Why I Retired From Teaching

Discussion in 'Articles' started by SifuPhil, Sep 10, 2012.

  1. SifuPhil

    SifuPhil Lucky Cat Is Lucky

    I can STILL kick yer butt!​

    Retirement is something that most people look forward to and spend their lives trying to last until. It's often seen as the reward we get for spending our lives toiling away; it's the carrot dangling at the end of the very long stick, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's envisioned as a time of kicking back and relaxing, of traveling and visits to kids and grand-kids and collecting all those fat Social Security and pension checks.

    And then there are the people like me.

    If you sat me down in front of a judge and jury and swore me in, I'd have to say that I started teaching martial arts when I was 15 years old. It wasn't anything to write home about, though – just my teacher telling me (a brown belt in Chinese Kenpo) to take the white belts through their paces. So, we'll say 15 years of age. Subtract that from the age I announced (mainly to myself) my “semi-retirement” - 48 – and you get 33 years of teaching.

    33 years. Until the advent of the 20th century that was the life expectancy (from birth) of most people in the world. A Canadian Goose holds the record for longevity for its species (in captivity) – 33 years. Tigers and lions die before they reach 33 years (25-30 years).

    But me? I spent 33 years teaching. Thirty-three years trading my hard-earned knowledge for extremely thin dimes. Thirty-three years of putting my heart and soul into transmitting my knowledge into not-always-so-receptive minds and not-always-so-suitable bodies. Thirty-three years of sweat and blood, thirty-three years of living, eating, breathing and sleeping martial arts instruction.

    All I need are these two cards ...​

    In the beginning it was a trip. To have the power to shape other minds, to give them the tools to defend themselves – this was surely Heaven! My first school was a loft in New York City's Greenwich Village (back when lofts where still the province of artists and anarchists) and I'll never forget the two months I spent, part-time between college classes and teaching at my Sifu's school, fixing that loft up so that I could both live and teach there. It was a labor of love – if you had asked me to paint that 6,000 square feet with a Q-Tip I would have gladly agreed, that's how taken I was with the whole idea of teaching.

    I finally got the space ready, sleeping on a surplus Army cot in a corner for the duration, and one day early in 1977 opened my doors to my students. I taught them Yang Taijiquan the way my teacher had taught me, and in doing so I felt like I had been elevated to the role of Honorable Defender of the Faith – I was part of the long chain of teachers preserving the inner-most secrets of my art.

    I ordered an extra-large pepperoni pizza after class as a reward. It arrived cold. With no pepperoni.

    But nothing could take away the rush I experienced that first day, a day that would be followed by more than 12,000 similar days in six different states and seven different schools. Each school was unique in its location, in its physical layout – the loft as I mentioned was huge; my school in Texas was a meager 800 square feet. My school in California had classes held by my very own in-ground pool with tropical landscaping, a gazebo and a waterfall; in Florida it was a palm-tree covered courtyard where I conveyed the Secrets of the Centuries, going into the studio proper only when the rain or the bugs got to an overwhelming state.

    One school in New Jersey, teaching mainly thugs that wanted the upper-hand on the street and the crazies that wanted something suitable to use in their bouncer jobs. That school was a storefront with a rolling metal shutter over the entire front facade – if I hadn't used it my school would have been gone in the morning. Here in Pennsylvania I had two schools, one an old sewing factory (once again a loft living arrangement upstairs with the studio downstairs) and the other, part of a huge industrial complex that had been re-born as a series of individual small businesses.

    So each school had it's little differences, but in the end it's just a space to teach. The students, though, were always unique. My pride, along with my head, swelled up to Titian proportions when I found that a class of autistic teenagers and young adults had been chosen as showing the most development of any physical education program in the state; I hit the depths of despair when one of my students, a 16-year-old girl who was a prodigy at martial arts, committed suicide after being abused and homeless for too long.

