Should instructors be friends or socialize with students?

It’s funny how a train of thought can take off down an unexpected track. When I sat down to write my previous post, I had been thinking about one thing, but ended up writing about something else. And I didn’t even realize what was happening till I was well on the way. So now I’m going to take another stab at the subject of “friends.”

I had been thinking about the question of whether students in a traditional dojo can properly be friends with their instructors. This area can be a real minefield, oddly enough.

Some friends of mine in another city study a traditional Japanese art, under a Japanese instructor. Their dojo is very strict and formal. Judging by the stories I hear, this instructor is often confounded by the appalling manners of his American students. Their lapses in behavior, it seems, often consist (in his view) of their behaving toward him as though he is their “friend” instead of their superior.

Yet to an American sensibility, the behavior in question will seem ordinary and benign—even polite. Examples: Attempting to make conversation when crossing paths outside class. Inviting the instructor to a post-workout social gathering. Expressing enthusiasm for how he taught class (a subject we’ve dealt with here). Sending email to explain one’s absence from class (this form of communication deemed too casual or off-hand, or perhaps too intrusive, since it might seem to demand a response—and how dare one demand anything from Sensei?).

Clearly he wishes to maintain a strict professional distance. Culturally, I think he may sometimes be confusing “friendly” behavior (Western style) for “friend” behavior. Still, he has his concept of distance. We Americans are not strangers to the notion of professional distance; we’re just less strict and more inconsistent about it—so it can become an area of confusion and disagreement.

The egalitarian part of our nature says, We’re educated, accomplished adults who are equal in the world to this instructor; therefore, we need not treat him as special outside of class. Besides, we share an interest in martial arts. Maybe we share other interests as well! We’d like to hear more about what he thinks about this or that. We’d like to share what we’re thinking, too.

Some people feel even more strongly. They accept the strict hierarchy and etiquette of the dojo as a cultural phenomenon, and as a practical way to make difficult training go smoothly. But any effort to extend it outside class is seen as downright objectionable. They don’t expect to be treated as underlings outside of class, and any instructor who expects “dojo deference” out in the world where we’re equals is seen as being patronizing, or arrogant, or perhaps having delusions of grandeur. It might even be taken as a sign of cultishness.

Many of us American/traditional instructors are sympathetic to these views, because we grew up with them ourselves. We know our students are our equals outside class—maybe even our betters. We don’t wish to be patronizing, nor do most of us want to lead a cult.

But some of us have learned further lessons. For one, we’ve learned the instructor-student relationship can be intense and difficult. Our subject matter is violence, and for many of our students, training is about personal growth. At times, we have to be able to push students in ways we might not push our friends. At times, they must trust us as superiors, not question us as equals. Professional distance is absolutely vital.

We’ve also learned that many people can’t draw a clear line between how they act inside and outside the dojo. When I started out many years ago teaching adults, I was strictly a “don’t call me Sensei outside the dojo” kind of instructor. Later, when I began accepting younger students, I quickly learned they couldn’t handle the distinction. Youngsters who were casual with me in the grocery store acted casual in class, and discipline became a problem. Then I noticed that, although it was more subtle, the same problem was occurring with a fair number of adults. Nowadays, if a parent or child asks me whether I am “sensei” outside of class, I’ll just say, “When you’re not sure what to do, it never hurts to err on the side of being respectful.” With adults, I long since stopped offering the distinction; some make it and some don’t. But everyone seems to do better in training when distance is maintained.

There’s one more lesson that everyone learned in grade school: Friendship leads to jealously and conflict. Friendship within a hierarchical system can be especially problematic in that way. Even an instructor who is good at keeping friendship separate from training has to realize, their students will be aware of what goes on outside class. Teachers are held in special regard, and human beings can and will feel jealousy toward other people’s relationships with the teacher. There are even students who will seek friendship with their teacher exactly because of its perceived special value.

So, what do you think… Can students in a traditional dojo be friends with their instructors? Should instructors be friends with their students?

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13 Responses to “Should instructors be friends or socialize with students?”

  1. Really good topic. Friends tend to be equals, so being in a position of authority eliminates that possibility. You can’t “push” a students limits and be their pal.

    The hierarchy with the other ranks and sempai can and should be loose at times. But as far as the chief instructor goes, etiquette and respect is a must. Being a mentor is not te same as being a friend, but at times the distinction can be blurred.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Yes, well put.

      Sometimes I think our culture promotes blurred distinctions. That can actually be a strength– it can lead to new ways of seeing things. But it’s a weakness when it leads to inappropriate relationships or general disrespect. That’s why in the dojo it’s so valuable to borrow a culture that offers clearer lines.

      Thanks for coming by and posting.

  2. This is a tough one. I have only seen a few teacher/student friendships succeed. Perhaps it depends on the individuals involved. If the friendship ends…someone inevitably leaves the dojo. As an instructor, I agree that training flows better when distance is maintained. Perceived favoritism can disrupt the dojo community.

    I realized after reading your post that my karate friends are either the people that I trained with from day one or black belts I met after Shodan. After receiving my black belt, my very first class instructor used to tell me “You can call me by my first name”. I responded, “Thank you Mr. X but you will always be Mr. X.” It would not feel right addressing him by first name.

    I completely agree with John regarding chief instructors.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks for your comments, Michele.

      Re: people leaving the dojo when a friendship ends– that’s always a disappointing event, and of course not limited to student-teacher friendships. I guess that makes ANY friendship in the dojo risky, if people can’t separate their feelings from their training. This is perhaps why one of my early instructors chewed out a black belt for organizing a dojo picnic. “This is not a social club!” He was quite livid. I, a white belt at the time–and looking forward to an opportunity to socialize– was baffled by the whole incident.

