The hallmark of a superior Teacher: He doesn’t just impart information, he guides each student according to the individual’s unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses. In the context of Martial Arts, it’s one thing to merely demonstrate techniques for a student to copy. The real task is to give the student the proper guidance in the right measure, so that he develops to his full potential – whatever that potential might be.
Not every student is destined to be a Master.
Not every student is destined to be a Teacher.
Not every student is destined to even be ‘good’.
Regardless, everyone can at least get Better. Everyone can improve, grow, and reap the innumerable benefits of the journey that is training in the Martial Arts. It’s the Teacher’s duty to take the student down that road. On the other side of that coin not everybody who has a license to instruct, is capable of doing it on that level.
It’s difficult to teach this way to large groups of people at the same time. That is why I strongly prefer to teach in a one-on-one type setting. I’m convinced that’s the only way to impart our Arts properly. If we’re training a large group of “recruits” in very specific basic techniques, perhaps that rule doesn’t necessarily apply; but in many cases, the best way to develop the Individual is through direct Guru-to-Student transmission – at least until you get them to the point where they can teach themselves. That itself is a topic for later…
For example, my students and I came to the conclusion long ago regarding Grand Tuhon Gaje, that when we would have him in for a group seminar, the seminar itself could be considered more of a training session (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). However, the real in-depth learning for us would actually take place in the days preceding- and following the seminar, during more intimate sessions of private instruction. Throughout the years, I discovered that several of the old-timers including Guro Ricky Rillera (May G-d Rest His Soul) and Guro Omar Hakim had arrived at a similar conclusion.
From a historical perspective, our Arts were never taught in en masse at large academies, temples, dojos, kwoons, or sprawling state-of-the-art gymnasiums. The Teachers didn’t advertise, and in fact most went out of their way to maintain a very low profile. The traditions and skills were carefully and quietly handed down from generation to generation within a family; within a village; or amongst small, tight-knit groups of compadres. Outsiders were not welcome, for very good and valid reasons.
While studying the indigenous Yoruba fighting arts in West Africa, it happened time and time again that people would come from surrounding villages hoping to train under my teacher. Each time they were summarily turned away. When asked, my teacher offered me the following simple explanation (loosely translated): “If the people in their own village aren’t teaching them, there must be a good reason.”
At times when I’ve attempted to describe this decorum to folks from more conventional Martial Arts backgrounds, they’ve sometimes remarked “Geez is this like some kind of cult?!?!” No. Actually, it’s more like a Secret Society.
There’s another interesting parallel in the Spiritual field (another highly personalized theater). An acquaintance of mine on the East Coast was extremely privileged to be a personal student of the great Rav Kaduri z”l many years ago in Israel. According to my friend, Rav Kaduri – a legendary scholar and certainly one of the greatest Merkubalim (Kabbalists) of our time – had so few private students of his own that his group would often find themselves lacking the 10 men required by Jewish law to form a quorum for prayers.
So there are certain reasons historically and practically that some of the best Teachers in diverse fields prefer to keep their student ratio on the low-end.