down in a way.

Right? At least that’s how I understand it.

But is that really how he feels? Honestly?

I don’t understand it.

Or, well, I understandbut I don’t agree.

You really shouldn’t feel that way. If that is how you see teaching, then you are probably bound to one day end up as a depressed pile of flesh draped in a faded black belt at your local bar, drowning your sorrows in lukewarm sake, crying “Why, oh why?! I gave them everything!”

Because, no matter how you see it, people will quit.

And ultimately, you can’t control it.


You don’t know how your students think or feel about things. They might have other more important stuff to do, and thus have to set Karate/Kobudo/whatever to the side for a while.

Or for ever.

However, they are probably not doing it to be mean to their instructor. I seriously doubt there are people who think “Hehe, now that I have sucked all of the enthusiasm and skill out of my sensei it’s time to quit, so he/she will really feel worthless! Time for a new dojo!”

People just need to quit sometimes. And you mustn’t take it personal, if you happen to be the instructor.

I know, because some important people at our club have quit. A recent example: One had just taken the black belt in Kobudo, and another was just about to test for his black belt in Karate. They both just quit.

Want more? Well, every time we have gone to Okinawa for training camps, only a handful of the participating students have continued practising when we return home (I like to call it “The Okinawan Karate Tourist Syndrome”). Seriously, I think four or five students quit immediately after our last year’s Okinawa trip. It’s insane.

So, how should you look at it?

How should you be teaching if you want to avoid ending up feeling like Zenpo Shimabukuro?

My method is the following:

Don’t teach for others. Teach for yourself.

I realized that a couple of years ago. Today, I couldn’t care less if somebody quits.

It’s their loss.

I don’t teach because I want to improve the students. No way.

I teach in order to improve myself.

Naturally the students improve too, of course.

Every training I try to discover new things that I can impart to the students. Every training I try to improve methods for warming up, for explaining techniques, for doing two-man exercises, for kata, or for understanding details in basically anything. The challenge is in getting students to understand it.

And I’m not exaggerating when I say that it leaves me completely exhausted every evening. Not so much physically, but mentally.

I try to teach in a more clever way every training. Constantly aiming to teach better than I did the night before.

And that way both I and the students learn a thousand things every time I teach.

Because of the fact that people don’t always understand what you say, I need to continually attack problems from every angle, which gives me new ideas and new (read: better) ways of doing things all the time. And I love it.

Students might come and go.

But I don’t.

I stay – teaching and learning.

And the fact that students come and go is actually good – because people are unique, which forces me to learn new people all the time. That way I am forced to adjust my teaching methods constantly, to fit the audience. That’s a challenge I like.

  • For the students it really feels like I care.
  • For the onlookers it really looks like I care.

But the truth is, I only do it for myself.

Might sound cynical, but that’s how it is.

Either that, or one day becoming insane.



