Assistant Instructor: Supporting vs. Undermining

In the dojo, everyone has a responsibility to set a positive example for their Kohai (younger brothers and sisters in karate).  As students rise through the Kyu-ranks and beyond, they reach a point where they also have the opportunity to serve as assistant instructors during class.  This is a wonderful opportunity for them to grow in karate and to develop important leadership skills.

However, as anyone who has been a lead instructor is aware, there is often a fine line between an assistant who is genuinely helpful and one whose “help” is more of a hindrance!  In this article, I will try to offer some thoughts on both.

Defining Assistant Instructor vs. Lead Instructor

For our purposes, the lead instructor is the senior rank who is in charge or the class OR in charge of a group within the class.  If the class is split into two groups, then there will be a lead instructor for each group (with the senior of the two acting as lead instructor for the overall class).  The assistant instructor is generally the next senior person(s) in the class or group.  This person may be tasked to take an active leadership role (“I will lead from the front, while you float and make corrections”) or they may simply be the senior student on the floor.

Because the class structure often changes (such as a class breaking into smaller groups, then changing groups for a different activity, then finally coming back together as a while class), the roles of lead instructor and assistant instructors can change during the same class.

The Supportive Assistant Instructor

As a general rule, assistant instructors work to support student learning without disrupting the flow of the class.  They are able to do their job without taking the students’ focus off of the lead instructor.  Some examples…

  • The lead instructor is in the front of the dojo, leading Kihon (basics).  The assistant is floating and making corrections.  The assistant instructor does not speak or speaks only a word or two in a whisper, so as not to interrupt the lead instructor.  The assistant gently moves students’ hands into position, adjusts chambers, etc.  These are what we refer to as two-second fixes, meaning that the correction is made almost immediately so that the technique is improved and the student doesn’t miss the next count.  If the student’s technique requires a more involved correction, the assistant pulls them out to the back of the dojo for more in-depth instruction.  Once the technique is adjusted, the student is returned to the group.  During all of this, the flow of the class is not interrupted.
  • This actually happened.  The class had done the closing bows and were lined up on the side of the dojo just prior to dismissal.  Kyoshi was giving the day’s announcements.  One of the Joshu-Shobans (Jr. 1st Level Black Belt) was standing with his arms crossed instead of at attention.  Shidoin Dube (who was standing nearby) noticed and, without saying a word, reached over and gently swatted the Joshu-Shoban’s arms down to his sides.  The situation was addressed without any disruption or interruption; in fact, most of the students never noticed it happening.
  • When Hanshi Bernard or Hanshi Martin visit our dojo, Kyoshi Baker stops being the lead instructor and becomes the assistant.  Part of his role is to make sure that everyone is able to focus on Hanshi.  When Hanshi is demonstrating technique, Kyoshi will call out “Take a knee” or simply “Sit”, so that everyone is able to see what Hanshi is presenting.  However, it is important to note that Kyoshi makes every effort to do this when Hanshi is not speaking.  The task is done without any interruption of Hanshi’s presentation.

The Disruptive Assistant Instructor

Sometimes assistant instructors become so caught up in their role as an authority figure that they become more of a disruption than a help.  This can undermine the lead instructor’s position and may interfere with student learning or create discipline problems within the class.  Some examples…

  • The lead instructor is explaining a concept to the class, and the assistant chimes in with his/her own explanation, comment, or even story.  While you may feel that you have something constructive to add, it is important to remember that people can only absorb so much information at a time.  Chiming in can distract from the point that the instructor was trying to make, can waste class time, and (in extreme cases) can make it appear that you don’t feel the lead instructor can get his/her point across without your help.  A better strategy is to wait until a break and quietly offer your input to the lead instructor, who can then decided whether it is appropriate to share it with the class.  If you notice that the student continues to struggle with technique, despite the lead instructor’s explanations/corrections, you may approach the lead instructor and quietly offer to help by working with the student separately.  (Be certain that this is a private conversation, and is not overheard by the class.  Also, if the instructor does not take you up on your offer, politely acknowledge their decision and return to your place.)
  • A student commits a breach of etiquette during class and the assistant loudly chastises that student.  Yes, inappropriate behavior should be addressed.  The lead instructor has a wide range of strategies for dealing with these situations.  Remember that, as assistant, one of your jobs is to keep the focus on the lead and to NOT disrupt the flow of the class.  If the transgression is relatively minor, a quiet and brief explanation of why the behavior is not appropriate in the dojo is a much better strategy.  Larger transgressions may require a stronger response – have a quiet conversation with the lead instructor about how they would like to handle the situation.