What Makes a Good Teacher?

What Makes a Good Teacher?

This is something I ask myself often. If I simplify it and remove martial arts from the equation, what the question really asks is "What separates a teacher from a good teacher?"

While you're thinking about that, I'd like to share with you the differences I see between teachers and instructors. To me, an instructor is someone who knows the techniques and can articulate the technical aspects well but might struggle to adjust to the different types of students. A teacher is someone who knows the techniques very well and can teach them to all students. A teacher has the ability to adapt and find the best way to teach things to each individual student as well as understand the best approach for a group. An instructor may struggle with leading a group of students of varying skill levels. A teacher will know when to push and when not to push, when to speak and when not to speak. Teachers, to me, are a bit more insightful.

I opened my martial arts academy in June of 2016. It's been a great experience so far and I'm looking forward to many more years of teaching and training. When I opened my studio, I had about 25 new students sign up on day one – two of whom were my son and my wife. I also had three black belts who left the studio I had been at previously to join me. Two of them had experience teaching, so I was in pretty good shape.

As with any new venture involving people, there were many dynamics to navigate, but I believe my experience as a director, actor, member of Team USA, coach of a roller hockey club, and personal trainer all gave me an extra leg up compared to someone with limited experience as, say, an assistant instructor at someone else's school. I was also 46 years old and had lived a good deal of life:

I started my martial arts journey at Tang Soo Karate Academy with Grand Master Dominick Giacobbe in Blackwood, New Jersey, in 1989 when I was 20 years old. I'm 50 now and will turn 51 in May of 2020. If my memory serves me correctly, I trained for almost 8 years and earned my 2nd dan. And for me, like most of you reading this, it was a life-changing experience. I felt like I had been given the opportunity to look inward and find my inner strength as well as the confidence to believe in myself. The inner strength and confidence I developed gave me a sense of peace and calm that has helped me tremendously over the past 30+ years. All of these things helped me very much while working in the entertainment industry.

I didn't fully understand how my training had developed the confidence, inner drive, and peace I felt, but I was happy that it had. I've come to understand a bit more since then, but at the time I didn't ponder too much. I remember when I signed up for my first class and GM Giacobbe asked me why I wanted to train. I said I wanted to get more flexible because I was playing roller hockey for Team USA. He said something along the lines of, "It'll do a lot more for you than that." Soon after, I began to understand what he meant, but I wouldn't fully realize it for years.

During my time with GM Giacobbe I was also studying acting in Philadelphia, pursuing an acting career and playing roller hockey for Team USA (I've always been a little bit of an over achiever – it turns out middle child syndrome has some truth to it, after all). I kept myself busy and worked hard to be the best at whatever I did. I wanted approval and enjoyed attention. This was a big driving factor for why I chose to pursue acting. I remember the feeling when I auditioned for the senior play in high school: I spoke, and they listened, and paid attention. I liked it immensely.

Fortunately, my reasons for acting and doing other things evolved as I matured, and I started to gain a deeper understanding of the word "intention." Intention, and the value of such, continues to come back into my life. My intention for acting evolved into a desire to express myself as opposed to just seeking attention.

When we do something there always is an underlying intention driving us. We are usually driven by emotions, and more often than not, we don't even fully understand these emotions. When I began to study writing, my intension was to be able to create my own work, but slowly it evolved into wanting to know myself better. Through writing, I had both a means to discover and express myself.

I want to share a moment in my life that made a huge impact on me. I was around 27 or 28 years old. I had just stepped down from Team USA after having gone to the World Championship Games in Santiago, Chile, and the Pan American Games in Argentina. I had loved my time playing roller hockey, had amazing experiences and had met some wonderful people, but it was time for me to move to the next thing in my life: acting. I had been planning my big move to NYC to make it big! Of course I had fears and insecurities, but in my heart and mind I knew that this was what I wanted and needed to do.

One night after karate class, GM Giacobbe asked to speak to me in his office. I had no idea what it was about, so you can imagine my surprise when he said he was planning to open another studio – and that he wanted me to be the head instructor! He proposed that he would finance it in the beginning. I would own a small percentage, but as I grew the school and made more money, eventually, I would take full ownership. I expressed my gratitude, but informed him I was planning to move to NYC in the very near future to pursue an acting career.

The Grand Master was very understanding and supportive. He also said that if things didn't work out in the next five years, that I should come back and the offer would still be there. That lit a real spark of confidence in me, that he would consider me and make me such an offer not just once but twice. Even after I moved to New York City, the idea of having my own studio stayed with me.

I continued studying acting and writing. To pay the bills I bartended, did extra work and eventually became a certified personal trainer, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was a healthy environment and I was helping people get into shape and feel good about them.

