During my Aikido career I have been with teachers that simply didn’t want to levy any protocols at all…they simply wanted to be one of the guys, per se. I have also been around teachers that have created such regimented and strict protocols that it surprised me that they even had any students. I think both of these examples come from a simple lack of knowledge of what the purpose of proper protocol is and how to implement a system that is easily tolerated and understood by their students.

As I write about this, I often think of a double edge sword however, because as I expressed on several occasions during my last outing, if a students’ past teacher didn’t share the proper protocol with them, how could I blame them for not knowing? So in effect I pleaded with students and teacher/students that attended my seminars not to take offense to my coaching as I did not blame them, however I did blame their teachers. So in a sense I set them up for some serious coaching based on the education I have received from my past teachers, which I will always regard as special.

I have been blessed with great teachers in my career and none so special as Steven Seagal. Seagal Sensei was a great teacher and was not afraid to share with me many of the ways that he was taught while spending over 15 years in Japan. Seagal Sensei would always do it in a very gentle, yet assertive way and I never found myself resenting any of his lessons. As such, I feel compelled to pass these lessons on, so that students that would like to host a seminar with a guest instructor don’t have to suffer the embarrassment that comes with breaching some of the most simple protocols. Fortunately or unfortunately, most students/teachers that do breach a protocol have no clue as to the offense and in the end, this simply leads to an unhappy visiting instructor that may make the unfortunate choice not to return.

I encourage all that read this, not to take it personal and to simply take it with a grain of salt for future reference. However, if you are one of my students, I want you to pay very close attention to my advice.

Hosting your teacher

When hosting a teacher, I know more than most what it takes to serve. Seagal Sensei was very high maintenance and very demanding. The most important thing to remember is that you want to spend as much time with your teacher as possible. Generally, this is why you brought him/her to your dojo in the first place. I will tell you first hand that it makes him/her feel that you care to learn and in fact you will learn. As such, you need to enroll your students in helping you in handling all the operational aspects of the seminar. Delegate the busy tasks to them and allow them to feel that they are critical to the success of the seminar. You can be the cause of the seminar, but once the seminar is going, you need to be with your teacher and take care of his/her every need so that they can concentrate on teaching rather than anything else. Some of the things to remember about being with your teacher is that they come first in everything. For instance dining; they are to order and be served first. In addition, no one should touch their own food until your teacher has begun eating. You will do well to avoid buffets where your teacher has to stand in a food line and get his own food. Always be aware of your teachers preferences such as vegetarian, kosher or whatever. I happen to be vegetarian and had the unfortunate experience of having to sit next to a senior student that ordered a whole cooked rabbit with the head still attached…never again!

Who is “Sensei”?

Another important aspect of being with your teacher is that you need to coach your students in how they address you in the presence of your teacher. For instance, most if not all of your students should be calling you “Sensei”. This should be because they have gained respect for you as their teacher and not because you have commanded them to call you by that name. However, when you have your personal teacher as a guest at your dojo, there should only be one person being called “Sensei” in his/her presence and that is your teacher. In other words, if you are with your teacher at dinner and one of your students calls out to you as “Sensei”, your teacher is going to turn towards this student as if he/she were being called upon because they are even more used to being addressed as Sensei. In that moment, your student is going to have to say, “No, I mean the other Sensei” and in that moment they have just demoted your teacher to your equal in stature and respect. This can be very embarrassing for your teacher and is unnecessary. I suggest you coach your students in this matter carefully. Your teacher is the only one that should be referred to as “Sensei” while he/she is in your presence. At any other time, it is perfectly fine to go back to your normal salutation as Sensei. So how do they address you? I recommend that you coach your students in addressing you by your last name and then adding ‘Sensei’, e.g. “Reynosa Sensei”, in the presence of your teacher. Your students need to keep things in their proper perspective relative to your teacher. I know this all too well and have been embarrassed myself when I felt my students, because of their close familiarity with me inadvertently placed me above Seagal Sensei. Just imagine yourself being in the presence of the Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba? Do you want the Doshu to turn to your student at the same time you do and then have them say, “No, the other one” thus putting on the same level as the Doshu? I think not.

Seagal Sensei was always gracious enough to call me Reynosa Sensei in front of students that came to our gatherings and I was always flattered by this. However, that said, you should always remind your students that “Sensei” by itself is very honorific and although they have deep regard for the two of you, your teacher comes first and when “Sensei” is heard, just know that your teacher should be the one turning his head and not you. You will always be on the safe side of things if your students adhere to this bit of protocol.

Room and Board

Room and board should always be of prime importance to you as I know it is for your teacher. I personally enjoy staying at my hosts home or other dojo members’ home rather than staying at an expensive hotel. I have had the experience where I stayed on the fifth floor of a beach hotel, alone, while my otomo enjoyed the home cooking of one of the students mother at her home and then had the company of other dojo students and family. Don’t let this happen to you. You should already know a teachers preference in dining prior to the seminar. You should already have meals planned and asking your teacher where or when they would like to eat should be avoided. You should always transport your teacher or accompany him while being transported by another so that you can talk about the seminar before and after.

The Venue

Registration should not be handled by the host dojo-cho. This is probably the number one mistake a host will make. Yes, he must be available to handle major problems, but this can be accomplished through a cell phone or better yet a walkie talkie. Typically your teacher will have an otomo, but if not, then you are “it” or at the very least your highest ranking student should be available to serve your teachers every wish or need. You should delegate to your most trustworthy students or their spouses. This also serves to get your students’ families involved, which can be very helpful and valuable in student retention.

