I mentioned in a previous post that I don’t care about your rank; I care about what you know. That statement was aimed at students, but the same is true for instructors. A higher rank doesn’t necessarily give an instructor more intimate knowledge of Taekwon-Do. It also doesn’t mean that he or she is better able to teach that knowledge to others.
When I was still a beginner and was evaluating schools to join, I believed that an instructor’s worth was measured by the number on his belt. Why would I learn from a 2nd degree black belt when I could learn from a 7th dan master? Peer-pressure and convenience won out and I joined a couple of friends at a nearby school run by a man who, at the time, was a 3rd dan.
One thing I realized was that, as a beginner, most schools feel the same. One club basically feels like the next, as long as the arts taught there are similar. It’s all just martial arts. The only thing that really stands out at first is the personality of the instructor.
But as time moves on and you gain more knowledge and technical experience, you’ll be able to recognize a good instructor when you see one. A good instructor has a wealth of technical knowledge and knows how to impart that to others. You don’t get this by being able to pass belt exams or even by teaching for 20 years. You get this by learning from great instructors and by having the drive to learn and discover things for yourself.
Teaching the same lackluster material over and over for 20 years doesn’t make you proficient.
When you first start out in Taekwon-Do, you have no idea what proper technical knowledge is. One instructor teaching poor technique looks the same as another teaching great technique. And if you’ve been with an ignorant instructor all along then you won’t really know what you’re missing.
A master by default
One thing to remember is that the higher-level black belt ranks are partly an exercise in political relations. If you stick around long enough and you don’t cross the important people above you, sooner or later you’re bound to get promoted. Doing things to help out your organization will likely expedite this process.
At the higher levels, rank means power. It means influence within your organization. And unless you’re an absolute moron, you’ll probably keep getting promoted.
This means that there are quite a few high-ranking instructors out there who aren’t all that good. But there are also a lot of lower-ranking instructors who are excellent. I was fortunate that my first Ch’ang-Hon-style instructor—who was only a 3rd dan when I started—had an excellent technical education in Taekwon-Do and knew how to pass that along. So, while I still have lots to learn, I ended up getting a great education as well.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve met masters who have said and done things that were patently wrong, or sometimes just dumb. I was at a seminar once when a 6th dan raised his hand and asked a question: “When it says ‘jump,’” he said, referring to the instructions for a pattern in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do, “do both feet leave the ground?”
I applaud him for trying to find an answer that he didn’t know, but unless he had mastered some sort of alternate physics that no one else knew about then the answer should have been pretty obvious. That man became a master that very same weekend.
I’m not saying that all high-ranking instructors are bad. I’ve met masters and other high-level black belts who were encyclopedias unto themselves. And to be fair, there is something that comes with decades of training and teaching that can’t be gleaned from any book: practical experience. Time has a way of helping people figure some things out.
But my point is that rank is not an inherent measure of skill, nor of knowledge. I understand that it isn’t possible for everyone to have the best instructor in the world. But try to evaluate what you’re given and, if possible, try to use what you’ve found to help yourself. One thing that makes me happy is when I see people recognize a deficiency of knowledge within themselves and then take active steps to try to correct it.
Unfortunately for beginners, it isn’t always possible to tell whether your instructor is up to snuff. But if you have enough experience to realize that your instructor just doesn’t quite measure up, then maybe you should consider doing something about it.