Since the beginning of time, there has been prejudice. It seems every race, creed, color, nationality, age and gender has known the feeling of being treated as second class or no class at all. It’s heartbreaking to hear stories of the past or, worse, see in real time the injustice that some still have to endure.
One can only hope that as we continue to evolve, people who have committed these injustices will see them for what they are, and those who have felt the pain of the mistreatment don’t spend their precious energies in retaliation.
The prejudice I would like to focus on here, though, is the one that occurs in most martial arts schools. I call it the “Prejudice of the Unseen.”
By explanation, allow me to use an example. Imagine one of your students breaking his hand and coming into class wearing a cast. Can you imagine an instructor asking the students to perform knuckle push-ups and becoming angry that the injured student couldn’t comply? Sounds kind of crazy, right?
How about a student who breaks a leg and still shows up for class? Suppose she can’t keep up with the rest of the students during an obstacle course lesson? Hopefully, it wouldn’t happen on your mat.
Most teachers are great in terms of recognizing physical limitations like the examples above, as well as many others of the same nature. Where many fall short, though, and become frustrated when a student’s behavior doesn’t comply with the norms of the class. More often than not, this child, teen or adult becomes quietly labeled and is seen as a liability to the structure of the class.
I seriously doubt that your school posts a sign that clearly states you will only take students who are able to perform at the expected norms of the class. Therefore, you need to expand your purpose and vision of the opportunities available to being a professional martial arts instructor.
The time has come to drop the disempowering labels and gain an understanding of what mental and emotional limitations are. Then, treat them with the same respect you would a broken bone or torn muscle.
Socially, instructors naturally accommodate someone’s limitation if it can be seen. But, as we know, what happens between our ears can’t be seen. Often, these behaviors take the form of
• speaking out
• not remembering or understanding
• an inability to focus
• impatience, etc.
True, it is simple and quick to jump to the conclusions of students being undisciplined, entitled and disrespectful. But three decades of teaching have shown me 80% to 90% of the time, that assessment would be wrong.
What is needed is a desire on the part of an instructor to become curious about finding a way to crack the code of a student’s potential. It requires a flexibility and compassion in approach that’s often lacking in regimented, one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching.
You need to believe that everyone has the potential to learn the art you teach, provided you are fully invested in making it happen. If a martial arts instructor can’t provide this gift, then who can? In many cases, competition sports coaches can’t because of their inherent competitive nature. And most other organizations, for various reasons, aren’t equipped with the knowledge and information on how to make this happen.
If you provided an equal treatment — calibrated to the potential and learning style of the individual — then I believe you’d be going a long way to do your part to make a positive impact on your student body. Even if that was the only thing you provided to this population, it would surely help your school grow.
Why? Because you’d be truly teaching the principle of individual respect — and not just the particular martial arts style you share.
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