Registration should be handled with a master list of registrants at one table and door registrants at another table for large crowds. However, both tables should be able to share in any overload that may occur. Pre-registration is a great idea and should be handled at yet another table. Registration should be open well before the seminar is to begin so that all participants can be on the mat prior to the beginning of the first class.

The venue should be talked about with your teacher well in advance of the seminar so that they can dress appropriately, e.g. footwear can be considered. Indoor venues such as your dojo typically don’t require any discussion, especially if your teacher has been to the venue in prior visits. However, if this is the first time, then a discussion of mat type and mat conditions should be accurately described to them. If there are any unusual characteristics of the venue, these should also be divulged to your teacher so that there are no surprises on his/her part.

A private dressing room and toilet facility

A private dressing room and lavatory facility is the most important thing to have for your teacher and any special guests, if at all possible. If it is not possible, just do the best you can do to allow your teacher to dress privately and to have private access to the restroom facilities, especially just prior to beginning his/her classes.

In this private dressing room, you should have a nice fruit bowl, energy snacks and drink selection available for your teacher and any guests/otomo he/she may have with him/her. In addition, you should have clean towels and washing facility if no private shower facilities are available. Make sure you have shampoo and soap available if you teacher chooses to use the shower facility and make sure that it is clean. You should have a normal chair and table in the dressing room as well. No one should have access to this room other than your number one assistant, yourself and of course your teacher.

At the beginning of the seminar, you should be dressed and be at your teachers beckon call if needed. After your teacher is dressed, you should care for his personal belongings in a way that they are completely safe…you are actually more responsible for their safety than he is. Keep them in a place that is easily accessible if needed during the seminar, e.g. the need for a business card or other personal item.

Selling your teachers products

A sales table needs to be available where your teacher may sell his products such as DVDs, Tapes, T-shirts, etc. Someone should be assigned to sell and account for the monies brought in by these sales, not you. The money from his products should be presented
to him at the end of the seminar in a separate envelope with an accounting of what was sold.

What to do while your teacher is teaching

First and foremost, be on the mat at all times your teacher is teaching. If there is something that needs to be taken care of, either ask your teacher for permission to leave or better yet, get one of your seniors to do it for you.

While your teacher is on the mat, you should have a sweat towel and bottled water always available and easily accessible. You should train freely unless otherwise instructed by your teacher. Be prepared to take ukemi for him, but don’t be surprised if he does not use you too much. One of the main reasons for this is that he might want you to be watching more, since it is very hard to watch a technique while being thrown to the ground or choked out?! I often use other senior students just for this reason.

Cameras and Filming

No cameras or other filming equipment should be allowed unless specific permission has been granted by your teacher. If any film is produced about the seminar, the film should be given to the instructor before any copies are distributed to anyone else for his approval. No student should leave the mat to take any photos or do any video taping unless specific permission is obtained from the instructor as well.

At the end of class

After the instructor has finished teaching any class, all students should wait until he is completely off the mat before they move to thank each other for class. You as the Dojo-cho should follow your teacher immediately off the mat and stay with him all the way to his dressing room. If you have to make any announcements, you should either have someone else do this or have your number one assistant go with your teacher and then immediately after making any announcements, join your teacher. You should take your teachers hakama at this point and fold it yourself or have your number one do it for you and then return it to your teacher. Always have it ready for him either to pack in his dogi bag or suitcase. You should have your number one stay with your teacher or just outside while he changes into his street clothes and then care for his personal bags so that he may meet and greet any students before leaving the venue.

At the end of class

At the end of the seminar and just before you take your teacher to the airport or say goodbye, you should present him/her with an orei (cash gift in their home currency) in a plain white envelope. Any other monies should be presented in the same manner only separate from the orei. Another small, but very important detail that is missed and/or overlooked almost all the time, is the payment of parking at your teacher’s home airport. In almost every case I have had to pay my own parking upon my return to the airport. A teacher should not have to bear any of the cost of the seminar which can certainly be a significant expense. I believe a stipend of around $50-$75 would be appreciated by your teacher in almost every case. You can present this also in a separate envelope and identify it as parking expense.

Final thoughts

I am quite aware that many will feel that these rules of protocol are way out of line, but those are the people that have not had a teacher with the courage nor knowledge to teach them proper protocol. Through it all I have learned to be more patient, more tolerant and more understanding of proper protocol. There is a method to the madness. I have stood in one place in my teachers house for over six hours while he attended to many others and dined on two meals just to have a two minute conversation with him. Most people would have left or become very angry at having been put off for so long; but I got patience, from this lesson. I traveled hundreds of miles to be at a place where I was going to meet my teacher and when I got there, I found out that he wasn’t going to be able to make it after all. Most people would have been livid about this; but I got understanding from this lesson. I have been three months into planning a seminar for my teacher, only to be told at one point that he never approved the seminar and would be busy during the time we had planned the seminar. Most people would have quit at this point; but I got tolerance from this lesson. I will always remember my teacher saying to me, “Instead of doing technique for ten years, spend ten years finding a great teacher. And when you do, learn everything you can from him.”

When I had walked to the end of the road as my teacher’s highest ranking student in the world and number one disciple, I knew I had learned all that I could. In a moment, sitting at his ranch in one of the most sacred rooms of his 12 bedroom house, I enjoyed absolute clarity and freedom of all that he had given me. I will be eternally grateful for my experience with Seagal Sensei and would like my own students to be able to find their own path. I want nothing more than to be an inspiration to others as my teacher was to me. I wish you all well and can only hope that you will learn from what I have shared with you in this article. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but simply want you all to understand that if you do not coach your students in proper protocol, you can never expect them to understand. If you are a teacher, take it on…take it all on.