Jackie Bradbury, in her recent blog post, “The Question of Authority” asked,
“Are you an authority? How did you get recognized as such? What are some of the downsides of how authority works in your neck of the woods? Upsides? Join in the conversation and let us know what you think!”
I found myself writing more than a Facebook comment could handle. Thank you, Jackie for the inspiration!
I help out at College Dojo, and I guess that makes me a junior authority. College Dojo is, at its core, a college class that students take for credit. Two quarters are offered, and both PE 116 and 216 meet at the same time, same place. Most students take only one quarter, so it is possible for an intermediate-ranked person to assist such a class. That said, College Sensei wants me to work my butt off in my own training so that hopefully sometime in late 2017 my belt rank will finally match my function at his dojo.
I originally came to College Dojo as a very low-ranked student seeking to really solidify my foundation by practicing the most basic skills of Karate alongside new beginners. I stayed on by the indulgence of College Sensei and I have no doubt the extra training has given me a great boost in my progress. Suddenly a year ago I found myself to be the second-highest ranked karateka in the dojo. A black belt had already retired and a brown belt moved away. The class is during the business day so it’s hard for most brown and black belts to come help. Logically, my role changed. That said, I’m not so sure that my belt rank automatically entitled me to the authority that comes with the role I play now.
I think College Sensei could probably run PE 116 and PE 216 without an assistant. It would be tough for him and the students, but I think he could pull it off. He could also insist that only paying students are allowed into the class, which would leave me out. He must have seen something in me that prompted him to let me grow into the role that I found myself in. So really the vast majority of my authority comes from College Sensei allowing me to assist with the class.
A tiny bit of my authority stems from where I am now and where I have been in life. I’m old enough to be the mother of almost every student in College Dojo. I am in fact a parent of a college student. I was once a college student myself. I work on campus and deal with college students every day. I know how they roll. So part of the authority I have stems naturally from how a middle-aged matron relates to her kiddos’ peers. I’ve been affectionately called “Mama Senpai.”
An even smaller piece of my authority in College Dojo comes from the mystique of my abilities in the eyes of newbies. I look OK when I do Karate – not the best but just right for my rank. But to someone new to the martial arts world I look amazing. Advanced kata? Boo yeah. Light free-sparring with College Sensei? OMG. Sure any given black belt smiles indulgently at me and can pick everything I do apart, but let’s face it… New students don’t know my green belt with a stripe represents an intermediate rank. They don’t know my abilities don’t even come close to what more highly ranked karateka can do. New students see a middle-aged lady doing something athletic that looks like it would hurt someone pretty badly, and that does give me a little bit of a mystique in their eyes.
“I think you’ll be giving me a run for the money,” I told a big guy once before sparring with him. He’d trained a bit here and there in boxing and a couple of other martial arts arts.
“Yeah, but you have skills,” he offered, emphasizing the word, “skills” in a slightly awed tone.
I grinned, “For this fight only, don’t limit yourself to what you’ve learned here. I want to learn from you. Stay within the tournament rules, though.”
We had a good fight. I hope he learned not to underestimate his abilities and his potential. I know I learned a thing or two about my own fighting style.
College Sensei has on many occasions given students a chance to see me as a work in progress. He’s sparred with, uh, played cat-and-mouse with me while everyone else watched. He’s called on me to perform kata that I’ve barely memorized in front of the entire class, then a month later he’ll have me perform it again. On any given day before or after class anyone can watch if College Sensei decides to work with me, so I don’t mind it when he wants everyone to pay attention. They learn what’s expected from a student of my rank. So my authority is put into context. I am a senior student, not a fully accredited instructor.
The disadvantages of me being in any sort of position of authority are slight, but are, nonetheless, “out there.” I’m not sure but I probably am not “supposed to” have this much authority until I’m at least one rank higher than I am now. The role landed in my lap when I was two ranks lower than I am now. Maybe some consider the mismatch between my role and my rank to be acceptable, maybe some don’t. That’s OK, I totally understand. That said, the sooner I achieve my next rank, the better; then that point will be moot. Another disadvantage is I’m still adjusting from one-on-one teaching with no deadlines to group teaching with deadlines (the end of each quarter). I do not have decades of experience practicing and/or teaching Karate, so I’m not exactly a superstar expert. I am what I am, and I am growing.
The advantage of me helping out is College Dojo runs smoothly and the students get the benefit of two completely different teachers. Yes, I feel free to be myself and to teach in my own manner (and College Sensei does give me feedback). Both as a student and as a teacher I can tell you that sometimes having input from more than one person can make the difference between struggling and understanding. I am quite comfortable leading either PE 116 or 216, giving feedback to individual students while both classes drill together under Sensei’s direction, leading warm-up exercises, serving as a role model, or any other job a senior student has (like being Sensei’s uke for throws, LOL). I’d leave a big hole if I couldn’t continue.
I am trying hard to make sure that those students are getting their money’s worth. And no, I don’t get paid. I’m volunteering. Willingly. The college already pays me for something I’m very good at and have extensive experience in – namely, secretarial work. I’m good at teaching beginning karate students too (I started when I was a teenager), but I’m still learning the ropes of running the college classes and I’m not nearly as good at this as I will be in six years, ten years, or twenty years. The students sometimes hear Sensei giving me my marching orders for the day’s lesson, and sometimes they observe that I’m getting feedback from him after class. That’s OK – the beginners will see that even though I have a bit of authority, I’m still learning and growing.
Most importantly, I’m having fun being in this position. I truly enjoy helping to introduce young adults to Karate even if I never see them again after 22 classes. This is my favorite age group to work with. Yes, the responsibility that goes along with even this little bit of authority sometimes is daunting, but I’m handling it and I’m growing. Being in this position has definitely led to growth in my own skills – leadership, patience, innovation in teaching methods, and self confidence. Being something of an authority figure at College Dojo is very rewarding, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity.
Hey, here’s some related reading by my Australian counterpart whose journey parallels mine in lots of ways: Back to Basics – Teaching is the New Learning