© 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.
“I am so
frustrated. I spend so much time teaching these people and then they
“She decided not
to continue because she felt that the teacher did not want to work
with her and was not interested in her.”
decided that she wanted to go back to school to study ___________.”
“Work was just
getting too busy for him.”
There are many more
cases but these are some of the most common ones I have heard. Let’s
look more closely at each case.
This is the common
feeling among teachers. You spend a year or more teaching these
students and then they leave. I typically find that the common length
of stay for these types of students is one year, long enough to see
what it’s about and learn something from it.
I have seen students
come for one class and never show up again. Some students try it out
for about two months (i.e., 8 classes; one class per week) and find
it isn’t for them, like a trial period. That’s fine. They
probably realize either that they don’t have the skill set for
it or the art doesn’t appeal to them the way they thought it
might. But that’s fine. You don’t know if you like it or
are good at it until you try it.
But it is typically the
students who show some potential for the art and have the natural
skill set for it, who the teachers are lamenting about. So much
potential but they walk away.
I have had this one
said about me. Well, the student gave the administrator this reason
for not continuing. Was it true? Absolutely not. I asked the
administrator what he thought because he watches the class too from
time to time to keep track of what’s going on and stay on top
of things. He said she was making excuses, probably because she
wasn’t getting what she thought she would get from the program.
In her case, she was an older lady who worked at a university in
administration and had a love of Japanese culture (that surface
appreciation of traditional Japanese culture as seen from Western
eyes; some other darker aspects of Japanese culture are not so
refined). So, he surmised that probably what she was looking for was
more in the vein of tea ceremony, shodo (calligraphy), or ikebana
(flower arranging) rather than sword fighting. You’re not going
to get the more esoteric and aesthetic appreciation of Japanese
culture from sword fighting. You either like swordfighting or you
A very common one from
students and working people going back to school to upgrade or make a
career change. Can’t say I blame them. Everyone needs to
upgrade from time to time. Students need to finish their education.
An experienced martial arts teacher once said to me, “Sometimes
life gets in the way”. So true. Despite all our best laid plans
and good intentions, life does get in the way of budo training. I’ve
had good students of university/ college age who either had to finish
school or went back for a second or third degree. It does happen,
Ah, the work excuse.
It’s just a cop-out. He had time before, now he doesn’t.
Granted, it does happen. But you have to look at it, case-by-case. Do
they come back after work goes back to normal? In most cases, they
don’t. It’s just a nice way to say good-bye without all
the embarrassment. In some cases, it is a convenient way out too that
saves face for everyone.
So what’s the
common theme linking all these cases? Simply, the students have
decided for whatever reason that it is time to move on. I don’t
think there is any malice intended or sour grapes, at least not to my
way of thinking. It is usually quite amicable. But things have run
their course, as I like to say. And for North Americans, this is
quite common. They come, they learn, and inevitably they will leave.
And it usually averages out to be about one year. Some stay six
months, others stay a year and a half. But on average, it is about
different from the situation in Japan. There, if you decide to join a
dojo or a group, you join for life. Quitters are not looked on
favorably there. You stick it out through thick and thin, you
persevere. So, in Japan, you don’t commit unless you are
willing to stay there for a good, long time. That is one reason why
old budo (koryu) arts are not attractive to modern Japanese. Too much
obligation, too much duty, too many expectations, too heavy a social
burden, too much commitment. Playing recreational sports is easier.
I’ll give you
another analogy. When my wife and I came back from Japan in the
mid-90’s, we immediately went on a great vacation to Mexico, to
a Club Med resort. Instead of just going for one week like everyone
else, we decided to splurge and spend two weeks there. It was great.
Very therapeutic. Usually, one week, people are still hustling and
bustling on their vacation to go see and experience everything in
their 6-7 days there. That’s not a relaxing vacation. People
are probably more busy there than they are back at home. Anyway, we
could relax and take it all in, in our 14 days there. And we actually
became part of the family there in some strange way.
The typical tourist/
customer is running around doing this and that, trying to book a
fishing charter, reserve spots for kayak rentals, or joining in one
of the constantly running activities like volleyball or line dancing.
We were just sitting around, enjoying the weather. And pretty soon,
those customers left after 6 days and another cohort of tourists/
customers came, almost like clockwork. The G.O.’s (Gracious
Organizers, they call them) would welcome the new group, explain how
the club worked, and get them off and running. The G.O.’s were
supremely talented and hospitable hosts; ambassadors, their Human
Resources Department calls them. They did everything from organizing
basketball games, running kids’ clubs, and teaching archery to
dealing with customer complaints and putting on a talent show every
evening after dinner. Finally, when it was time for a certain group
to leave, they would give them a large send-off. And there were
groups coming in and out, every couple of days. So we got to see how
working life was at Club Med from the employees’ viewpoint. And
they got to see a lot of us hanging around and naturally since we
seemed so familiar to them (we kept bumping into one another), they
started talking to us. Not as they would talk to a regular customer
(how are you, do you need anything) but more as people they work
with. We got to know a few of them quite well, learned their life
story, their dreams and hopes for the future. All in all, it was a
far better, more meaningful trip experience for us than just going to
every attraction we could squeeze in, in one day, or lounging around
the pool or poolside bar.
Why do I bring up the
Club Med analogy? From my viewpoint, we are like Club Med G.O.s.
People come to our resort for some fun and relaxation, maybe to learn
some new skills like how to swing on a trapeze or snorkel, or
experience a different approach or view of life, a different
philosophy that may somehow enrich their lives or cleanse their soul
in some way.
(Gracious Members, as they are referred to at Club Med - in other
words, customers) are here to enjoy themselves, have fun, sample the
exotic food, have an unusual experience that they can talk to their
friends about. They are looking for an adventure. Life needs a little
excitement from time to time to spice it up.
