The Student-Teacher Relationship in the FMA

There is an interesting article at Filipino Fighting Secrets about an American who goes to the Philippines to learn the Filipino martial arts, but who doesn’t seem to view the art or the student-teacher relationship too seriously.

I signed up for kickboxing in Cebu City. What sealed the deal for me was that they offered arnis, too. Unfortunately, just as I finished a grueling two hour workout, the arnis teacher would show up. I was soaking wet from sweat, and there were blisters on my feet. So I tried to cool down while the teacher changed into a satin uniform with fringe on it (That should have been my first warning sign that something was wrong.).

Arnis lessons consisted of learning a long form, practicing strikes while stepping into deep cross stances. All the while I was trying to wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes.

About the third lesson the kickboxing teacher explained that there was a fee for the arnis. I thought the arnis lessons were part of the gym membership. The young guy in the frilly satin uniform handed me a sheet like a menu, and when I saw the fee at the bottom, I was shocked.

I really had no choice but to explain that I couldn’t afford to continue studying arnis.

Later I met the young guy’s teacher. I told the grandmaster, “Oh yeah, I took a couple of lessons in your style with so-and-so.”

The grandmaster looked troubled and shot a look to one of his associates. “I’ve talked to him about this. You see, he studied with me for years and paid nothing. I have asked him that if he wants to teach using my name and my style, that he should pay me some of what he makes. If he doesn’t want to do that, he should call his style something else and teach on his own.”

I relayed the grandmaster’s concerns to the gym owner. It didn’t seem ethical for me to have someone teaching who was defying the wishes of his teacher, the grandmaster. The gym owner explained that from the young teacher’s point of view, it was only fair because he often taught classes to foreigners while the grandmaster rested or talked with others.

This episode to me highlights an appalling lack of gratitude and respect for one’s teacher. If you were taught for free, is it really too much to ask you to repay something when you have the opportunity? Had the young guy thought that perhaps being assigned to teach others was not a chore, but a learning and growth opportunity? Teaching and doing are two separate skills. Many Filipinos have difficulty communicating with foreigners, which is a skill that can be learned by practicing speaking, such as by teaching.

In a real warrior art, the teacher-student relationship goes beyond paying for classes. One of my teachers has high blood pressure, and told me that he once had to stop his medication because he couldn’t afford it. I told him that if he ever needed medication to get in touch with me, and I will see that he gets it. When I visit him I check to see that he has his medication, and I will get it for him if he doesn’t. It is not about paying for instruction, but about the ongoing debt I owe a man who taught me and who has done so much for the art.

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