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Sensei versus instructor

Japanese for ‘teacher’ or ‘mentor’

Picture this: you’ve just attended and successfully completed an instructor-level course in some type of law enforcement-related field and are now expected to return to your department and impart that knowledge to your fellow officers. But, are you truly ready? Has this eight- 16-, 24-, or even 40-hour course properly prepared you for the task that lies ahead? Do you fully understand the responsibility you now shoulder for the welfare of those you instruct? Do you comprehend the meaning of the phrase: “Let no man’s ghost say my training failed him”?

There is much more to being an instructor than just attending a class and obtaining the certificate. Drawing from my own personal experiences, I will explain why.

I began my career in the martial arts in 1982; and it took me four years, many bumps and bruises, and a few broken noses to get my black belt. After attaining the level of first degree black belt, I continued working with my instructor – my ‘sensei’ – learning how to perfect my technique and pass along my acquired knowledge to my own students. All tolled, my journey from white-belt student to third-degree black belt instructor took six years of dedicated training. It had also taken that long for me to be awarded by my instructor the coveted title of ‘sensei’; a title that I felt I had earned.

Using this journey from white belt to sensei as an example, compare that to the present day process of obtaining the title of law enforcement instructor (notice I did not use the term ‘earned’). Speaking from personal experience, law enforcement instructors can be so ordained after completing training courses of anywhere from eight hours to several weeks in length. (A vast majority of those, however, fall within the eight to forty-hour range.) Many of these individuals who are now instructors have had no previous instructional experience.

Now, take a typical law enforcement instructor candidate; particularly one involved in teaching an actual physical skill such as a defensive tactic. This individual is most likely fairly young, hopefully (but not always) in decent shape, may have been involved in athletics during his high school and/or college years, and with any luck a veteran of the military. He has completed some type of basic police recruit academy training program and has had some post-academy training. But what rigors of training has he endured to prepare him as an instructor of something that involves stakes as high as those in law enforcement? What has he learned up to that point that made him capable of competently teaching to another police officer the nuances of a particular defensive technique or firearms tactic? What is the depth and breadth of his professional and life experience from which he must draw to put the material he teaches into context and ‘real world’ application?

I’m not trying to come off as one of the most ‘high-speed, low-drag’ law enforcement instructors around. I’m far from it. I am simply making some observations based upon a number of years of law enforcement experience; many of which have been spent conducting police training.

There is so much more to being an instructor – a true teacher – than just showing someone a particular technique you’ve learned in just a few short hours. After all, even an elementary school teacher must complete several years of specialized training and earn a teaching certificate. And these individuals are not teaching our children the life and death, liability-ridden skills that a law enforcement instructor is charged with.

Due to our minimal (or lack of) formal training as law enforcement instructors, we often start behind the curve compared to our counterparts in the educational community. Because of the ‘sink or swim’ position in which we often find ourselves, we must make every effort to maximize our efforts when developing ourselves as instructors. This includes not only learning what to teach, but how to teach and why we are teaching.

We can maximize our efforts in many ways, such as but not limited to:
• joining professional organizations and taking advantage of the wealth of information and experience their members possess
• taking teaching courses at the local community college or university
• subscribing to professional publications
• attending training sessions (as a student, not as an instructor!) as often as possible

The first three points above are self-evident, but on that last point I’d like to expound somewhat. By attending training as a student, not only will you obtain valuable material, but by becoming exposed to other instructors – both good and bad – you will become better you can become. Ask yourself what you liked or disliked about individual instructors and learn from them and how they presented their material.

Probably the single biggest suggestion I can give, however, is to become as technically competent as you can be in whatever subject matter you are teaching. The old adage, “Those who can do, do; and those who can’t do, teach” is all too often an incredibly accurate statement. Only if you know your material thoroughly – inside and out, forwards and backwards – can you be an effective, credible teacher and earn respect of your students. I caution that this does not automatically make you effective, but I argue that you can’t be credible and effective without knowing your stuff. Some try to fake it, but they are eventually found to be frauds.

I leave you with this: In the martial arts, a good sensei will from time to time don the white belt of a beginner and, as a student himself, visit the school of another master. He does this not only out of respect to his counter-part, but to humble himself and to learn. He cannot learn if he is there as a teacher and not a student. As an instructor, you must always continue to learn. Don your ‘white belt’ from time to time and leave your ego at the door. You owe it to your students and to their families, because they are counting on you to give them your best. Earn the title of instructor, don’t just obtain it.


John is a 25-year veteran police officer and a patrol lieutenant from Charleston, IL. A member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, John has trained officers both in and outside his agency for more than 20 years; both nationally and abroad. He continues to teach and learn at the street-patrol level with the primary emphasis on officer-safety tactics, risk management, leadership and a philosophy of proactive police service, individual readiness and professionalism. He has dedicated himself to awareness, education, research, training and motivation specifically tailored at saving officers lives, families and careers. John continues his mission after his tour via his work as a trainer, consultant, subject-matter expert and author, and core instructor for the nationally recognized Below 100 officer-safety initiative. email.