Impactful Mentoring: Lessons from Sensei (Teacher)
When we are deep in the minutia of day-to-day work that can often include toxic politics, organizational culture inertia, putting out fires, etc., we can sometimes forget to take a step back and reflect on key lessons learned from a mentor. For me, that mentor was Miyazaki Sensei (teacher). A positive role model who set the example for all of his karate students, he was largely responsible for keeping me off the streets while growing up in New York City. He taught me many lessons at a very young age that I didn't fully appreciate until much later.
My mother, a single-parent, invested her money from multiple jobs to enroll me in karate when I was about ten-years-old. It was perhaps the best investment she ever made. It kept me off the streets (mostly) and provided me with a positive role model and teacher, Toyotaro Miyazaki. We all knew him simply as "Sensei." An incredibly talented man who was a well-known fighter in the 1960s tournament circuit and forms/weapons champion in the 70s & 80s, Sensei maintained an enormously humble persona. He didn't care to be called Shihan (master). He preferred Sensei (teacher).
In the 1980s, there was an explosion of martial arts popularity in the U.S. Schools were popping up everywhere. The big fads were flips, splits, and spinning kicks. But not at our dojo (school). We would spend years perfecting simple stances, simple kicks, and simple blocks. Sensei could've secured more students (i.e., revenue) if he offered the fancy stuff but he didn't compromise. (Not to knock down people who can demonstrate fancy techniques. I admire their physical talent. The point is Sensei was not quick to implement fads at the school).
When I was a teen, my mother could no longer afford lessons. The kind and generous man that he was, Sensei asked me a question in his deep Japanese accent, "Do you know how to clean?" So, soon after I began cleaning the dojo every day after school and on Saturday mornings. I was a horrible janitor but he was patient with me. A couple of years later Sensei had me start teaching some of the young children's classes. He didn't hand me a booklet with teaching directions. Rather, a culmination of tips as he observed my teaching amounted to a 4-step process. Sensei taught me:
- Plan the content.
- Visualize the sequence.
- Implement and adapt the pace and content as you see students perform.
- Reflect on your lesson.
I taught classes intermittently for about three years, moving over to teach the adult classes, and eventually assisting with tournament activities. It's only as an adult that I came to fully appreciate Sensei's 4-step process, especially step 4: reflect on your lesson. Could I have done a better job teaching the class? What do I need to improve for the next class?
Key lessons Sensei taught me:
- Don't be concerned with titles.
- Don't focus on the revenue. Know your core values. Revenue will eventually come from doing the right thing.
- Don't be quick to adapt the latest fads. Focus on doing the basics well.
- Be kind and generous.
- Reflect on your work.
Admittedly, I sometimes neglected Sensei's key lessons throughout my career. This was particularly true when I was deep in the minutia of day-to-day work as an education administrator. I didn't always take a step back to reflect on my early life lessons. I could've been more patient, thoughtful, and focused on the basics. I definitely could've done a better job to reflect on my work.
If you find yourself entrenched in the minutia, I encourage you to reflect on a special mentor, teacher, friend, family member or any other positive influencer who taught you key lessons that should be brought back to the surface again. Perhaps you'll find a way to reignite your passion and view work and life through a fresh set of reliable lenses.
Who is your "Sensei"?
Dr. Albert Solano
Educator. Consultant. Trainer