A few thoughts on starting a martial art school.

Robert Barton 

            I have to admit that when I think of a martial arts school I do not first think of the business aspects of it and I rather think of it as a center for education in martial arts and how it relates to the community. I think that there are ways to create a good relationship with the community and run a school that is a good center for education and that these types of programs can also have a positive business aspect. But I have over the years seem many schools fail and sometimes they had wonderful instructors. In this essay I want to share some thoughts and strategies which I believe can help these new schools have a better chance of survival by creating a school that rapidly develops a good relationship with and reputation in the community.

            My first suggestion is to actually get trained as an instructor through a high quality program and be able to show that certification. If you just earned your black belt or second dan and you have not been trained as an instructor you most likely are not ready for this step and it will be neither good for you nor for your students. In order to teach you need to learn to teach as a separate thing and no number of trophies or strips constitutes a demonstration of teaching ability or training. You can be a great fighter and know your form and kata but teaching is a skill and if you want to do it you need to study and develop it. By getting trained as a teacher you are able to provide your students with a good educational setting for martial arts. You are also able to demonstrate to prospective students that you are qualified.  So my first suggestion is self preparation.

            Awareness of local martial arts scene is also something that you may want to build and you can do this while you seek training to instruct. It can be very simply done by starting to go and observe local tournaments, events and demos. You may even want to compete a bit if your school is going to teach a competitive component. Visit schools in your area and get to know instructors, watch a few classes at local schools to see what they are doing and where they are strong.

            Consider starting small by working with a few people who you can train to help assist you or to be models for the class when you start it. This places you in the position of having a few people who are not complete beginners in the classes and this will help make you job easier. Another thought for starting small is to set up and run a small program at a local church or community center which is going to have lower demands on you and on your students. This too can help you build up an interested group and help show that you are in the community. Offer to run a self defense program for a group of women, or kids or social minority or for anyone who wants to show up. In this way you can gain some teaching experience and you can demonstrate how you teach and start to generate some local community awareness of who you are. You also start to gain an awareness of the community.

            When you are ready to actually open a school, do it slowly and with lots of thought and preparation. Avoid just finding an affordable location and hanging up a sign. Learn to plow the ground first. By plowing the ground I mean to get noted in the community for a couple of months. Once you have decided the general area where you would like to open a school, do not waste time right away looking for an exact location right away. There is no sense in teaching to an empty school. Start to offer to come in and do free martial arts demonstrations for local groups and events especially for fundraisers for other organizations. Something that Shorin Goju instructors are taught to do is to actually incorporate some teaching into the demonstration.  By doing this you automatically cause people to associate you with instruction and you can show how easily the basics can be learned. This gives members of your audience a feeling of “I could do that” and a feeling of “That person makes it understandable and could even teach me” and this feeling helps attract people to your project. Do demos in malls, for churches, at private parties, town events; anywhere really that you can get an audience to see you and if possible to experience what you do. 

When I do a demonstration rather than try to wow them with what I can do I like to spend most of the time taking people from the audience and actually teaching them a technique or self defense skill. I will take five people and pull them up on stage and run them through a ten minute mini class in front of that audience. There is no doubt in the minds of those people participating or watching that I can teach. I recommend this approach very highly.  This program of outreach through demonstrations should continue for the life of the school.

Along with these demos explain that you have been teaching at a community center or church or for some local programs and that you will be opening a school in the area in the next couple of months and that you would like to invite everyone to come to the grand opening. Have a couple of clip boards going around for people who would like to be contacted or would like to know when the grand opening is and let them give you their information while you are doing the demonstration.  Let them know if you are doing any more demos. You will develop a list of contacts and interested people and you will generate interest in what you do and show your ability to do it. Parents get a chance to see you working with kids and adults get a chance to see you making it understandable and the kids are excited because they actually learned something.

