What makes a Good Teacher and School – from Manny Fuentes

Parting the Wild Horses Mane
Parting the Wild Horses Mane

1 – Where to find a teacher is, of course, dependent upon having one or more within the area you live or are willing to travel to. While Tai Chi instruction has been easier to find these days than when I first studied, sadly there has not been a concurrent increase in the availability of truly quality teaching (which will be addressed in the answer to your second question.) I studied with an exceptionally gifted martial artist who had benefited from the study under several great teachers, both American and Chinese. He taught privately but also through the continuing education department of the local university. I have taught privately, through the continuing education department at the university, a hospital at which I worked as a senior citizen wellness outreach, and at several churches. I’ve also done seminars at some national and regional health conferences. Sometimes an internet search using the terms “Tai Chi” and your location will yield information on the teachers and classes in your area. I have had several students who found me that way.

2 – A good Tai Chi teacher must have a number of qualities, foremost of which I believe is a solid knowledge of Tai Chi principles of structure and movement, not just knowledge of the form sequence(s). I have encountered a number of teachers who know a form sequence but upon their demonstration reveal an inability to manifest the most basic principles of structure. I’m much more impressed by a teacher who can perform even a simple Tai Chi form with correct structure and movement than with one who performs a more complicated form but fails to embody the principles. As the old saying goes, “I don’t fear the 10,000 kicks you have practiced once, I fear the one kick you have practiced 10,000 times.” 

A good teacher should be able to ascertain and meet the prospective student’s needs or refer the student to a teacher who can, if available. Not all students are interested in the martial aspects of Tai Chi. Many only want the health and relaxation benefits. I insist upon all of my students learning several of the martial applications for each posture and movement, even the health-seeking ones. Without an understanding of the utility of the movement, inconsistencies in performance will manifest, as well as a lack of the proper internal energetics. I believe that awareness of the application leads to proper performance, thereby allowing the health benefits to develop more fully.


A good teacher must have a good understanding of why Tai Chi works from a physical perspective. I am fortunate to have education and employment as an exercise physiologist. I was able to work intensively with my teacher to explore the biomechanics of every movement over a period of several years, taking movements apart to look at leverage, spiraling power, etc. I don’t think we should be filling students’ heads with tales of extraordinary capabilities that are not explicable through mechanical means. More on that below.


A good teacher should be able to find a way to communicate principles to students using examples and analogies the student can grasp. Each student presents a unique challenge as well as a unique opportunity. The teacher must adapt the teachings to be able to reach the student. This is not to say that each student needs one on one teaching, but as we know, one size does not necessarily fit all. I try to find contemporary explanations and analogies that my students will understand to convey information that was conveyed in quite different terms centuries ago in China.


And a good teacher should be able to provide evidence of good teaching experience. I actually had a woman (a complete beginner) study with me for a few weeks, then go to a local health club and offer to teach, saying that she was a trained by me. Luckily, they contacted me for a recommendation. Otherwise, her lack of teaching ability would have reflected poorly on me and would have been a disservice to her unsuspecting students. 


3 – I advise that, once you have located a teacher or school, ask if you may observe a class. Does the teacher appear to have genuine knowledge of what he or she is teaching? Can the teacher answer questions directly and clearly, and if so, do the answers make sense? Does the teacher promote ideas of Tai Chi enabling practitioners to perform superhuman feats? I attended a seminar one time where the “master” demonstrated his chi by moving his blindfolded senior student from 15 feet away, then by cutting an unpeeled banana in half from the same distance while not cutting the skin. All nonsense, of course. But some teachers rely upon such demonstrations and tall tales to attract students.


The fee structure of the class can be revealing. Is it a “McDojo” approach, where students pay a fee to achieve a certain rank, then another fee for the next, and so on? I personally do not have ranks in my teaching but know some capable teachers who do. It’s something they feel they must do to attract students with the western mindset. If possible, speak to several of the teacher’s students, not necessarily the senior students. Is there a “follow the guru” attitude among them? I discourage that in my students. I want them to be skeptical and challenge me on as many points in my teaching as possible. 


4 – You didn’t ask this one, but what does a good Tai Chi student bring to the table? An open mind and willingness to learn. A bit of skepticism and inquiry. A desire to learn slowly and thoroughly. A willingness to “empty your cup” to allow new knowledge to enter. I always ask new students if they have a martial arts background. If they do, I make sure they know that what I teach will differ dramatically from what they experienced before. If they want to have a “yeah, but in Tae Kwon Do or Wing Chun we…” conversation, I’m happy to engage in it after class rather than take up everyone’s class time. 

 Purchase a copy of his book by clicking the link below.

T’ai Chi For Dummies

What makes a Good Teacher and School – from Starfarm Tai Chi & Qigong

This is a common and difficult problem.

