This editorial first appeared in George Kirby‘s Kokoro in December 2010.
Although I have many positive memories of Sensei Seki, there is one negative memory that does not sit well with me. I tell it here only because I feel it is appropriate. There was a middle-aged lady who joined Seki’s jujitsu class at Valley College. The longer she was in class, the worse she got. Seki tried talking with her about doing something else (other than learning jujitsu). He even had his women’s instructor (a female black belt) talk to her about leaving the class. However, she was persistent in coming to class every week. Finally, when promotions came around, as they did every month or so, Seki awarded her a pink belt. It took two to three weeks for everyone to discover that he had given her a belt for getting worse. It was lower than a white belt. The humiliation got her to withdraw from the class. That was in the 1960s. If any sensei did that today, he would have a lawsuit on his hands.
Humiliating a student (or any person), especially in front of their peers, is one of the worst things you can do, not only to the student, but ultimately to all of your students’ perception of you. And it will also probably cause you to lose a lot more students beyond the one you tried to get rid of, especially if parents are watching when you pull this stunt.
I will be the first to admit that, as a classroom teacher, I had fun with my kids. If they gave me a really woefully wrong answer I would feign a heart-attack and slowly drop to the floor — or get the rubber chicken out of my desk and put it on the kid’s desk — who’d promptly usually throw it back at me. Joking with students if they foul up IS a two-way street. The trick is not to humiliate them in the process. Humiliation is the antithesis of being honest with students. Students can handle honesty if you treat them with respect at the same time. Honesty can be painful, but it doesn’t have to be humiliating.
If I have a student who is having problems, I will usually pull them aside (usually before class, during a break, or after class) and talk with them in a quiet manner. Usually, I’ll try to bring up some positive points about them before I get to the specific concern at hand, if I can. I then ask them to repeat the concern back to me or tell me what they think it means. Usually, they hit the problem right on the nail. The next step is harder and, I will be the first to admit that I don’t always have the time to do it (although it’s the best way to go), is to ask them how they would solve the problem. Usually, if they’re sincere, they will come up with a workable solution. If they can’t or don’t, then you have to come up with a solution for them.
The next step is to get the student to agree with the solution. The student has to understand and accept that if they want to stay in my class (school classroom or jujitsu program), that they have to do this. However, I also have to tell them that I believe they can resolve the problem if (the big if) they really want to, and that I will help them get there as best I can.
There is also the reality check time when you have to bluntly tell a student that it’s shape up or ship out time. In my jujitsu class, this is also seen as a safety issue. I cannot have students in my class who become safety hazards to themselves or others — and that’s what a continuously recalcitrant student becomes.
If you’re dealing with a child, it’s important to work with the child yourself, as it helps them develop their sense of integrity. However, it is also absolutely essential to keep parents involved so that you can actively involve them if and when it becomes necessary. Parents do NOT like surprises. They also appreciate a teacher who is concerned about their child but also believes that the child can succeed. The really hard part comes if/when you have to tell a parent that your class probably isn’t appropriate for their child. Be sure to stress the safety aspect because that’s probably the only valid argument the parents will really accept. Above all, be fair, sympathetic, and honest with all parties involved. If everyone can maintain their self-respect, then an amenable solution will be easier to achieve — even if it means the student can’t continue in the class.
Being honest and positive with your students takes a lot more time than being blunt or hurtful. However, your students will respect you and support you for it. They may not always agree with you, but they will understand your rationale. Helping a student learn is quite different from simply presenting material to them and hoping that they learn it. It means getting involved with your students on a one-to-one basis. It means getting to know and work with their personalities. It means treating them as individuals with the same integrity and respect that you would like them to treat you with.
Remember, as the teacher, you set the norm of everything that goes on in your ―classroom or dojo, whether it be the subject matter or how everyone interacts with each other. You are the key.
You can be honest and frank with your students. They expect it and actually want it. However, they also need you to be positive and supportive of them. After all, they came to you to learn from you. That’s a big responsibility! But you ARE the sensei.