During this time contact some of the local ministers and let them know what you are doing. Offer to each of them the ability to send one child for free lessons to your school. You may also consider giving local public school counselors or administrators the ability to do this. Ask for a child from each who could benefit but who may not be able to afford it but would appreciate this opportunity. Explain that if you are selling uniforms the child can get it at wholesale cost. Also make clear that the children who are on these scholarships will not be identified and others will not know which children are sent for this program. First and foremost this is an outreach to the community and to those who may be economically disadvantaged. Secondly this develops a positive reputation for you among community leaders who can recommend your school to their communities. Thirdly it makes sure that on your first day you have some students who want to learn which shows a school that is vital and teaching and more attractive to potential students. The last detail with this is that you do not put it in your advertising or announce it or make note of it in any way. Word will get around and your reputation will be strengthened. And you will be helping your community and that community will respond.

On a practical note I don’t recommend that you have a separate office in your school. This removes some liability and safety issues. Parents and people see this and feel more comfortable. It also removes the temptation to spend time in there on your backside not getting things done and maybe not supervising what is happening in your school. I don’t even like to have a desk since I don’t tend to sit on my backside in the class. Not to mention that a desk is a mess waiting to happen and if you do not have a desk then you will have to keep up with forms and papers as you go along. If you start to clutter your desk you will become blind to it but a new person walking in will see it and it does not give a good impression.

Hang your phone with a built in answering machine on the wall. Put your paperwork for new students to fill out on clipboards hanging in a vertical line near the phone. Information packets can hang there too. Pick one cubby-hole that is going to hold a collapsible file folder and this is what you keep on site student and medical emergency forms in. If you need another filing cabinet keep it somewhere else or place a little one in the corner. Keep your first aid kit there in the open hanging of the wall or in the cubby-hole with the file folder. Keep your spill kit with it. Cleaning supplies can be kept in the trunk of your car or in a cabinet or closet out of the main training area.

 I also recommend that you keep the front windows clear and not cluttered with lots of writing or trophies. First this makes people again comfortable because they can see in and see what their child is doing. It is a mistake to think that lots of junk in the window is good advertisement. An open window allows people to look in and see activity which is a far better advertisement for you than a pile of dusty trophies. People do not come in because you have 18 different styles that you can teach and they are all listed on your window or because you must know what you are doing if there is a big dragon painted on it. It isn’t a department store and people are not coming to a martial arts school because there is a sale on listed in the window. They come there because they or their child has an interest in martial arts. You will do way better if you are just there and easily identified so that people can come in and ask question than you will if you try to answer all of those questions in signage. Signs should inform people going by that you teach martial arts and where you are located they should not be a menu of information. These window menus actually reduce point of contact with the public, these points of contact are where you can demonstrate what you can do and where you can make people more comfortable with you and more confident in your program.

A small set of chairs or a bench where visitors and parents can wait and observe is a good idea. I will also put a couple of school type children’s desks in this area out of training areas but that is simply because I have a rule that a student who has let grades slip will spend practice time doing unfinished homework.  And I like to use a set of cubby-holes for students to put shoes and clothing in with small cot hooks on which to place jackets. This looks orderly and keeps the floors clear and safe.

I do believe that a school should be operated by the qualified. And that a good instructor will reach out to the community and help support the community and that a community will respond to this. I also believe that a school and instructors should present a conservative uncluttered space to the students and that the space should demonstrate safety and restraint along with quality. It is direct rather than simple. A school that is clearly safe and uncluttered demonstrates the mind and approach of the instructor as does a school which is cluttered and looks like a martial arts movie theme park. I believe that this attracts a higher quality of student and breeds a higher quality of instruction. I am also aware that business oriented training programs will often disagree with some of these ideas. It is the choice of the instructor to listen to ideas focused on the quality of the arts or ideas focused on the quantity of income. I believe that one can have a quality school that still can provide some income and that the quality will sustain things much longer than will mere marketing.  The choices made will demonstrate the values of the instructor.

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