The Martial Arts Teacher-Student Relationship Has Many Facets: Change is Good… Sometimes.

The relationship between the teacher (sensei) and student has many dimensions. Unlike a school teacher, whose relationship with students is usually bound to a calendar, the martial arts relationship is like that of a parent… but then again, it’s not. Or perhaps it’s like a mentor, but not always. Then maybe it’s like a friend, but it’s not always like that either. The relationship of a sensei and student does indeed have many dimensions, and the complex nature and depth of it can be seen when a change is made.

The bond between student an teacher can be and should be a close one, especially in smaller dojos. They spend so much time together it is natural for a parent/child or a older sibling/younger sibling relationship to form. This cultivates a mutual respect that flows both ways. They might not always agree (what relationship does?) but those are often handled by an “agree to disagree” philosophy.  It’s easy to forget that both students and senseis in martial arts have a commitment to constant learning, and sometimes when time passes perspectives change.

The intention of a dedicated student of the martial arts should be to remain with their instructor in a manner that is similar to the “until death do us part” commitment — like a marriage promise. Personal experiences of ourselves and others tell us that changes sometimes happen.

There are many reasons for leaving a dojo, a sensei’s organization, or a particular martial arts style itself. Not all reasons for change reflect a lack of loyalty on the behalf off the student. Unexpected events are always possible, and circumstances, like time or distance or obligations, affect the sensei-teacher relationship.

Instructors do retire, or relocate out of the commuting area, or are unable to continue teaching. Of course, the death of an instructor is also possible. Any of these can result in the closure of the dojo, sending students searching for a new teacher, and sometimes needing to study a different style.

There are situations when a high-ranking student studies for many years and becomes very close in rank to the instructor. To advance to broaden and deepen their knowledge and skill, they may need to be aligned with a different higher ranking instructor to continue the progression of their studies. There are times that having two highly ranked instructors may cause some dojo students to consider the high belts as rivals, even though those instructors may not be. In some circumstances, this can be disruptive to the natural flow and structure of the dojo, affecting the manner in which classes are conducted and the way study is organized.

There are other reasons. I have personally known of cases where changes in students physical condition that require a change in style. This can be the result of injury from accident or surgery, or just getting older.

One of the reasons I changed styles from Tang Soo Do to Shorin-Ryu was because of the high kicking requirements and deep stances of that style. Multiple knee surgeries took much of the joy out of practice; the Shorinkan has a tradition of accommodation and adaptation to physical limitations.

Many times students want to change or leave for financial reasons. Talk to the sensei first! Most of us don’t teach just for the money, and even if we have financial obligations that rely on dojo income, we hate to lose good students and will try to work something out. In any of the scenarios above it is desired that a change can be amicable and both parties part on good terms.  It is not uncommon for the student to still support events held my his former instructor and to stop by from time to time to check in because of their past experience, and the respect and understanding they had in the way they handled the change in their relationship.

In any of these scenarios presented here, it is hopeful that a change, if needed, can be made amicably and both parties part on good terms and in appreciation of each other’s dedication to the art. Martial arts is not like a team sport that has a season, or like a school semester. It encourages long-term relationships of mentoring and teaching with the goal of passing the style and knowledge to generations of students.

At the beginning of this blog I wrote that the goal of every student should be to remain with the original instructor whenever possible. Sometimes change is good, whether it is sought or created by unexpected circumstances. In all situations, the respect taught in the dojo about the relationship of teacher and student, is a foundation for handling the changes that life brings to us every day.

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