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?

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12 Comments on “The Role of Assistant Instructors”

  1. SueC Says:

    This is a really interesting topic for me as I help as an assistant instructor in my karate club. I started assisting about 10 months ago when I was a 2nd kyu brown belt ( I’m now a 1st kyu brown belt). I do not assist in my own class but help with the junior class which is mainly children.

    Currently there is no structured assistant instructors training programme, though I believe one may be introduced. I learn mainly by example from my instructor. My duties usually involve partnering someone who doesn’t have a partner (particularly if they are an adult so they don’t have to partner a child), taking small groups of white belts to the back of the class and going through some basics with them, teaching them how to tie an obi, counting in Japanese etc. Sometimes I’m asked to lead some pad work or sparring whilst sensei takes someone through a pre-grading. I know he keeps an eye on me and comes to the rescue if he thinks I’m getting overwhelmed!

    I would not be allowed to run a class without sensei -a suitabley experienced and insured black belt must always be present.

    I enjoy helping with the junior class and see it as a necessary and rewarding part of my own training.

    • redwoodojo Says:

      SueC- Thanks for coming by and commenting. It sounds like you’re part of a good system.
      One sentence piqued my interest- the part about sensei keeping an eye and coming to the rescue if you’re getting overwhelmed when leading a group. Can you give an example of what might be happening, and how the head instructor “rescues” ? 🙂 This could be helpful to others…

      • SueC Says:

        The one or two incidents when I’ve needed ‘rescuing’ have occurred when I’ve been left with a largish group, maybe 12 -16 people, mainly young children. I sometimes have difficulty helping the kids maintain focus and concentration and the pace drops as I try and sort out problems or talk to the disinterested children. I think my instructor senses this drop in pace and realises that I’m starting to struggle. He deals with it by just getting my group to join in with the rest of the class and moves the whole class on to a new activity. No fuss is made and he makes it look like he was going to do that anyway, but I know he’s rescuing me! The student’s would not realise that I’m being rescued as it’s all done very smoothly and subtley. Later, he sometimes gives me some pointers as to how I could deal with similar problems in the future. Hope that helps!

  2. Great topic Didi. Assistants play a pivotal role, especially with large classes. Parents sometimes ask “How are you going to control a class this size?”, and I point to all the assistants crawling around the class like spiders, giving constructive criticism and praise; and it answers their question. The key is assistants must be taught that they are to use positive wording only, and to use it liberally. Initially, many are a bit gun-shy about this, but they soon get over it.

    Like Sensei Varady’s method of the nod–you don’t want an inexperienced assistant to go off on a power trip and arbitrarily start sitting kids down. This can happen with an inexperienced instructor. You must be the one to initiate any disciplinary action. After some time, you will give assistants permission to act on their own with regard to this.

    Sue’s example above is a good example of how assistants are utilized. They will many times lead activities like pad work or warm-ups. It builds their confidence greatly.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Klein, Didi Goodman. Didi Goodman said: New blog post / discussion on working w/ assistant instructors in #martialarts […]

  4. Ricki Kay Says:

    I have been using assistant instructors for the past 10 years. They range in age from 8 to 58. They have to be of certain rank (usually having trained for 6 months or more). They must attend a one hour class by me on how to assist. This class is offered quarterly. They are instructed on how to be positive and what their role is in class. They are only allowed to assist in a class of lower rank than themselves. They must line up with the class, at the front behind the instructor. The instructor tells them which group to stay with or perhaps which individual to help. During the one hour training, we go over the exact starting and ending positions of their blocks and kicks. While they are assisting they are instructed to be positive only or to use “PCP” developed by Brian Tracy: Praise-Correct-Praise. They may only use 5 words or less (a principle from Master Ernie Cates), or they do not have to say anything — they can just give a small nudge to an incorrect technique. They are allowed to correct beginning and ending positions of all techniques. They are instructed to start from the ground up. They are assisgned a particular group with an instructor and assist in any way necessary. They are allowed to get targets from the cabinets. They are assigned to watch the students and make sure the targets are being held correctly. They do not attend to discipline problems, nor do they teach techniques. If any discipline is necessary they come to the instructor and he/she attends to the problem. They are invaluable with helping the student who needs some extra attention, or when there is an uneven number in the class for partner work. They provide helpful hints as the students are working out. Since they are usually the students’ peers they are viewed in a very positive and helpful way. Each quarter we hold a special class for the assistants. The assistants have to be leaders in the dojo, at home and in school. Therefore they do chore charts for 6 weeks to show they are working hard at home. They have to show report cards from their schools to show they are above average in their scholastics. After 3 months they are rewarded with a special patch which can be worn on their gi’s. After 6 months of assisting and completing all the requirements they are allowed to wear a special colored uniform on the days that they assist. The program works fabulously. I always have someone to help with those students who are squirming around. I always have someone to help me demonstrate and to act as an extra pair of eyes. And they get to be a leader. It’s kind of like growing your own next instructor. The program has become one of prestige in our dojo.

  5. redwoodojo Says:

    Matt and Ricki – Thanks for sharing about your successful programs, and thanks especially for reminding again how important it is to instruct new assistants in the use of praise and positive language. It’s easy for people to see “mistakes” and criticize them; it’s much harder to learn to see positives first, and praise them, then couch corrections in positive terms. I’m going to be calling an instructor meeting ASAP! 🙂

  6. redwoodojo Says:

    Anyone else have some assistant instructor stories to tell? Here are some questions I’d like to hear about:
    How do you step in if you see an assistant losing control of their group, having a tough time, or maybe, doing something wrong? (I’m being purposely vague. What would you consider “wrong”?)

    When assistants are about to start handling their own groups in class, what advice do you give them? What’s important?

  7. redwoodojo Says:

    SueC- thanks for those examples. Your instructor’s pointers on how to keep things moving & focused… that could be the topic of another whole discussion. In fact, stay tuned- I’m putting it on the to-do list!

  8. Petra Says:

    I have a brown belt, whose father has, after I gave him one month free as gratitude for his assistance now asked that I actually pay him per week for his assistance. I have never heard of this and was quite shocked (as his dad was also an old regime karateka). How would you treat this and do you actually pay assistant instructors?

  9. […] A colleague from South Africa asked this question in response to our post, The Role of Assistant Instructors: […]

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