  3. This is a great topic, and interesting timing because I just got done writing about this issue in an ebook I am working on. Separately, I came to the same conclusions you did (which makes me feel good because your coverage is very thoughtful).

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks, Matt, for your comments. All of us who are dedicated to the martial arts end up thinking (and writing) about the same issues, sooner or later. That’s one of the things I enjoy about the blogosphere.

      Best of luck with the ebook!

  4. Great post and I think a really important topic.

    I suspect my ‘anonymous critic’ felt that in my blog I was infringing on this unspoken distance between senior and student. It was a concern I took very seriously because I do believe appropriate etiquette and respect both inside and outside the dojo is an absolute must.

    I think while at times students can develop a kind of friendship with their senior and instructors, there are still social boundaries which make it different to the kinds of friendships one has outside of training. It might at times be OK to socialise and joke but this doesn’t necessarly make them your equals. Outside of training I’ve come to consider many of my seniors in the Honbu dojo good friends, but the friendship is a different one and it’s completely different again inside the dojo.

    At the end of the day I guess there’s rarely any absolutes – acceptable behaviour ultimately depends on the dojo, the seniors and instructors there. However, I agree that in traditional martial arts it’s always best to err on the side of caution and respect. If you’re sensitive to the ‘cues’ it’ll be made pretty clear whether ‘friendly behaviour’ is acceptable outside of training hours. Maybe being sensitive to the signals is the best we can do.

    Just my thoughts on the topic.

  5. Its been a while since someone posted here, but I really liked the article.

    As a sensei of a traditional art I have run into a lot of these same issues. The things I found that help are the following, I hope this helps someone:

    1. I make sure at the beginning of a class with a new student that this student (and the others there too) know that they are to refer to me as sensei and the assistant instructor as Sempai. I also make sure they know that this is a form of respect in a traditional school and that is how we do things.

    2. When in class I am cordial and friendly to my students, I don’t walk around the dojo acting like I am more superior then everyone else, however I make sure that I portray an “air of authority” about me so that I retain respect, and I make sure that the students respect the other ranks as well through the way I speak to my upper ranks and the “air of authority” I leave around them. I do this on purpose to maintain respect.

    3. Outside of class I have had students that call me up to let me know they won’t be in class or they have a problem of some kind and they seek advice or I see them on the street someplace and stop for a talk. I speak kindly and cordially to them, however they still call me sensei or sir, and I thought about telling them its okay to call me by my first name outside of class, but I realized that such a thing will translate to class and so I don’t correct them when they call me sensei or sir outside of class.

    4. When someone takes on the title and responsibility of a sensei, sifu, sabum, etc., you DO NOT STOP being that outside of class. It is a lifestyle not a hobby. When I step outside of the dojo I am still sensei. When I see a student of mine at a restaurant, I am still sensei. I make sure that I retain that respect (which incidently helps foster discipline in students sub-consciously) so that whenever and wherever I meet them they address me as sir or sensei. It reinforces the student-teacher relationship and the students tend to be more respectful in class because of it.

    Well that is my 10 cents. I only say these things as they have been learned the hard way and so now I pre-emptively nip it in the bud whenever I can. I hope this helps someone. 🙂

  6. Nobody asks their doctor if they want to go hang out at the sports bar after their exam. People don’t (typically) invite their college professor out for drinks (though I’ve seen it happen, but it’s never a casual “let’s hang out” sort of affair). Senseis should be treated with, and expect, a similar level of respect and professional distance, in my opinion. Familiarity certainly can breed contempt, or erode the instruct/obey relationship that’s so necessary for a martial arts instructor to be effective. Taking anything the Sensei says as friendly advice or a casual suggestion instead of an order to be instantly obeyed could easily lead to injury or even death.

    At the same time, each Sensei needs to earn the respect and professional courtesy he or she demands by comporting himself or herself as a professional both inside and outside the dojo. You can’t be a goodball one minute and expect decorum and respect the next. It’s a serious commitment to be a Sensei.

    My old Aikido Sensei used to arrange dinners whenever a guest instructor came to town to lead a seminar hosted by our dojo. They weren’t formal affairs – they were a chance to mingle with and get to know our fellow students, the guest instructor, and, yes, Sensei. But it wasn’t a no-holds-barred situation. He wasn’t lounging around getting sauced on beers – it was almost like we were having dinner in the dojo, just slightly less rigid and formal (and wearing street clothes). I always thought those dinners struck a nice balance and I enjoyed them immensely.

    I just found this blog and I’m catching up on the older articles, but I wanted to offer my thoughts as well as commend the blogger on his thoughtful and very well-written essays.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Mike- The college professor/student analogy seems more apt than doctor/patient; there it would be more like intern/resident, a question of seniority, experience and authority… Although for some reason I feel a psychologist/patient analogy might work, maybe because of the more intimate, personal nature of the relationship in that case. –But that’s a side issue. Your points are well put — thanks for commenting, and thanks for your kind words about the blog.

  7. There is a fine line between being respectful and being too casual or downright challenging. It doesn’t belong in dojo. And there is a difference between asking a question to be clarified by a sensei and challenging the system of the dojo.

    • Konnochiwa,
      I recently joined a kyudo dojo and asked my sensei in a respectful manner if we could meet up for lunch and have a chat …This is how I said it : ‘Konnichiwha Sensei, If you are not busy during the holiday can we possibly schedual a lunch together and have a chat ?…Did I disrespect my sensei?…I sure didn’t mean to ….

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