Sensei – What It Means to Have a Teacher

This is the nineteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

S is for Sensei.

In Aikido we don’t call our teachers “Master.” Instead we use the title “Sensei,” which in common usage means teacher. Japanese students, whether in martial arts or other subjects, address their teachers as “Sensei.” Someone who is not formally an instructor, such as a religious leader, may also be called “Sensei”.

One who has gone before.

Sensei [SEN-say] can literally be translated as “one who has gone before.”

The image that comes to mind for me is someone who has walked a path before, like a backcountry guide leading a group through remote mountains. They know the trail very well. They have traversed it in many kinds of weather, in different seasons, with others before us. They can caution us about the treacherous parts, what animals to watch out for, and where the poisonous plants grow. They can help us discover easier routes around the rough bits, and point out some amazing views along the way. But they can’t have seen everything – not this particular icy fog, or that newly fallen tree. Each trip is fresh, and they continue observing and learning, even as they lead us. They face their own challenges along the way, too.

The thing I love most about this concept is that one’s sensei, however worthy of admiration they may be, is just a person like us. They are not a divine authority, blessed with mystical powers. They have likely trained hard, worked long hours, and studied diligently for years. They may have forgone other opportunities in order to learn, and to pass their knowledge on to us. But they are only human. That means there’s hope for us, too.

More than a teacher.

A sensei is generally regarded as wise leader, and usually is the head of their dojo community. They set the standards and the rules. They decide who will be a good fit to join the group. They may be part mentor and part coach, encouraging us to do and be our best. They may be a resource when we need advice, or a role model when we need inspiration.

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“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
~ Robert Frost

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Our teachers may even call us out when they see us engaging in habits or thought patterns that don’t serve us, or offer alternative ways of seeing things. They do more than just stand in front of class a few hours a day, passing down collections of facts and physical skills. They are concerned with the development of our individual character and spirit, and with the growth of the dojo community as a whole.

It’s a two-way street.

The commitment between teacher and student works both ways. As students we have a responsibility to support our teacher. When we join a dojo it’s implied that we are committing to doing our best to learn what our sensei is teaching. Through our showing up, by being their students, we provide the context for their own ongoing process of development in the art. This is our side of the relationship to uphold.

In this way the teacher/student partnership is similar to that between training partners, Nage and Uke, that we discussed earlier. Just as Uke is an active participant in creating Nage’s technique, so students are active participants in the teaching that happens at the dojo. Apathy, inattention, denial, cynicism, or resistance don’t serve anyone. Conscious, engaged attention and a generous spirit help us all grow together.

Choose wisely.

Most martial arts teachers are truly decent, good-hearted people. Teaching requires long-term commitment to the art, and serious sacrifice in other areas of life. No one gets into the profession to get rich or famous – they do it from love and service. But one may be a better match for your temperament or learning style than another. If you find yourself training with a teacher you do not admire or respect, or whose teaching does not speak to you, keep looking – you aren’t doing yourself or the teacher any favors by staying in the wrong place.

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“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.”
~ Paulo Coelho
The Witch of Portobello

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If you train in Aikido or another martial art your sensei will likely have an influence on your life on par with your family, religious leader, or closest friends. When I initially chose where to train I considered the class schedule, noted that the dojo was roughly between work and home, and saw that the place seem professionally run and well maintained. I was impressed that the chief instructor had degrees in philosophy and teaching, in addition to a high rank. Good enough. Convenient, affordable, legit. Count me in. But I had no idea… I feel very fortunate to have found my teacher, who has had such a powerful and positive influence on my life.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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