  • Marc G
    I am so glad someone thinks deeper into teaching than :how big is my dojo?”. Having (or keeping) many students is not the point at of teaching at all. And, as someone who has been on both sides of that table as well, I agree completely that you never truly learn until you teach. I did not catch on to this until late in the game. There were certain techniques and abilities that came naturally. Everyone has some of those I guess. But, after a few years of training at them and never really having had to work to learn them initially, I was at a loss to instruct anyone else as to how to do them. It was like explaining how to breath. I could not do it. I had to relearn some of my most basic techniques from the stand point explaining them to someone else. That is a very humbling experience. But, I found that I was looking at my other skills with new more discerning eyes and it drove me to improve there too. Exactly as you said…teaching (in my case) is not about the students staying or going. It’s about me teaching and learning with them while they are here. Great post!
  • Narda
    I very much enjoy your blog, and the sharing of your journey, so I hope you won’t mind if I disagree on this particular subject. I found this entry disconcerting because it is a deep topic, and one that I constantly revisit, ‘Why do you teach?’ Of course, anything we do is essentially in order to gratify our needs. But taking on the role of ‘teacher’ comes with responsibility. It can be a burden we grudgingly accept as long as we ‘get’ something out of it. On the other hand, while I haven’t read the original quote/context by Zenpo Shimabukuro, I feel his statement could be pointing to something outside of the current discussion, and that is the idea of ’sacrifice’. Why should I beat my body up for students, only to have them pass me by on the street later unnoticed [when they have quit]“. Inherent in teaching is allowing your ’self’, physical body and I would suggest conceptual ’self’ as well, to be used in order to instruct. As in Aikido, the teacher is uke, receives. This is an act of charity, of sacrifice, on the part of the teacher in order to transmit knowledge, and in order to do it, on a certain level….a teacher must care. They may deny it, and depending on what place they may be at the time be unaware of it. Or, they may become jaded, even despair as the students take and take, and then quit. But I really think that for the growth of the teacher, he/she MUST care as it is part of the ideal of ‘letting go of ego’.
  • @Narda: Finally somebody disagrees! Well, as I wrote, I believe in continually sharing what you constantly learn, in order to learn more. I see it as “letting go” of knowledge, while in the process gaining more. And by more I mean in quality. I think that approach leads to better and better teaching, in an upwards spiral, since you are constantly improving yourself… feeding yourself by teaching. And that will actually get you more students in the long run (the long tail anyone?) which sadly eventually leads to a plateau. But by then you are a true master of teaching, with a big following of dedicated students who continue improving and spreading “your” knowledge (which they already probably have been doing for a good while). If you feel you need to care about the students MORE than that, then I think it can be detrimental in the long run (apart from being an inferior strategy from my point of view), and I honestly don’t think that is needed in order to “let go of the ego”. Care about your own quest for knowledge in the first hand… …or else your teaching will always be shallow. And the rest will fix itself. I believe.
  • Andi
    Becoming a teacher is critical. Many become trainers and mostly only train others, not themselves anymore. Some end up just trying to explain everything instead of doing it, giving it a chance. Trainers always need someone to test their skills as a trainer on. When I was in jujutsu classes, I later thought that those guys only needed some beginners to explain the matters to themselves, i.e. students as a vehicle for clarifying things not yet understood by themselves. Unconsciously, though. Many pray things and don’t do it themselves. The more they talk, the worst they get in believing there set up logical fallacies. But there are also others. Getting the best out of a student is to acknowledge that YOU may learn from HIM. In this sense, he/she is your friend. I was thinking to advertise in the newspaper for a training partner. Someone who just likes to kick it. As it was in soccer when I was young. There was always someone who played the game with you. Or in Rock & Roll. Not yet found this in Karate. It’s so sad. I cry. Merry Christmas and happy holidays everybody!!!!!!
  • Narda
    Yes. That’s it: friend. The people who committ to training WITH you, the feedback that occurs when folks train together, these people are in essense some of your best friends. How can one not care about them?
  • Igor
    The way of karate is the way of returning (or revisiting, kinda of hard to translate to English) my sensei always says, and what is there a better way of refurbishing your basics (which are well… basic::)), then through teaching others and seeing all the little details, and learning about you through others?::) Thanks for yet another awesome post Jesse – san::)
  • Ed
    Teaching is a personal choice for every instructor and there will be a continuum of reasons why instructors teach. Some will get fullfilment from instructing while other will train with the students and bond with them. Whichever their reason an instructor has, that is their choice and I can’t critize them for their choice or comment on which is better. I think that what Zenpo Shimabukuro’s comment was towards; why should he stress himself to teach someone that won’t show respect or gratitude for what the teacher has done for them. This is something that I think is lost in our present culture, the understanding that learning karate is an honour that the student needs to appreciate the effort sensei’s go through to teach. Some student’s will put a lower value on instructions than what sensei’s put on the instructions that they give and my impression is that is what bothered him.
  • Igor
    I agree with Ed, people today get everything on a silver platter, and just don’t know how to appreciate… In my country (it was a part of a bigger one – Yugoslavia, before) karate in the time when my sensei started just came, and had its blast but it was really hard and expensive to get to a seminar (which lasted for 23 + days, not 2 or 3 as day have it now), and were much tougher and quite expensive, so you had to piss blood as we say to learn anything. So I guess it is quite a downer when you see someone quit without appreciating you, and spend his days just drinking coffee and beer in some caffe (as most of the young people do here)…
  • Bill
    Hi, Jesse: I know this is in the archive, but just came across your site and really enjoyed this article. As a karate student and high school teacher ready to begin another school year, your insight helped me to better appreciate both arts--martial and instructional--at at time when I'm feeling in a bit of a rut. Thanks for your perspective; I'll remember that I have just as much--if not more--to gain from teaching as my students!
  • Hi Jesse, Really enjoyed this article. I understand the challenges of teaching and students quitting. I use too take it personal especially when it came to students who where with me a long time. I realized I was not just teaching karate because I love it but because I was doing it for me. Once I understood that it helped me get through my frustration.
  • Cinzia
    Great. To think I want to become an instructor to contribute to make the world a better place. I'm depressed now. Hahaha
  • Daniel
    I recently (2 years ago) had the opportunity to ask Zenpo sensei about this book. He mentioned he never met or spoke to Mr. Bishop. And is unaware of where this information came from.
  • Graziela
    When I had my first training with the little judo kids, I got so exhausted after the warmup. Of course, the training is hard, but it's so much harder when you have to watch out, that everyone is doing the exercise properly or not hurting themselves or others during the randori or somewhere else. But it's also fun and I am happy to be able to help these kids learn some new stuff and start their judo-journey. I hope one day I can do some randori with them and see them win(or see them in the olympic games one day ;) )
    • Graziela
      Have you ever done or tried judo? It's so much fun and it has some joint locks, that could possibly be imbedded in Bunkai(but since I don't do Karate(yet), I don't really know)
    Jesse-san, you're attitude is right-on. A portion of what we teach and learn must be for ourselves and we must personally benefit in some way. If we don't, then we're martyrs. I learned a saying a long time ago which continues to ring true. It's, "If you expect ingratitude, you will never be disappointed."

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