It is a problem for the beginning student in particular and also a problem for people who want to try another teacher. Teachers, too, have a problem. They are always looking for good students. One famous teacher from China said that only one in 10,000 students is really good. A beginning student, because of his or her lack of knowledge about Tai Chi Chuan, will not be able to tell who is a good teacher. It would appear that a friends imagesrecommendation of a teacher would solve the problem. But often this doesn’t work out because the right chemistry is missing between the teacher and the new student or because the students expectations are not fulfilled, even by a good teacher. There are several approaches to finding the right teacher for you. The first is trying to physically find what teachers are within your area.

After inquiring among friends, try the following:

Check the yellow pages for martial arts schools and ask them if they teach Tai Chi Chuan or know who does. Inquire at junior colleges, four-year colleges, and universities in your area about classes. They screen people before letting them teach. Check local bookstores and New Age newspapers in your area for listings of classes or workshops.
Inquire at recreation departments, acupuncture schools, New Age institutes, YMCAs, or YWCAs. Some spas and hospitals also offer classes.
There are listings on the Internet that could give you leads.
This is the easy part. Once you have found out about some classes, even before visiting classes, you want to take a personal inventory of what you want to learn.

Do you want to learn Tai Chi for health, self-defense, recreation, fitness, or spiritual growth? Or some or all of the above?

A realistic understanding of what you want to learn and what kind of effort you are willing to make is important. Also, evaluate what kind of difficulty you are able to put up with. Even simplest forms of Tai Chi require regular practice on your own and self-study to understand the dynamics and structure. Of course, people rarely do this. But making even a small effort to get this kind of self-understanding will help you make the transition to Tai Chi practitioner. The next step is to visit some of the classes being offered and observe what is being taught and how it is being taught. Most advice about this usually says to ask about the teachers credentials. Has he or she been teaching for a long time? Has he been practicing Tai Chi Chuan for a long time? Has he learned from a respected teacher or in a traditional lineage? Is he or she teaching something that has some tradition or is it something he or she created? Did he learn from a book or a video, or from a teacher with good credentials? Ideally, these are good things to know. Practically, they may not be much help. People who teach for a long time, may not be that good of a teacher, or their method of teaching may not be appropriate for you. Even a traditional lineage is not a guarantee of a good teacher, while if it is something he created, then you know that this is probably not what you want to learn. If the teacher has a large class or has been teaching for some time, you may not really be taught by the teacher, but by a senior student. Also, someone who has not been teaching a long time may be a better teacher because of their fresh enthusiasm and approach to teaching. In regards to the teachers manner, some teachers are strict and even may appear gruff but really have a heart of gold. Others may be smooth and may use it only to their own advantage. Also, you want to observe how he teaches and interacts with students and how they interact with him. But it not enough for the teacher just to be kindly and friendly. Do you want to learn what you see him teaching? Be aware that it is awkward for a teacher, who has been teaching a long time, to be asked a lot of questions regarding his ability and credentials. Some teachers find that the prospective students who ask the least questions and just join the class can be the best students because they are not hampered by negative thinking.

So, what are you going to do?

Invest some time and money in a month of classes. One class wont tell you much unless it is really bad. Then, if you are unhappy, you can try another teacher. Keep in mind that every teacher wants to find good students. They usually would not be teaching if they didnt love their art. Be aware that learning something like Tai Chi is not easy, although teachers try to help students work through the difficulties. Generally, if you have a good deal of desire and an intensity to learn, it will probably involve a lot of difficulty and frustration. That is not a bad thing. It helps to hone a better result. Remember, also, that the teacher is there to help you, but the learning is up to you. The best teacher cannot do the learning for you. Most importantly, the best teacher you will ever have is yourself. You need to cultivate the ability to have a dialog with yourself about what you are learning and motivate and encourage yourself to learn.
This doesn’t mean you can teach yourself out of your imagination or from a book or video. Just that you have to really apply yourself to what is taught. Also, your inner teacher has to be constantly looking for ways to improve what you are learning and practicing. This inner teacher has to be developed. Usually, the best students and teachers have this and the best teacher will teach directly to this inner teacher within you. Ultimately, a teacher can take you so far. Then you have to be able to develop yourself for yourself. As a student and teacher, most teachers have had to do this. If you can do this, too, your learning will go on endlessly.

-Marvin Smalheiser

Tai Chi Taxi

Don’t ride in the taxi to nowhere.  Why are you hurrying to get there?  The rides probably not worth the price before you hop in think twice.  The driver thinks he knows where he’s going, but he doesn’t even have a clue.  He’s taken a seminar on two weekends, and now he’s “certified” as a Sifu.
Don’t get on the path to nowhere, because your time and money will fly.  In the end, your studies may be worthless, and you will only be able to sigh.  If you think “Oh, it’s all good,” you will be in for a shock, even with the best intentions, this Sifu can’t take you around the block.

Before you get into the taxi, open your eyes, look and see–you need to make sure your driver can get you where you want to be. It’s not about how fast you go, or even the scenery, it’s all about the skill and the heart of the one who drives the taxi.

With the right teacher, you have a chance of getting somewhere wonderful.
With the wrong teacher, well…. good luck, you’re gonna need it.