    There was a lot of laughter over the years as well as a lot of frustration and a little bit of glorious pride in the “children” that I helped grow to “adulthood” through the arts. My students who became teachers have now turned out their own teachers, so I have that grandfatherly glow to hold onto also.

    Pictured: My grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter​

    So why would I leave all this? I was “only” 48 – hell, you don't retire in the “real” world until you're what – 49? 50?

    I left because of a very simple reason, albeit one that many outside the arts wouldn't understand. This has been confirmed by the large number of people that, upon learning I just walked away from my own business, took a few steps backward and shook their heads in pity, as if to say “That poor, poor man – he obviously needs professional counseling”.

    I left because I refused to water-down my art. I left because there were so few students that were serious enough to invest the time and energy necessary to learn the whole complex web of interlocking disciplines that make up the Taoist arts. I didn't just “teach Tai-Chi”; I offered a curriculum consisting of Yang and Chen styles of Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Hsing-Yi, several styles of Qigong, Taoist philosophy, Feng Shui and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the last itself divided into acupuncture, acupressure, massage, herbs and energy work. Not complete courses in the TCM, of course – I wasn't an accredited school for that nor did I wish to be – but enough of an exposure that my students could see the multiple connections among all these modalities as well as with the martial side of their education.

    What I found was pretty much on a par with what Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, one of my later teachers, has discovered in his attempt to create an old-school, intensive-training, 10-year curriculum at his retreat in California. He started out with about two dozen students at the opening of his school in 2008.

    He now has three. Three students that have stuck with their commitment to spend 10 years of their lives mastering his art. Dr. Yang has gone to some lengths explaining what he thinks are the causes of this poor showing – they boil down to the lack of physical and spiritual abilities of much of our current society, the poor economy and the fast-food mentality of the student population. Why spend 10 years attending some remote mountain-top retreat when you can enroll in Joe's Dojo down the street and in 3 years have your Black Belt?

    But if I know Dr. Yang I know he'll never compromise. He's already made what is perhaps the only concession he'll ever make – he's starting a FIVE-year program. If that doesn't pan out he's already said that he'll close the school down rather than dilute his teachings any further.

    That's the same route I took, and I don't regret it. I don't have a pension, it's years until I can touch my Social Security – if it's even there when I get to the window – and I don't have a large stash of old currency stored in shoe-boxes up in the ceiling tiles. What I DO have is the knowledge that I helped a lot of people along their journeys, I was always honest with myself and with them, and I didn't ever compromise.

    I think that entitles me to a little rest.
  3. arron butler

    arron butler Fist of Fury

    I feel for you sifu phil.If i was in the states,i would train and learn from you.You have years of knowledge to release amongst people that really want to learn a good disciplined martial art.It's a shame that you are retiring from teaching.Hope things go well for you in the future.peace and respect.
    Master of Nothing and SifuPhil like this.
  4. SifuPhil

    SifuPhil Lucky Cat Is Lucky

    Thank you, Aaron. I'm happy now - as much as when I was teaching, but in a different way.
    arron butler likes this.
  5. Dpendleton

    Dpendleton Warrior Monk

    Wow I hate to see you quit,You could always come to D.C. never know. Good luck.
    SifuPhil and Master of Nothing like this.
  6. RJ Clark

    RJ Clark Tree Ninja Staff Member

    The youth of today and society as a whole is...disappointing. What you've seen is across the board. It's why I've had to restructure everything into a variety of "short courses". It's also why my buddy stepped down from coaching high school wrestling. It's as if there's a rampant disease who's symptoms are torpor and a sense of entitlement that only a small percentage of the population is resistant to (not immune, because I've seen strong men fall to this over time). It's tough to stay positive in this watered-down world. At least there's some solace in what you've accomplished, because there certainly isn't any to be found on the path society seems to be taking.
  7. Pedro

    Pedro Baek Doo San

    I'm sorry to hear about the lack of interesting students. My masters and grandmasters always talk about the times when there were only one student at the dojo and they kept going on. I think that is so beautifully inspiring.
    Hope someday you'll have a reason to get back on teaching. =)
  8. Aaron Hutto

