Teaching math and teaching karate have been wholly different experiences and not just in the obvious ways.

As math teachers, we were always demonized — both by the students and the other faculty. No one wanted to do math.No one liked math (except a couple of nerdy kids who pretended to hate it to keep up appearances and the stray science teacher who actually liked science, too). We were always pushed to pass the kids along, to make things easier — as long as they still passed the standardized tests! — and fun. We were assured regularly that no one does math outside of high school so it really didn’t matter if anyone understood it because ha ha ha, no one does. I always took exception to this because I’ve used math regularly and not just to teach it.

As karate teachers, we’re supposed to be tough, but fair. We’re supposed to challenge and when things are hard, we’re supposed to encourage kids (and adults) to practice more, to study harder, to give it another try until they get it. People who don’t do martial arts tend to view it as either something so easy six-year-olds can manage or so complicated we must all be secretly action movie stars who leap over cars instead of walking around. Some parts are more fun than others and most students tend to accept this fact even if they whine a little. Then again, they’ve signed up for this, agreed to it, so they’re more willing to put their all into it.

As math teachers, we were told never to grade lower than a 50. I wasn’t allowed to take off points if the kids hadn’t circled their answers, or if they wrote in pen, or even if they blatantly copied the answers of the kid next to them.

In karate, we have standards, concepts and skills students have to learn and perform sufficiently to progress to the next phase or belt. Sure, the five year old isn’t expected to do as well as the 22-year old, by the time both get to the higher belt levels, a lot of that leeway has been leveled out. By the advanced material, you can either do the thing or you cannot and if you cannot, you should practice until you can. (And because by the time they reach the higher belt material, the five year old is likely around ten and much more in control of muscles and mind.

As a school teacher, I always wanted to lead, to instruct, to facilitate learning. What I ended up doing more often than not was disciplining and grading on the biggest curve this side of the Sierra Nevadas. My “teaching” often got swallowed up in a culture of disrespect and displeasure.

As a sensei, I find myself shocked to realize students listen to me, expect me to have answers, and follow my lead. And I just hope I’m leading them to their better selves.

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