Should I become a sensei?

Photo of happy GKR senseis posing
Joining the sensei team could be one of the most fulfilling
things you do in your entire life

GKR is a great rarity amongst martial arts clubs because it has a formal instructor training program which all instructors must attend regularly in order to teach their classes. However, being asked to join the program often brings up a dilemma, and I frequently get asked by people whether they should join. I also hear people expressing different opinions about what it means to be on the sensei training program (STP).

Before I address the issues, I’d like to start by saying that for the most part, what candidates bring to the program, determines what they get from it. If they are moaning, cynical, trouble-making, selfish people by nature, they tend to find endless faults, and they’ll always be thinking in terms of what they should be getting, not what they could be giving.

If candidates are pleasant, optimistic, altruistic people with a good attitude towards their own karate, then they are likely to get a lot from the program, and give a lot back to the students in return.

What is the sensei training program?

The sensei training program is the weekly class or classes held by the senior regional instructor in each region. In some regions, this class is open only to senseis, or those hoping to become senseis. Some regional instructors also invite senior graded students; usually brown belt and above; to attend as well.

The class is usually more technical, more physical, and the lessons will be deeper than public classes, and may delve into subjects that public students will not get to cover. In addition to the karate training, there is also an element of the class dedicated to how to teach, and improvement of communication skills.

Getting onto the program Before a student can attend the sensei training program, they must be invited to attend by their sensei. If they accept the invitation, they will start by attending an assessment class. This is then followed by a 10-12 week training course during which they will learn the basics of the syllabus, student care, the GKR credo, and some basics about class management and communication. At the end of the course, the student will sit a 20 minute, four page exam containing mostly multiple choice questions. If the candidate achieves the required pass mark, he becomes a graduate and is then taken onto the sensei training program.

Early days as a sensei

From this point forth, the graduate takes on the title of sensei, and will wear a black and white belt denoting his role (not his grade). He will then begin to attend the regular sensei class along with the other existing senseis in the region.

It is very likely that the new sensei will quickly be given teaching duties in a public class, most likely assisting more experienced instructors by teaching the lower grades, or running through some of the basics part of the lesson.

The graduate will sometimes be requested to cover for other senseis in the area when they can’t make it to their classes, but this is not compulsory. It is largely expected that the graduate will cover for his own sensei if there are no more experienced instructors to run the class during holidays or periods of sickness for instance. By covering for senseis, the graduate develops his confidence a little at a time, without the need to make a regular teaching commitment.

Your own class

Sooner or later, the graduate will probably be offered a class of his own to teach. It is not obligatory for the graduate to accept, especially if he is the main second in an existing class. However, graduates are strongly encouraged to consider such an offer, and it is likely that over a period of years on the sensei program, the graduate will be invited to take their own class on a numerous occasions if they repeatedly decline. Don’t think of this as pressure, rather it is a reflection of the faith in which the regional sensei places in you. If you don’t want to accept, just politely, but firmly say so.

Some people can’t wait to be offered their own class, whilst others steadfastly refuse to take on the role. Neither position is wrong, but you may be pleasantly surprised at how much YOU gain from teaching your own class. Most all senior instructors respect any commitment that you are able to make, and the vast majority of regional instructors are respectful, moral and appreciative.

In my opinion, a sensei who serves as an assistant in a dojo performs an invaluable role, enabling that dojo to provide a considerably higher quality of service to the students. In fact, it is the goal of every regional instructor to have at least one, or even more assistant instructors in every class. If that is a role that you see yourself in, talk to your sensei immediately.

However, you should be warned, helping people to better themselves is addictive! When you see your first nervous student growing in confidence, or an out-of-control child developing self-discipline, or an unfit adult getting fit and developing self-esteem, you may want to do it more and more, and playing second fiddle may no longer be enough!

Benefits of joining the sensei program


GKR instructors training
Senseis are given free access to the very best training

Common objections to becoming a sensei

I’ve heard all manner of reasons for people being reluctant to join the sensei team, and of course, some of them are completely valid: work or family commitments are very reasonable. Nobody would expect you to lose money to train, or give up your precious family time. GKR is a family club, and family-friendly values are at the heart of our ethos.

I have also heard many reasons not to join that are easily resolved. Here’s a selection:

I’m not good enough yet
Fair enough – you’re still relatively inexperienced at karate. There is no better place to grow quickly than at sensei class, and you don’t have to teach until you feel ready.

I can’t afford it
Sensei class is free. All classes are free once you join. You don’t even pay for seminars or most events. You even get a discount for other family members!

