What is an Instructor Anyway?


When you are training in a martial art, you learn new things quite often. You practice something until you think you almost have it, then ask your instructor a question. The answer to that question may have completely changed what your goal was. A change of view, an application example, or maybe just a repeat of what you have heard before is all it takes sometimes. That experience teaches you something that steers you to become a better martial arts practitioner.

I'm willing to bet that nearly everyone reading this has heard, "No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher."1 This simply means that students learn only what is presented to them - including the attitude in which it was presented. This begs the question, "How does one become a good teacher?" The short answer: experience.

Instructors and Teachers

An instructor is there to give you instructions in your training. A teacher is there to help you understand why the instructions are important. Anyone can be an instructor by simply reiterating information that was given to them or found in a book. To be a teacher takes things a step further to develop their own skills as well as the skills of their students. Are you able to tell the difference between these types of people in your school? Whether it is the highest ranking person in the school, or even a mid-ranking colored belt, the person assigned to be in charge is the instructor for the session.

Think back to a session when you first started classes. Did you have an introductory session or two apart from the rest of the class? Did someone help you with class etiquette and review class rules with you? Was an instructor assigned to you or a small group to go over some of the most basic parts of the art you were about to start training in? (Our school does this with nearly everyone to lessen the blow of too much information thrown at them at once.) 

Learning as an Instructor

Quite often when these introductory sessions are practiced, they are handled by a colored belt or one of the junior black belts. They then provided you with instruction on these basic principles (etiquette, rules, stances, basic terminology). They told you what to do, corrected things that weren't as they expected, practiced it a few times, and moved on to the next topic. It likely wasn't until a later session where you learned why those instructions were important.

Much like a student, instructors also have a learning curve! When many people have that first time being in charge, they give quick instructions, start the students moving, and work through as best they can. If a question is asked, they will try to answer and hope one of the senior instructors will jump in when they aren't sure of themselves. These instructors learn through experience what things work for their classes by blindly imitating what their seniors have done before them and observing results. It isn't until they've gotten some time under their belt that they start to realize why those things work for the class. They then begin to see patterns and try new things, learning from those experiences as well.  

Becoming a Teacher

The realization of learning while being an instructor is the first step to become a teacher. When things start to really fall in place, the instructions are no longer very brief with a "go do it" attitude. The instructions become more detailed, they tend to raise more questions from their explanations, and the answers to those questions often lead to even more questions. Sections of class start to become more of a question/answer session or a lecture when students are introduced to doing something new - much like what you'd expect at an educational institution.

How Does it Relate to Rank?

It doesn't! However, you generally notice that the highest ranking in the school or organization are instructors that are also teachers. The reasoning behind this is simple: in order to attain these higher ranks requires more time. Often as one achieves higher ranks within a school, they take on more responsibility. This leads to them being able to get experience as an instructor. Instructors with many years of experience tend to be teachers.

There is a natural evolution that can be generally applied for those that take on the responsibilities of being an instructor in the Korean Martial Arts that we teach:

Color Belt Trainee
1st Black Belt Trainee/Instructor
2nd Black Belt Instructor
3rd Black Belt Instructor/Teacher
4th Black Belt/Master Teacher

( ymmv )


Regardless what your role is within your school, everyone learns lessons and improves from experience. Some experiences are positive, some not so much. If you are able to learn something from each situation, you are improving. It's often not observed as a student that your instructors are learning each day as well. Help them gain meaningful experience by asking questions. Ask them often - even if you do so to the side or outside of normal class times. Those questions help everyone improve their skills. Encourage others to do the same because when it's your turn to be the instructor, you'll want your students to do the same for you!

  1.   This is a quote from Mr. Miyagi in the 1984 movie The Karate Kid