    Aaron Hutto Master

    I totally hear where you are coming from. I also started teaching at 15 as a brown belt in Kenpo. Granted, I have not been at it as long as you have but I have already started to get worn down by 'belt happy parents'. I am willing to make accommodations if they are appropriate but I teach what I teach and how I teach. If there are any issues with that, there are a dozen McDojos within 20 miles of my school that I am sure would be happy to charge twice as much as I do to teach XMA forms and a watered down curriculum. I love my art too much to dilute it. My Sifu died about 5 years ago. His son and I are the only students of his left teaching and his son it teaching glorified kick boxing. It breaks my heart to see what is being passed off for a martial artist these days and I refuse to perpetuate the degradation.
    SifuPhil, Master of Nothing and Pedro like this.
  9. Aaron Hutto

    Aaron Hutto Master

    I have programs that I teach in three school - one of them only has one student.
  10. Enkidu

    Enkidu Destroyer of your martial arts fantasies

    I am sure the restraining orders and court-mandated 100 yard distance between you and unaccompanied minors helped the decision too.
    Judah, SifuPhil and RJ Clark like this.
  11. Master of Nothing

    Master of Nothing Psychotic Pacifist

    A-FUCKIN-MEN!! This is the same reason I stopped teaching commercially several years ago. I have a few "personal students" that I maintain dialog with as they have gone out into the world to find their paths. None of whom will go to any other teacher (even if I recommend them) for the same reason I don't teach at any school. I will show some people some self defense when asked but, I maintain no full-timers. Because like RJ Clark said, "It's tough to stay positive in this watered-down world".

    One thing I learned from my personal students-that maybe something you should keep to heart: Even though you retired. Over your time as a teacher. You have be a positive influence to many people, even if they have only spent a short time under your instruction. That positive influence, to one degree or another, has positively influence others in their lives, and so on. Your influence is felt well beyond the onesyou've taught.
    SifuPhil and Pedro like this.
  12. BHRobin

    BHRobin Disciple

    I hope you find peace and fulfillment in your accomplishments. Take solace knowing that refusing to lower your standards isn't a defeat, but a refusal to be defeated.

    (Sorry sir - since I'm one of those three year black belts, I guess I'm in there on the bad side too. All I can say is that I practice every day and try my best!)
    SifuPhil and Dpendleton like this.
  13. Bonnell74

    Bonnell74 Disciple

    Sifu Phil, your post was very inspiring to be totally honest. I have lately found myself getting a little frustrated because I want to learn more and faster and my instructor teaches very old school. I just got a new belt last Friday and it took me awhile, but I am glad it did. I am studying Serrada Escrima and it is not the easiest thing in the world, but I do love it. After reading your post, I now understand why my teacher is so anal about every little thing and why he wants me to have a ridiculous grasp on the material before he promotes me. Thanks, you have given me a totally different perspective and respect for the traditional art behind the art and I will use that to keep moving right along. In a way, you taught me something without having to even teach! In my book, that is a true martial artist!!
    SifuPhil and RJ Clark like this.
  14. Gone

    Gone Guest

    Well, why SHOULD students spend 10 years of their life learning something like that? If the student is consistent in practice, it shouldn't take that long to become proficient in self defence moves. An obese person can turn themselves into something that looks like a fitness model in less than half the time.

    Most people don't want to learn EVERYTHING. They just want a decent grasp on self defence theory and a good catalogue of easy to remember, easy to apply moves that apply to as many situations as possible.

    Part of me thinks this is old-school martial arts stubbornness and refusal to change and adapt is out of pride or something because "that's how it was done and this is how it will always be done". And I don't think that an attitude/mentality like that is at all necessary, either. And it doesn't surprise me that your martial arts are dying out, either.

