When I started teaching, I became “sensei.” Whatever doubts I may have had about my skills became irrelevant–to my students, I was the expert. I had always thought that being a sensei meant being a master in some way shape or form. I had no idea what was expected of me as a sensei–after all, I knew I could not be the martial artist that Sensei Bannister was. There was no way I could, in my mind, be one of those all-powerful, secretive teachers that I had seen in the movies. I had no idea what to expect as a sensei, but I did know what I did not want: I did not want to be all-powerful. I did not want to be some rock on which people hopelessly adrift could cling when life got too rough. But my students expected something from me, so I began by going with the most literal translation of sensei that I knew of: teacher, or, even more literally, “one who has gone before.”
Now that I’ve been teaching for a few years, running my own club, I have a greater understanding of what it means to be sensei. A sensei is, first and foremost, a teacher. Not an expert, not even a professional, just a teacher. Any student who walks into my dojo understands immediately that I am not an epitome of all things Kokikai. I am simply the one with the greatest amount of experience in our art. Someone could, in theory, walk into the dojo with more experience than I, and they would then become sensei.
Except being sensei is not just about being a teacher. Being sensei is also about being a community leader. You, as sensei, are the one who not only leads class, but also helps keep the dojo acting as a cohesive whole. It is my responsibility and duty to ensure that everyone at least tolerates each other. It is my job to see that we, as aikidoka, do not just train together, but also have occasional social interactions with each other. I make sure that help is available when someone in the dojo has a need–whether it is moving to a new home or being able to afford a seminar fee. Were I just a teacher, I would not have these responsibilities.
But there is more. As a sensei I am the community liason. It is my job to be the face of the dojo. As a result I must be very diplomatic when dealing with the “public.” Sometimes the public is the rest of the YMCA, sometimes it is a person on the street. Sometimes it’s someone from another dojo. It doesn’t really matter who they are–as the sensei, I am the one that represents our club as a whole. If I am polite and friendly, with luck that helps people realize that our dojo is polite and friendly. (That’s true, by the way.) Conversely, if I am rude and disrespectful, well, the best behaviors of my students will not change the damage I will have caused to our reputation.
Most importantly, I have learned that being sensei is to be constantly reminded that you are not perfect, that you have much to learn. Being sensei is just a facet of your practice–it makes you neither great nor weak, neither better nor worse. I do not know if this is the correct translation of the title, but it is the only one that I will use.