Once they have
experienced it enough, learned about it and have exhausted what they
feel they have to learn from it, they will inevitably move on. Like
the G.M. groups that keep coming in and going out. They come for
their 7 days and then inevitably they will have to go home.
I was thinking about
this the other day. Yes, it is exactly like Club Med. At Club Med,
the customer comes the first day and they are so excited. Wow, it’s
so good to be here. It’s so exotic. They are checking in and
getting the things they need to get their vacation started. They need
to find their room and get unpacked and take a tour of the grounds to
get familiar with the landscape. Same at the dojo. They sign up and
get all their gear (uniform, equipment) and join the first class and
feel their way around.
At Club Med, the first
few days are the honeymoon period where everything is great and new
and so exciting and adventurous as they try new things and get right
into the experience of being on vacation and in a foreign locale.
Same at the dojo. They are learning about the art, all the basic
techniques, the fundamentals, teaching their body a new way of
moving, learning about the history and philosophy of the art and why
things are done the way they are done. It’s all very exciting
and new and adventurous.
In the middle period
day) at Club Med, the
customers are feeling pretty well acquainted with everything the
resort has to offer and they start to hone in on the things they
prefer to do. They start to relax more and soak everything in. They
are comfortable and are starting to understand the routine of the
club, when the night club opens, where their new friends are, which
restaurant is best, etc… Same at the dojo. Now the student is
learning a lot. They know about the club, how it works, the rhythm of
class and the routines. They know the teacher, his expectations, and
the various personalities in the class. They have made new friends
and found training partners that they enjoy working with. They know
when the major demonstrations are and the various dojo events like
bonenkai. They are a fully functioning member of the dojo now.
At Club Med, the 6th
day is the second last day and people are scrambling to enjoy that
last bit of paradise before the inevitable departure for home. At the
dojo, in the waning times, you will start to see this student less
and less. Things come up, life gets in the way and their attendance
is more sporadic. They have learned much of what they initially
wanted to learn. Now it is hard work if they want to progress because
the next level of the learning or development typically involves more
skill, more work, more perseverance.
at Club Med is the sad day, the goodbye day. It is inevitable, time
to go home. Sad but happy. Sad to leave such a nice place and their
new-found friends and the exciting, exotic life but glad to be going
home to what they know, and to get their life back on track. But this
time, with a new-found joy-de-vivre and a new spirit, refreshed and
enervated. Same at the dojo. It’s time for them to leave.
They’ve enjoyed it but they have experienced what they wanted
to experience. They have other plans and goals to achieve, and other
things to do in their lives. But they will now do those things with a
new-found confidence, perhaps a better self-esteem, a new outlook on
life or approach to work. Sad but happy.
So, at Club Med, the
G.M.s come for their 7 days and then inevitably they will leave. Same
in budo. They will move on. Only the really serious ones stay. The
statistics are not good. The really serious ones are maybe one in 50
or one in 100? Not everyone wants to dedicate their lives to budo.
But they are curious and want to know what it’s about. I just
decided to write this article to talk to our teachers out there about
this very interesting and sometimes emotional, frustrating issue.
You’ve spent so much time with them and they leave. And the
next one comes and you do the same and they leave. And it goes on and
on. Some teachers get very bitter about it. Some teachers assign new
students to junior instructors. It’s just too emotionally
taxing because you invest so much for nothing, no return on your
investment. It does get frustrating. But it’s also part of your
You don’t have to
be resentful. I know. I have felt that way before, early in my
career. I have dedicated my life to budo. I guess I can admit that
with some certainty now. But not everyone shares the same desire.
Our students are
Gracious Members, also known as budo tourists. Just realize that they
needed to experience this; this art, this spirit, this thing that you
teach. It was something they needed to learn to enrich their lives,
in positive or negative ways. Hopefully it was a positive experience
for them. But even negative experiences teach us valuable lessons
about life too.
On the negative side,
valuable lessons can include seeing the politics in budo,
experiencing one-upmanship, bullying, or coercion. They see it in
their normal working lives too, I’m sure, but sometimes seeing
it in a different venue gives a new or different understanding of it.
On the other hand, experiencing the collaborative spirit in budo,
helping others, learning things about yourself and your character, or
developing new attitudes (i.e., perseverance, determination) may
bring positive benefits to their lives. They needed to experience
this too and they wanted to experience it. That’s why they came
to us in the first place.
But they have learned
it and experienced it, and now it is time for them to move on to
their next stop, their next life-enhancing experience. Like Mad Max,
the road warrior. Drifting from town to town. Just driving down the
highway of life. But from time to time or rather, from place to
place, they will encounter someone who changes their life in some
way, or teaches them something interesting about life or themselves.
For the majority of our
students, we are their budo roadhouse, that way-station built on a
major road to service passing travellers. If you want to think of it
in a Caribbean kind of way, we are the budo version of a Club Med
resort. They need us in some strange sort of way.
But we need them too.
From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, we need them for cash flow, just
to stay afloat and keep operating. So it is a symbiotic relationship.
But we also need them, sometimes in spiritual and philosophical ways
too. The students teach us things, interesting things or different
outlooks. They come from such varied backgrounds and situations and
life experiences. Sometimes, I get amazed or impressed by their
approach or outlook or philosophy about things. Sometimes, I learn
things about how to teach better or how to approach certain types of
students or body types. So, in many ways, the students also enrich my
They need us and we
need them. That’s what we need to keep in mind. They’re
here for a good time, not a long time, as the song goes. So don’t
get upset about it. It is what it is.
Life is a journey. We
are just one stop on their journey.
Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.