(I originally wrote a version of this post for the Hyde School blog.)
When I was in high school I became a student of karate. It started as nothing more than an interesting alternative to a PE class, and became something to which I’m still dedicated today. My high school brought in an outside sensei, J. Richard Roy, from a nearby town. In addition to his two official practices on Monday and Wednesday, there was one optional practice on Friday afternoon, which was run by the more experienced students. It was Friday practice that separated the casual student from the serious practitioner. We would warm up, stretch, practice our forms, review the techniques we had learned that week, and spend a little time socializing and joking between water breaks. It cemented both our art and our friendships.
One of the traditions of the Friday practice group was a white belt. A white belt is both the lowest and most important belt rank in martial arts. It’s the mark of a beginner, but at the same time, it’s not given out to just anyone. You don’t just get handed one on the first day; you earn it when your sensei sees that you might be serious about your art. Well, this white belt was ours. I passed it on to Abby Joslin, who gave it to Rachel Machinton, who gave it to Tamara, and so on and so forth until after I graduated. Sensei Roy must have known we had it – you can’t miss the fact that one of your students has suddenly shown up with a belt. In a rare act for a martial arts teacher, he let us decide who deserved the recognition, and never said a thing about it.
The best schools believe in “student ownership.” The idea is that our students are growing from children into young adults, and as such they should be given the double-edged sword of opportunity and responsibility. We must ask all of our students to seek areas of the school in which they can step up, take ownership, take leadership. We can’t be interested in “teachers’ pets.” We need partners and allies. We seek to develop ambition and dependability in our students, and letting them take on responsibilities within the school gives them that chance.
In the long run, we’re looking for what every good sensei wants: for the student to surpass the master.