After a few years in NYC I was fortunate enough to find work acting in plays, television shows and movies. I also wrote, produced, and directed a play, had a theater company, and started making movies, while continuing to write. I transitioned out of personal training and started teaching acting. What I loved most about teaching, I discovered, was that I had the ability to make a difference in someone's life. It wasn't that everyone who entered my class left with the makings of a Hollywood star. It was that I realized I could provide a safe, positive and supportive environment for my students to grow. Acting forces you do deal with your emotions, and, ultimately, this means being vulnerable. It is vital for students to feel safe and not judged. Then, they could grow, by getting in touch with who they truly were and bringing it into to their acting work. My writing and directing career started taking off and I was able to work with some very talented people: Oscar winners, Golden Globe winners and a bunch of people who were just awesome at what they did.

When I started directing, I came to realize that my job was very similar to teaching. I had to provide an environment where people felt supported and safe so that they could do their best work. Everyone looks to the director to set a tone, and I felt very comfortable doing this. Being a personal trainer was similar as well. So was being a coach in roller hockey.

Flash forward. I'm 40 years old and haven't trained in a studio for over a decade. I always seemed to be too busy to find a school, or was too broke to afford it when I did have the time. I checked out a few different places in NYC but none ever felt right. Now I'm living in Los Angeles. I've made three feature films and a couple documentaries. I'm happy with what I have accomplished in the entertainment industry. I started going back to the gym to stay somewhat in shape, but I was nowhere near my 25-year-old black belt self. I decided, "That's it, I've got to get back into martial arts."

A quick Google search lead me to a studio in Hollywood that had once belonged to my old teacher, GM Giacobbe! The man running it was an old student of his, but they had had a falling out years ago (you know how the story goes – I don't really care to get involved in contentious histories). I was interested in training in a style that was similar to what I had done before. Turns out, the new owner and I had crossed paths many years ago. He informed me he was now teaching Soo Bahk Do, which I later learned was Tang Soo Do with a changed name. Again, I didn't really care. I just wanted to train. I started training late in 2009 and after a couple years I tested for my san dan (third degree) in Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan. At this time in my life I was finally not busy, so I was able to spend much of my free time at the studio, helping to teach. This benefitted me greatly.

In 2012, my latest film, "The Trouble With Bliss," was released in theaters and internationally. I got married, bought a house and had a son (if you have children, you probably know what I'm about to say: nothing compares to having a child. This is truly life changing on a whole other level. Wow!). It was a big year.

My wife and I were busy raising our son, filling orders for a camera support system I had invented, and thoroughly enjoying our lives. I was training and all was well. That little thought that had never really left the back of my mind started to pop up again: "You should open your own karate studio."

I talked to my wife, and happily, she was open to the idea. It seemed like the perfect time. I was already headed in that direction when fate gave me another push: The man I was studying with began to behave in a way that made me realize it was time for me to leave. I didn't light any fires, but I did walk away from a few burning bridges.

My wife and I decided to pull the trigger and commit to a three-year lease on renting a school, and it's been a wonderful experience since. Our son is now seven-and-a-half, so we've had the studio for more than half of his life. We've loved watching him grow in and around the school.

Now, with the backstory complete, let's circle back around to what started this article: Teaching! What makes a good teacher? Recall two things I mentioned earlier: intention, and providing an environment for students to grow. Let's explore intention.

As I mentioned earlier, I think there is a driving reason for us to do what we do. When I first started acting my intention was to get attention. If you asked me at the time, I probably wouldn't have been able to admit it. I've come to realize most people have a hard time truly understanding why they are doing what they are doing. Even if they do understand, they have a hard time articulating it. I've observed this is many people, from many walks of life. When I was in NYC studying acting, I took classes and workshops with many teachers. I noticed a prevailing theme in their personalities and intentions, which seemed to be driving the teachers to teach. Most of them were failed actors who still needed/wanted attention, with an understandable amount of insecurity. Being the teacher gave them the opportunity to be the center of attention and feel important, which helped them soothe or mask their feelings of insecurities about their failure.

I've seen similar situations in the martial arts world at seminars or in classes where a teacher is enjoying hearing themselves talk a bit too much. I'm sure most of you reading this have had some fun experiences to share in that regards.

"I think this is why, when we meet someone who truly loves what they do and genuinely wants to help their students, the students who grow from them stand out."

When I began teaching at my new studio, it became clear to me that although I was teaching students how to defend themselves, the main thing I was providing was an environment in which they could develop self-confidence. This reminded me of what it was like when I was teaching acting, coaching roller hockey, training clients at the gym, or even directing a play or movie. The first step was to help the students get more in touch with who they were.

To help our students do this, we just need to provide a consistent, positive, supportive environment for them to develop a healthy mind/body connection. I know there are many things to think about when teaching, but I am a big believer in trusting your gut. If you approach teaching from a genuine, authentic place of wanting to help, your instincts will guide you.

My plan in the near future is to use my connections in the entertainment industry, and my experience and relationships in the martial arts world, to create a competitive reality television show. Teaching will be a primary focus. Writing this was partially for me to explore my thoughts about the subject of teaching. Although I receive a lot from teaching, besides what it provides to my income, I keep reminding myself that it isn't about me. It's about the students. I have to keep my focus on helping them grow.

I'm very interested to hear what you think makes a great martial arts teacher and I hope to continue this conversation with you.

Michael Knowles
Knowles Karate Academy
Los Angeles, CA

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