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21 Rules to Running a Dojo

I have been in several Dojos over the years; some longer than others. An underlying common trait is that the student body reflects the senior instructor/sensei or active owner.

This similarity in personality will make or break you as a school leader. I learned this lesson about 10 years ago when I started revisiting some of the other people I use to train with. In going to see them I had a memory based preconceived idea of who they were and when I met their students I could see those traits mirrored back from their students.

This was very enlightening to me and made me ask an internal question “could the school leader change who they are in order to attract different types of students?” I think you can but you must be willing and committed to change who you are and live by those new principals. This is true martial arts skills at work. To change who you are is the basis of the Art side and being able to recognize the outward perception or your internal self shows a strong desire for self discovery.

This mirror affect impacts your ability to retain long term students. If you as the leader do not build the concept of longevity into the school culture the school will always have a revolving door of students. So if you do not make changes in who you are to facilitate the needs, desires, and understanding of the students you are only addressing half the issue.

The students learn by watching you and if you are projecting traits that drive the students away or don’t provide them with a long term path they will leave.  I find this to be especially evident in the McDojo type school. They are setup to earn as much income for the owner as possible so the desire is to sign new contracts. So if the focus is always on adding lots of new students then that is what will happen. Old students are no longer the priority and once they meet their original goal of Shodan they tend to float away.

The most successful schools for long term students focus on the students that are present not the new ones they can bring in. It is this teacher student relationship that eventually matures into peer to peer relationships that bring about lifelong students and teachers.

Modifying your inner self is only part of the issue. Listed below are some practices that I have seen over the years that should be considered.

  1. A curriculum needs to be written down and the students must have access to it. If the course of study is formatted in order of belt progression and each student knows what must be accomplished for each belt they can do self study both in and out of the Dojo. The best example I have seen for this is a school that does a GBC bound booklet of all the belt requirements and sells it for $5.00. The cost covers their expense and is not a profit center. And if the curriculum changes a new page can be added or removed as needed. Three ring binders work just as well.
  2. You must understand how each student learns and change your teaching style dependent upon who you are speaking with. The professional teachers in your club or friends can help you learn this skill. One of the first things I do with a new student is to teach myself how they learn.
  3. Tap your students other skills if they volunteer to do something that helps with the Dojo. Case in point; I have a student that likes to do line drawings for techniques. I did not know this until he came in one evening and showed me a booklet he had outlined several grab counters. He asked if I wanted a copy and if I would make notes for corrections. The booklet is now shared freely among the belts and he is the keeper of the knowledge. This helped the Dojo by having the technical information presented in graphic form.
  4. Don’t swear, chew gun, spit, whine, or lose your temper.
  5. Don’t touch the girls/women until you have their trust and when you do touch them do it exactly the same as you would the men/boys.
  6. You must touch the students to be a good teacher. Martial Arts are hands on activity.
  7. Keep your uniform and body clean. This includes your ratty old belt.
  8. Place your gear neatly and in some semblance of order when you are in the Dojo. The students watch everything you do and the small things can be more important that the large ones.
  9. Choose what your personality is going to be and stick with it. If you are going to be the gruff old man you must always be the gruff old man. You cannot keep changing faces. Students need stability. I try to be the happy brick wall that likes to laugh but will only bend so far. I encourage questions but the answers I give might be to ask again in a week after they have thought about the question.
  10. If you can’t be completely tuned in while being teacher, don’t teach. No texting, phone calls, or idle chat. If a prospective student comes in during class tell them you can only give them a limited amount of time because you are teaching.
  11. The majority of adult men who come into the arts do so because of insecurity. They come for the martial skill not to build their self esteem. Just because you have mastered that little voice in your head does not mean they have. Learn what makes each student tick and provide leadership reflection. Never tell them you think they are insecure.
  12. Children are sponges!
  13. Don’t let the child’s failures at home dictate what happens at the Dojo. Make the Dojo world inner exclusive. The exception to this rule is school grades, truancy, and legal matters.
  14. If you fear a child is being abused physically, sexually, or emotionally don’t try to solve the problem. Contact the authorities.
  15. Don’t let brother and sister train with each other in class. The same tends to hold true for fathers and sons of the same skill level until they are higher belts. Spouses and couples are a case by case decision, the men will try to be in charge and this can be counterproductive.
  16. Arrive to class early and be the last to leave. Or have a senior student responsible for the duty.
  17. If you are running a school for profit the black belts don’t pay if they have a leadership role. You will keep them around and more committed to the school if they become your peers not your customers. Eventually you will die and how will you ensure the longevity of your Art if you never bring your senior students to your level?
  18. If you have terminology in your curriculum you had better use it yourself during class. And not just to introduce the technique. It must become part of the class’s active vocabulary.
  19. Learn how to shake someone’s hand. This is especially true for greeting someone who grew up in a different country or culture. This seems trivial but you are the leader. Good leaders know when to follow.
  20. Learn how to read and project body language. Problems in the Dojo can be identified long before anything is said verbally by the body language of the students.
  21. Collect fees, you have the right to charge for teaching what you know. Our American culture respects the transfer of money. If you take their money they will be more willing to see you as the leader as opposed to a workout buddy. For a new Sensei trying to build a group the ritual act of “passing the can” has strong cultural implications. Write on the top of the can what you expect to be paid.