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What is the Right Way to Leave a Martial Arts Teacher?

Most teachers develop a bond with students when they achieve great things together, as we did at a tournament in 2000.

Fellow taiji instructor Kim Ivy of Seattle put an interesting post on Facebook last week and it triggered some thoughts that probably all instructors entertain from time to time.

It's a bit puzzling to us, and it actually sometimes hurts a little bit when we spend time with a student, coach them, laugh with them, give time and energy and care, only to have them suddenly vanish and we never hear from them again.

It has happened to me several times. I have had students who achieved rank, attended tournaments with me and we had a great time, developed a camaraderie, and suddenly they are gone and never communicate, as if I was just some passing acquaintance.

As a student, I left one or two teachers without saying anything, including my very first teacher, Sin The. But in all the time I was a student of Sin The's, rising to 3rd degree brown belt, I can't recall one conversation that he ever had with me. I'm not even sure he ever gave me any personal coaching at all. It was a very impersonal environment, and between my youth and the lack of a relationship with the teacher, I simply left the school. It probably was not the right thing to do.

So what is the best way to leave a martial arts teacher? When is it appropriate to leave without a trace?

Students leave for a variety of reasons -- they may simply not have the money for the monthly fee; they might be bogged down with school, with jobs, with personal relationships or family. All that is understandable, and all teachers understand that life often gets in the way of martial arts.

Personal integrity is important here. If your teacher has displayed integrity in his or her dealings with you -- if the instructor has been honest and friendly and put forth an effort to teach you skills -- you will show integrity by communicating in person when it is time to leave the school. 

However, if the teacher has allowed or created a negative or hostile environment in the school, or has been personally and unreasonably critical, it might be best to simply walk away.

If you find that your teacher has lied about his or her background, if they have made up their history or if they have lied about their lineage or teachers, will it do any good to confront them on it? Probably not. Would it be honest to let them know you are disappointed that they lied? Yes. But I could understand it if a student simply left, because again, the issue of personal integrity has come into play. If the teacher shows a lack of personal integrity by lying, the student does not owe him anything but contempt, in my opinion. Taking money under false pretenses is stealing.

If you have even the slightest feeling that your teacher could become angry or abusive if you tell him that you are leaving, it is best not to say anything. Just leave.

In the end, you should do what you think is the right thing to do, not the easy thing to do. It's always easiest to just walk away from any relationship. Some people break up with girlfriends or boyfriends with a text message. That's pretty cold. Someone who has meant something to you deserves a face-to-face conversation unless abuse or physical violence is a possibility.

Personal integrity is not always the easy route, but it is always the most satisfying in the end. And if you are studying martial arts, isn't integrity one of the core strengths that the art is supposed to help you develop? You can demonstrate your internal strength by doing the right thing.



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Kim Ivy

Excellent post, Ken. Thank you for your layered thoughtfulness. I think in the end when I have incorrectly left teachers, friends, lovers, it became something that haunted me more than them. I was deeply grateful to my first teacher who "taught me" how to "do it right" at the same time there have also been instants where the situation was unsafe either physically or psychologically, and high tailing out was absolutely the best choice. As you say, in the end, it is a personal choice. To check in with our own integrity and to choose that correct path will likely always net the most long lasting results. Respect!

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