Info for Martial Arts School Owners and Instructors

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A Tale of Two Curriculums


white belt child kicks with instructor watching

Get Certified as a Martial Arts Instructor Online

MATA Martial Arts Instructor Certification Course

Module 21-The Proper Use of Student Instructors

by Scot Conway, Esquire

The $25,000 Volunteers

Excerpt from the Martial Arts Instructor Certification Course:

Using upper ranks to teach classes has been a long-standing martial arts tradition. But, is it legal?

A California instructor had his black belts teaching under-rank classes at his studio. In exchange, he no longer charged them tuition.

This continued until one fateful day when the owner and a black belt student had a disagreement.

The vindictive student contacted the California Labor Board and reported that his instructor had been employing assistants by requiring that they teach classes each week.

This can constitute an Employer – Worker relationship. The only thing missing was payment for the workers and the taxes the government would collect if they were being paid.

The State of California investigators concluded that the owner, over the years, had a total of 25 black belts teach classes.

They defined them as uncompensated employees, which is illegal under the laws of California, and fined the instructor $1,000 per incident.

The final bill: $25,000 for the volunteers.

Lesson: Know your state laws regarding utilizing assistant instructors.

When I opened my school, I presented the exact curriculum that I was raised on.  Among the many problems that created for me was that I had a lot more kids in my school than my instructors did. Martial arts forms, hyungs, or kata were designed by highly disciplined adults to be taught to other highly disciplined adults in a military atmosphere. They were not designed to be taught to an eight-year-old kid. 

Teaching kids traditional forms, especially multiple forms, can be very difficult for everyone involved. This is not to say that forms don’t have value, but your curriculum is how you package the forms. Going back to the recipe analogy, a good curriculum is like a healthy, tasty, enriching meal that you look forward to, while a poorly designed one is as attractive as a plate full of broccoli to the average kid. It’s good for you, but it’s hard to get down. 

Take a look at the following two curriculums, Figure 1 and Figure 2.  

Figure 1

White to Orange (four months)

Traditional Karate

1. Down block-Lunge punch

2. High block

3. Forearm block

4. Side block

5. Reverse advance

6. Knifehand block

7. Front stance

8. Back stance

9. Horse stance


1. Front kick

2. Back kick

3. Side kick

4. Round kick

5. Backfist

6. Reverse punch

Traditional form – Chonji

Orange to Green (four months)


1. Low – High kick

2. Spin back kick

3. Jump front Kick

Six one steps

Two forms – Tan Gun & Pyungdan Shodan

Free sparring

Green to Blue


1. Hook kick

2. Jump round kick

3. Jump side kick

Six one steps

Two forms – To San & Pyungdan Nidan

Two-on-one sparring

Blue to Fourth Brown


1. Jump spin back kick

2. Crescent kick

Six one steps

Multiple sparring

Board Breaks

1. Round kick – two boards

2. Reverse punch – two boards (women could

use a palm heel)

3. Running jump side kick over two people

– three boards

Two forms – Won Hyo & Pyungdan


Fourth Brown to Third Brown

Two forms – Tai Gyi & Pyungdan Sadan

Three creative* one steps

Two creative board breaks

Third Brown to Second Brown

Two forms – Hwarang & Pyungdan Odan

Three creative one steps

Two creative board breaks

Second Degree to First Brown

Two forms – Chogi & Chung Moo

Three creative one steps

Two creative board breaks

First Brown to First Black Belt

Two forms – Batsai & Kwan Gae

Three creative one steps

Two creative board breaks

*Creative means the students make it up.


White to Gold (two months)


1. Left cover

2. Right cover

3. Left trap

4. Right trap

5. Left down sweep

6. Right down sweep


1. Front kick

2. Back kick

3. Jab

4. Reverse punch

5. Elbow #1

6. Elbow #2

Gold to Orange


1. Front leg round kick

2. Side kick

3. Hook punch

4. Uppercut

5. Elbow #3

6. Elbow #4

Combinations 1 – 3

Fighting Form

Orange to Green


1. Low-high kick

2. Spin back kick

3. Jump front kick

Traditional Karate

1. Front stance

2. Back stance

3. Down block

4. High block

5. Side block

Sparring – blocking contact only

Green to Blue


1. Hook kick

2. Jump round kick

3. Jump side kick

Traditional Karate

1. Forearm block

2. Knifehand block

3. Reverse advance

Sparring – body contact only

Blue to Fourth Brown

Traditional form – Tosan


Jump spin back kick

Sparring – light contact kickboxing

Fourth Brown to Third Brown

Traditional form – Tai Gyi

Three kumites (traditional combinations)

Sparring – light contact kickboxing

Third Brown to Second Brown

Traditional form – Hwarang

Three creative kumites

Second Brown to First Brown

Traditional form – Chung Moo

Three creative kumites

First Brown to First Black Belt

Traditional form – Kwan gae

Three creative kumites

If you look at the curriculum in figure 1, we can see some common problems: 

1. The program is front loaded. It has far more requirements in the early ranks than in the advanced ranks. Typically, this overwhelms white belts and bores brown and black belts. This is a classic pyramid curriculum, as you can see in figure 2. The majority of the material is at the lower levels, and it tapers off as the student moves up in rank. We prefer to see more of an even column, as illustrated in figure 2. This lessens the amount of material required for the new student, which means they will have more time to improve on fewer techniques. This gives the student a higher sense of competence, and competence leads to confidence. When someone feels they are “getting it” in the early stages, they develop a momentum that keeps them coming to class. When they feel they are not “getting it” or not very good at it, they find excuses not to continue. Have you ever had a student drop out and tell you that he or she is too much of a perfectionist to continue? This is a student who takes pride in doing things right, but your recipe made it too hard, so they quit. 

2. The focus is almost 100-percent traditional material. Traditional material is not immediately practical enough to hold the interest of the modern student. I like to give students, especially new students, material they feel they can use right away. When a new student joins your school to learn self defense, and in the first class you spend most of the time on front stance, down block, and horse stance punching, that student may not see the instant value they were looking for. The sooner the student feels they have something they can use, the sooner he or she feels value in the effort. Too often, we start with techniques that are theory-based rather than reality-based. We end up saying things like, “You would never really block this way, but…” 

3. People like to do what they are good at, and traditional martial arts are hard to learn. This is not to say you should drop your traditional material, but rather rework the recipe. 

4. There are far more forms than necessary. Remember, it was not uncommon for a traditional instructor in the East to teach only one form. Everything in class was built around that form. This curriculum requires 17 forms for black belt. Some ranks required three forms. That is simply too much for the average student to master. Three forms in one belt cycle is not reasonable or productive. 

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