    And I say this with all due respect because we don't need to train to meet the threat of all the fully trained samurais and knights out on the city streets that don't exist any more as might have been the case in when some of these martial arts were created. We don't need the level of training to fight a person of that caliber. I mean, why would someone need to train that extensively?
    SifuPhil and Dpendleton like this.
  15. Aaron Hutto

    Aaron Hutto Master

    I don't think that traditional martial arts are dying out. Certainly, MMA has become more pop culture. There are many different kinds of students and that is good because there are many different kinds of teachers. I am with Sifu Phil in regards to sticking to my guns. I am ok if people just want to have basic self defense skills ... that does not mean that I want to train them. I want to teach people that are looking for a way of life. I am a lifer. I didn't get into martial arts as a quick fix for winning fights ... well maybe that was part of it but that is not what kept me in. Martial arts is how I live and that is the kind of student that I want to attract. If I cannot find the type of student that I want to teach, then I am ok with that. I will train on my own and start swinging a hammer again for a living. I know this sounds kind of like "my way or the highway" but that is the advantage of being my own boss, I can do that. I have the right to refuse service.
  16. Regent St-Onge

    Regent St-Onge Canada Goju

    Do you know something we dont, are you kidding or you are just saying... Please tell us something we dont........
  17. Enkidu

    Enkidu Destroyer of your martial arts fantasies


    Yes, that was humor...
    Regent St-Onge, Judah and RJ Clark like this.
  18. SifuPhil

    SifuPhil Lucky Cat Is Lucky

    Red, you might be right that part of it is the stubborn desire to stick with "old ways", but at least in regards to Taijiquan it's a little different than most other martial styles.

    There's an old saying that it takes 30 years to master Taijiquan: the first 10 years to learn the moves, the next 10 to refine them, and the final 10 to understand them and their hidden meanings and applications fully. While this might also be an old-wives tale it also seems to have at least a slight basis in reality. Depending upon how many styles of internal arts you want to learn, it's entirely possible to take 30 years to learn them to the point where you can use them effectively in a martial sense. But they're a lot more than that - they're internal arts, so a big part of the process is getting beyond depending upon muscle and learning to move in the "Taiji way". It's counter-intuitive for most people to go WITH a strike, rather than simply and reflexively put up their arm in a hard-style block. You spend a lot of time overcoming the body's natural reactions, in their place installing NEW reactions that then become the new "norm".

    Most people like McDonald's burgers, too - there's no accounting for the taste of the masses. :p

    I think most students don't really KNOW what they want - it's our job as teachers to show them the available options. They come into our studios now with heads filled with big-screen and YouTube images and they think that's what they want. But for the ones that just want a way to kick ass - sure, there are plenty of styles and schools and teachers willing to take their money. But those aren't martial arts - they're a couple of fighting techniques hobbled together. They may very well be effective, but as the guy said who looked at the sculpture in the museum, "It ain't art".

    Even if you want to consider it a way of preserving history, or even preserving some fairy-tale legend, it's still an important Way - at least as important, and probably more long-lived, than the quickie approach that's so popular today. Granted the huge audience just isn't there anymore, but like the muscle-car enthusiasts whose love of cars that haven't been produced in 40 years remains a strong movement despite their relatively small numbers so too do I believe that the "old way" of teaching, especially teaching internal arts, is something that the world would be a darker place without.
  19. SifuPhil

    SifuPhil Lucky Cat Is Lucky

    Oh, and thank you everyone for your well-wishes - I really appreciate it. I spend my time now writing, contemplating my naval lint, spanking my cat and eating grapes from the manicured fingers of my dozen or so long-term female "disciples". (y)

    ... oh, and I have one remaining private MALE student who's been with me for 13 years, but he's really just there for me to practice my more illegal strikes. Please don't tell him.
    Dpendleton, Judah and arron butler like this.
  20. Judah

    Judah fights in tights

    Ah you fucker.. You crack me up sometimes
    Enkidu likes this.
  21. Judah

    Judah fights in tights

    Some people don't get sarcasm...

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