The Role of Assistant Instructors
The most frequently asked question about teaching martial arts to kids is how to maintain order and discipline in class. The answer almost always has to do with disciplinary tools — things like rules and guidelines, targeted praise, push-ups, time-outs, and the like. (See the comments section of our previous post for some views on this topic.)
But let’s not overlook the single most wonderful and valuable tool for helping maintain order: The assistant instructor. Assistants benefit class and the dojo in many other ways, too; and teaching experience is vital to the assistant’s own training.
Often we’re so eager to get some help that we forget to consider the who, what, and how. Who is qualified to be an assistant? What exactly will be expected of them? What kind of training and preparation might they need? How will they carry out their duties in your class while being helpful and not disruptive?
If you have a large class, you might be tempted to send your assistants off to teach smaller groups. Have you made it clear what you want them to do? Are they capable and prepared? Keep in mind, you’re asking them to fill your shoes.
Some instructors use kids and teens as assistants. They can be great role models, but they might need close supervision and guidance before they’re ready to help teach.
Sensei Joe Varady of Satori Dojo in Pennsylvania gives this excellent description of one version of the assistant instructor role:
Assistants do not need to be black belts, but they should be at least brown belts if possible. My assistant’s job is to quietly hover at the back of the class and look out for problems. Sometimes it’s a problem with a technique, or just telling a child to switch sides or lower a stance, but the biggest job is wigglers. My Sempai, Dawn White, calls it “whack-a-mole” duty. Often just a hand on their shoulder will be able to fix a wiggler and help them to focus. Other times it takes more. If there is a persistent behavior problem, at my nod, the assistant quietly sweeps in and pulls the student to the back of the class. She might give them some push-ups, and a reminder, and ask if there is anything wrong and if they understand what is expected of them. She also tells them that if Sensei sees that behavior again, they will have to sit out.
I like this approach because the assistant’s job is clear and well-defined. It’s supportive of the head instructor without being obtrusive. It lets the assistant observe how the head instructor runs class, so they can call on this knowledge if later they are given a group of students to teach.
Tell us about your school. Who can be an assistant instructor? What is their role? Do you have an instructor training program, either formal or informal? What problems (and solutions) have you encountered in working with assistants?