The importance of confidentiality.
Word of mouth is okay. But your students are not marketing tools.
When a friend of my learned about my involvement with film and TV, he asked why I don’t do what Bruce Lee did and promote myself as a teacher to the rich and famous. “You could charge a lot more money, and get some celebrity endorsements that could really raise your profile.”
I pointed out that Bruce was, well, Bruce Lee. I am not. Bruce was also not after the Hollywood celebrity market for the sake of promoting his school. He was doing it to promote his film career. If he wanted to make a fortune as a martial art teacher, he would have taken a different path. After the Green Hornet, he was offered a chance to franchise a martial art school empire. He declined. Bruce was for interested in making movies than he was in making Mcdojos.
His level of skill and his style of teaching suited small personal classes with dedicated students who were in love with the art. It did not suit a large martial art empire made of kungfu daycares, and weekend warrior camps.
The celebrity niche is a fickle and dangerous market, and specializing in that narrow demographic can destroy a serious martial art school.
Martial arts do have a particular appeal for actors, musicians, and athletes. Martial arts, tai chi, and other internal arts do interface very well with many other forms of self expression and self discovery.
While many of my students practise with a focus on self defence, that is far from the only reason that most people learn tai chi or other martial arts. It is very difficult to describe a niche demographic for my school. All sorts of people, of all ages, find themselves drawn to martial arts, for myriad reasons. Each person comes with their own goals and abilities. Some come with baggage and disclaimers. Some have conditions related to their profession, whether it be military or artistic.
Each person is different. There is no cookie-cutter approach that works for all. Designing a curriculum for each person is a delicate and ongoing process. They all need the be handled carefully, and the relationships between students can be an important part of maintaining a school.
With all my students, I work under a code of confidentiality. This is important for a few reasons. But it has particular significance when it comes to athletes, performers, or other students with visible public personas.
You want students to be there for their own sake, and without pointless distractions.
Anonymity is golden.
Let’s pretend, hypothetically, that one of your students is famous, or is a performer who might, one day, hit the big time.
Your students have a right to a safe place, where they can focus on training, without the distraction of fans or paparazzi. If you are like me, your school may be easily accessible. (I teach downtown in a small city, in a second-floor studio. It is not a storefront. But strangers do sometimes wander in.) I strongly suggest that you actively discourage celebrity endorsements. Other students, who just want to focus on their training, would find the attention distracting. Even though I can sometimes travel to the student’s home to teach, a celebrity association can be an annoying distraction for my other students when I come home.
Fame by association can wipe you out.
Some people need to work harder than others to achieve anonymity. Most of us don’t realize how useful a thing that can be. Don’t let failure of your student’s anonymity destroy your school.
A student of mine was once teaching at a school run by a traditional martial artist who had done acting and stunt work for action films in the 70s and 80s. He told me about the time a young woman came in wanting to learn martial arts for a TV series she was starring in. The head instructor turned her away immediately. It only took a minute for him to see the effect she had on the school. Too pretty. Too famous. The students were dismayed to see her go, of course. A senior student, and a couple of the novices said, “Don’t send her away. I’ll be happy to teach her!” But the teacher was not prepared for one person to become the focus of so much attention.
When I was teaching in Vancouver in the 1990s, celebrities were everywhere. Vancouverites, to their credit, were fairly blasé about the famous actors, directors, and musicians in their midst. They were just part of the scenery. Stargate SG1, Smallville, and the X-Files, and many films, were making Hollywood North a big part of life on the “wet coast.” It was not uncommon to sit down at your local eatery and notice Cameron, Stallone, Alba, or Travolta, or K.D. at the next table. I almost never saw anyone bother them for an autograph. My buddy would take his students to do kungfu in the park in the mornings, and some guy would go jogging by. They might wave at him, but without so much as a “Hey Jackie!” Sometimes he smiled and waved back. I’m sure he appreciated the fact that no one was chasing him for an autograph.
The occasional celebrity would visit a local martial arts schools, and some trained quite seriously. But word of it seldom, if ever, got out. If one of us taught a celebrity, nobody talked about it, not even with friends. It wasn’t just out of respect for the star, however. It was also for self preservation.
People who train seriously depend on small groups and a low-key atmosphere. Sometimes this requires that a class change location to avoid too much attention. Gossip and celebrity hounds could wreck your school. I remember one young up-and-coming star who kept getting referred from one school to another because no one wanted the baggage that came with them. They eventually found their place, and did alright for themselves. I like their movies.
When you are new to teaching, there’s a risk of becoming starstruck. You might also be tempted by the money and fame. But fame by association is more costly than you think, and is not nearly as valuable as you might think it is. Some very famous celebrities pay a lot for lessons because they must. The disruption they cause to schools can mean that they might become the only student.
One of my teachers was offered great wealth to teach Asian royalty. He declined. He had spent years finding students he liked, and was not willing to throw that all away for money and prestige. I can say with certainty that, decades later, he is more than happy with the results of his decision.
The prestige and publicity that you might achieve from a celebrity (or royal) endorsement can be more trouble than it is worth. Let people come to your school honestly, for their own sake, not because someone famous might be there.
If you do find yourself teaching a famous celebrity. Do so privately, and keep it a secret!
But even if the student is not famous. There are reasons for both teacher and student to keep quiet about their training.
If you are a new student, just getting started in martial arts, letting others know that you are “doing a martial art” can lead to unwanted interactions. Friends, acquaintances, and even strangers may want to test you, tease you, or even harass you. The skills learned in class might eventually help you to cope with such interactions. But it is always better to downplay any involvement in martial arts, especially in the beginning.
Peace of mind.
I very rarely drink alcohol. But I never go to local pubs after 9 pm. One of the reasons is that I don’t want to risk the chance that someone will want to pick a fight with “the kung fu guy.” It happens very rarely…but not rarely enough. In a bigger city, there might be less of a risk. But when people are drinking, I still feel like I have to be “on duty.” The exception is when I’m with a group of martial artists. The martial artists I hang out with bring peace with them wherever they go.
People move apart.
I always say, “Not every teacher is right for every student, and not every student is right for every school.” This is especially true in the long term. There may come a time when either the teacher or the student does not want to be publicly associated with the other. I am unlikely to deny a student’s involvement with my school if they are honest about it. But otherwise, I won’t comment. It is not fair for a student to be forever associate with me just because of a few lessons they took.
Students will also have their own reasons for their association with you to be confidential. For instance, if their goal is practical self defence, there may be very specific reasons, involving their personal safety, for being secretive.
Privacy settings may change.
If you have watched many of my videos, you will see that several of them feature classroom situations and/or involve actual lessons with my students. Students know that they are being recorded and that these may be published. I myself have been filmed and photographed when I was a student, and those recordings are important to me, for nostalgia, and as a point of pride for my involvement. But if, at anytime, any one of those students decides that they don’t want those videos online anymore, I immediately take them down. No questions asked.
Protect the student’s privacy like their life depends on it. It very well might. The decision to talk about it is up to them.