I’m not going to teach for free
Don’t miss out on the greatest experience of your life because you have a cash register running on everything you do. You’re not teaching for free. Even if you paid for lessons, you could never get the benefits that you get as part of the sensei team. Helping people; being part of a team; training with all the best people. It’s not just one-way from you to GKR let me promise you. Far from it. Nothing in all my years of life compares to it.

I’m not confident enough
None of us were when we started. We all felt a bit silly and awkward when we first stood in front of a class. But you grow – surprisingly quickly. Sure, you’ll still forget how to count to ten occasionally – in English! We all do. But once you learn not to take yourself too seriously, you’ll learn one of the most useful confidence lessons in your life. Anthony Robbins charges thousands for the kind of knowledge, but GKR gives it for free!

I feel like a fraud
Why? You’re not making any claims about yourself. You’re simply helping to run a class. I’ve known high-grade black belts that were not fit to be around other human beings. A black belt doesn’t make a decent teacher. Commitment to knowledge and the growth of others does.

Anybody can become a sensei – it’s valueless
I realise that some regional instructors give out sensei belts like water, and that makes the position seem less special. But the truth is; each person brings their own value to the role. It doesn’t matter who else is a sensei; it’s how you behave as a sensei that matters. Some people are fantastic senseis, and others are not. Interestingly, it’s often people who become senseis for the wrong reasons who quit early. Short term gratification or respect is not enough compensation for the hard work that it takes to become a good martial artist, let alone, a good sensei!

I don’t drive and can’t get to sensei class
It’s true that sensei classes are often located further away than your regular class, but how does your sensei get there? If you get there by public transport until you graduate, there is almost guaranteed to be someone else going that you can get a ride from after that.

I don’t want to be bullied into taking a class
Then don’t take a class. Make it clear from the outset that you are happy to help out, but you don’t wish to take your own class. If you’ve been doing karate long enough to be invited onto the sensei program, then you should have enough assertiveness not to be pushed into anything that you don’t want to do. Think about that for a moment... What’s the worst   that can happen if you decline your own class? The sensei will say “Please please please” then look at you with Puss in boots eyes. Steel yourself and say “no”, you wuss. ;-)

I don’t want to be committed
Aren’t you already committed to your own training? If not, then your sensei probably shouldn’t have invited you to join. Joining the sensei program is beneficial to your training. Most of us can be tempted to take days off as regular students, but when you’re part of the team, you’ll train more regularly simply because you are positively motivated by your peer group. It’s not a bad thing.

I don’t like my senior regional instructor
This is a serious one. The senior regional instructor has control over all of your grades, and is supposed to be your role model. If you have a bad relationship with him, or don’t respect him, you’re going to have to consider your long-term future as a student. You could simply be courteous, and try to improve your relationship, or you could honestly discuss any reason for your feelings. Whether you become a sensei or not, it is useful to get on with your senior instructor. If you can’t get on with him, then do your best to stay beneath his radar. Or train in another region.


Becoming a sensei is a privilege, affording you the opportunity to satisfy all six of your essential human needs (certainty, variety, growth, contribution, significance and connection). The fact that in the process, you also help others is a bonus – for them and you. Sure it would be great to be financially remunerated for being a sensei, but in a way, the fact that we are not paid serves to filter some of those with the wrong motivation.

My students know when I stand in front of them, that I am completely dedicated to their growth and well-being. There are no complications or alternate agendas. When I recommend that they train twice, it’s because training more is good for them. When I recommend that they attend a seminar, tournament or event, they know with complete certainty that I suggest they go because they will benefit. Being voluntary enables us to be far bolder with our recommendations to students than a paid instructor could be, because we do not benefit from their compliance: they do.

Ultimately, becoming a sensei is probably one of the most rewarding things that you can do. It’s so much more than say, coaching a football team, or even helping out with the Samaritans. You get to build long-term relationships with your students, and help to develop both their ability and their self-esteem. The kids you teach will probably remember you for the rest of their lives, just as you remember teachers that you liked in your youth. Being a sensei is definitely not for everyone, but if you want to maximise your karate growth, join a group of positive, motivated, altruistic people, and contribute to the growth of students in your area, I highly recommend giving it a go if you are asked. If you are not asked, you might even say to your sensei, “Sensei, I was wondering if there’s more that I can do to help out in class?” There are few senseis who don’t appreciate a bit of help, and this is a great first step.

To find out how it feels to be a sensei go here

Interested in a full-time paid career as a karate instructor?

Content for id "facebookstrip" Goes Here