The Sensei Conundrum: Shodan to Nidan by George Kirby

The following editorial was submitted by George Kirby. It originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of his monthly newsletter, Kokoro.

When a jujitsu student becomes a black belt, it means that they are a “sensei,” a teacher. That is one of the main reasons I will promote a student to shodan: because I feel they will become a good sensei. After all, the dan grades are the “teaching grades.” Ideally, I’d like to see every one of my black belts teaching, either in my dojo or starting a program of their own elsewhere.

However, I also realize that this is easier said than done. There are a lot of non-jujitsu barriers that get in the way of my goals for my black belts: life, obligations, work and family schedules, time, availability of teaching locations, and funds [if needed] to start up a dojo. The list can be mindboggling and can result in inaction. These are realistic concerns. Most of these “material” concerns can be overcome with help & support from their own sensei. They may seem insurmountable, but they’re not.

However, quite a number of black belts don’t want to be or are afraid of becoming sensei. Becoming a “sensei” is a real responsibility, whether it be in teaching in your parent dojo or even more so if you go out and start up your own dojo. In the latter case, it’s a multiyear commitment to secure a reasonably stable and experienced student base. In either case, there are risks, there are commitments, but there are also a lot of rewards.

Shodans are generally divided into three groups. Some shodan don’t want to teach, but simply want to continue to study the art – to improve their skill level. The second group would like to teach but fear they don’t have the “skills,” perseverance, patience, or self-confidence to become a good teacher. The third group is made up of the shodan who have the self-confidence and commitment to try teaching. They’re ready, willing, and able within the limits of their resources to commit to the dojo and even possibly – eventually – start teaching on their own. They’ve always been active participants in the program, as that’s part of their personality. However, it’s the first two groups I’m concerned with here. Although these may seem like two really very distinct groups, there really is a lot of common overlap in dealing with the supposed differences.

The first group, shodan who just want to improve their own skill level may have this as a legitimate reason for not wanting to “teach.” There is nothing wrong with the desire to improve your own skill level. [I’m still working at it after almost five decades.] However, there is a saying out there that sort of goes like, “You don’t really start to learn anything until you have to teach someone else how to do it,” along with the corollary, “When you start teaching someone else how to do what you think you know, you discover all the mistakes you’ve been making.” So, if you follow this line of reasoning, the best way to help improve your own skill level is to help someone else improve theirs’ – by helping them learn.

While it may be really difficult or impossible to get a shodan who doesn’t want to “teach” to teach a technique to a whole class [which can be intimidating], it may be possible to get him to work with students on an individual basis – to help the class sensei so to speak. I’ve never had a shodan refuse to do this and those who do help out usually do quite well. So, I think the actual issue may be that they don’t want to teach a whole class, for whatever reason[s] they may have.

The second group of shodans are composed of those who are unsure of themselves for a variety of reasons. This is actually an easier group to work with. You can start out having them work 1:1 and then go to small groups. You can ask them to work with student “x” and/or “y” to help them get to the next belt rank. Have specific tasks or goals for this group and it will help them gain the self-confidence they need. Although there may be other reasons why shodans in the first two groups do not want to teach, easing their concerns about their ability to actually teach can go a long way towards building their sense of self-confidence. Then you can start addressing some of their other areas of concern and hopefully work towards resolving them.

There is another reason why you want your shodans to gain teaching experience, whether or not they plan to teach on their own in the future. One of the prerequisites for nidan in Budoshin Ju-Jitsu, is AJA instructor certification. Although this may seem scary to these two groups, it is doable with relative ease if you work with your shodans. Probably the most difficult part will be for them to get their first-aid certification from a legitimate agency [which is usually a four to six hour class now] and concussion awareness certification, a free thirty to forty minute “Heads-Up” online course from the Center for Disease Control at

Having them get their instructor certification does NOT mean that the MUST teach. All it indicates is that they are qualified to teach, and you and the AJA are attesting to that ability. However, it is a prerequisite for nidan – and what shodan doesn’t want to continue their own skill level and eventually earn their nidan – and hopefully work towards higher dan grades. Securing their instructor certification gives the shodans credible options for the future in case they change their minds about teaching. And it makes it possible for them to seriously look at nidan. Besides, it’s nice to know that you ARE a sensei! It’s also nice to have a national certification from the AJA that says so too.

. . and now for a bit of guilt:

By the time you reach shodan, your sensei has gotten to know you as a person and a martial artist. Your sensei probably wouldn’t have promoted you to shodan unless he/she felt that you’d make a good sensei yourself. If you take that step, it will make your sensei feel proud like a parent who has done a good job of parenting. Your sensei knows that becoming a “sensei” IS a big step. Your sensei has also promoted you because he/she has faith in your future growth, hoping that you will also continue to spread the art to others.

Your sensei dreams as your parents do and only wish you the best. As parents and sensei, if you make our dreams come true, there is nothing else we can really ask for.

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