The central message of judo is to use your opponent’s strength (energy) to your advantage.

The central message of using the Judo Teaching Approach is that when facing more powerful opponents, you should avoid head-to-head struggles, and other trials of strength. Instead, by employing proper targeted focusing and creative strategic thinking, you redirect the opponent’s strength, and shape the existing dynamics toward more effective learning outcomes.

The steps to becoming adept at Judo Teaching.

Know and understand your opponent(s)
For a teacher, common opponents include ignorance, lack of motivation, apathy, and of course, student absence – from mental inattentiveness to truancy. Your opponent is NOT the student but is, rather, attributes that distract from learning and dilute retention of curricular content.

Keep your balance
Losing control is a big no-no for teachers. But many believe that “control” is about dominating students, manipulating them, and conning them. It is helpful to remember that one way to never lose a war is to stay out of it. Meeting students head on is beneath the judo system of teaching.

One way to keep your balance is to divert the student’s energy into more productive ways. I learned this first as a parent. Telling my sons to STOP DOING THAT! was not the best way to get them to stop doing that. It is simple, once you realize that humans are made of molecules and molecules are in constant motion. Even when sitting still, the little heads are busy. The best way to halt a certain behavior was to show them another one – something different to do. For example, instead of pounding on the front concrete steps with a hammer, have them build a birdhouse. Encourage them into a new direction. Telling kids to SIT STILL AND BEHAVE! falls into this same category of not really understanding your source issue.

Another way to keep your balance is to not get drawn into fights you will never win. Learn how to pick your battles. Ask yourself when tempted to combat, “How important is this?” Students need to grow into independence. By keeping students dependent on teacher direction for 12 years and thinking, “Okay you have your diploma, NOW you can do things your way!” is naïve, bordering on neglect.

You can also keep your balance by realizing that perfectionism is not your friend in teaching. Having everything your way is ego because the classroom is not yours – it is ours. Kids have a right and a need to make decisions, to practice choosing. I have discovered that it does not have to be BIG choices to fulfill this need. Letting kids decide “What color paper should we cover the bulletin board with this month?” is just as satisfying as “Should we learn anything this month or not?”

Proximity is power
It is a natural tendency to distance yourself from something you fear, dislike, or find disinteresting. But the key moment in Judo Teaching is when you move in close. You can do nothing from a distance but bark, smile, gesticulate, or sling words at people. But up close, the valence of those ways of communicating increase exponentially. You’ve no doubt heard the expression “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.” Does this mean to pal around with your enemies, take them out to lunch every week, or have numerous golf outings with them? No. Well, not that often.

We have learned that if someone is distracting other classmates with talking out of turn or clowning around, a teacher, without breaking verbal cadence, or looking at the distractor, can walk towards and stand by the talker/clowner and the misbehavior stops. Be sure to review your school’s policy on physically contacting students, but resting a hand absent-mindedly on the shoulder of a sitting student can have amazing calmative powers.

It needs reiterating that students are not the enemy. It is their behaviors that can be the enemy – any behavior that diminishes the student’s learning, or lessens another student’s opportunity to learn, is the potential enemy. We are always “behaving” (doing something) and the sacred trust we have been given as professional educators is to help direct that movement towards meaningful, transformative learning. Anything that gets in the way of that – whether a learning environment that is too uncomfortable, or a PA system that won’t shut up, or disruptive student behaviors – those are the things we must be ready to confront. You cannot clean out your garage from across the street, or unclog your drain from your neighbor’s house, or take a walk from your bed.

A story comes to mind!

Gummy Harry

Harry, an FFA student from my fourth period biology class, seemingly could not stop chewing gum. It was my first year of teaching, and I had asked the principal if I could allow gum-chewing – just in my class –  because, frankly, I couldn’t care less if students chewed gum. “Absolutely not,” Principal John Hooker from Kentucky said. “They will carry it into the next class, stick it under desks, or drop it in the hallways, etc.” So, that was the law. NO gum chewing. I had to enforce it.

On the third infraction, I quietly whispered to Harry, with my Maxwell House Coffee gum repository can under his chin, ”Spit it out and see me after school for one hour tonight, or tomorrow, whichever is most convenient.” Grumpily, Harry showed up after the final bell and plopped down in a slouch on an empty front row desk, and immediately challenged me as to why his gum-chewing was such a big deal. I explained that actually it was okay with me. I liked a “good chew” (he smiled at that) once in a while myself, but Principal Hooker had made it quite plain that the law was the law.

End result: NO GUM.

It did not impress Harry that much, and he began to tell me how inconvenient it was for him to stay after school as he had cows to tend at home before supper and he had already missed his bus on that day, and actually had no way home. I stopped him. “Harry, I did not do this. You did this. I had asked you twice to not chew gum and you flagrantly did it a third time. You created your own detention.” He still was not impressed. Then a light bulb clicked on in my dim head (after eight straight periods of teaching biology classes to hormone-driven 16-year-olds, you get a little mentally cooked. At least I did.). I moved towards Harry. “Stand up,” I ordered. He tentatively stood up. There were no repercussions for manhandling, or even paddling students in Ohio in those days, so he probably expected the worst – and showed it.

“Come up here and take my place.”

“What?” his eyebrows raised.

“I want you to be me, and I will be you.”

“Harry, come up here.” I went up an octave, “Please!”

“I get to be the teacher? Alright!” he slouched his way to the front.

“Here is the situation. You are me, and I am you. You work for the school, and it pays your salary, and one of its rules is you must NOT allow gum-chewing in any of your classes. If you cannot handle gum-chewing violations, then perhaps you are not true teaching material. Enforce the anti-gum-chewing law or else!’ So, I have this kid, he’s actually a nice kid. His name is Harry. He has cows. But he has a problem with gum-chewing, and I have told him twice not to chew gum in my class, but he keeps doing it, and now, well, what CAN I do? Okay, Harry – I mean, Mr. Jones – take it away!”

I took his seat, started chewing a huge wad of imaginary Juicy Fruit, and slouched even better than he had – I had been a sloucher in high school and could slouch with the best of them.

Harry smirked and got into it.  “Now listen, Harry,” Harry barked. “You gotta stop chewing gum or else!” I chewed for five seconds before responding, smirked, and replied “Or else what?” and continued chewing loudly. He grinned. Smirked. Then something happened. “Or else. Or else.” He stopped, the smirk and grin left his face. Crestfallen is the word.

Harry was silent and fidgeted, then his shoulders dropped and, in a beautiful moment, he looked at me and said, “I get it.”

I drove Harry home in my new Mustang. We actually beat the school bus home to his farm outside of town about four miles. On the way, he told me about the cows he cared for, and his hopes for winning at not just the county fair, like he had last year, but at the state fair competition this year. He told me about his foot, a birth defect that could never be remedied, that would cause him to walk with a limp the rest of his life. He talked about his family and how close they were, except for his Dad who had some drinking problems and loved quoting the motto “If you work hard you get to play hard.”

For the next eight months I never had a problem with Harry. As a matter of fact, Harry became my champion sergeant at arms. If someone began talking in the back of the class while I was teaching, Harry would stand up and say, “Quiet down! Mr. Jones is talking here!” And they did. Then he would sit and smile at me.

It is one of my fondest teaching memories.

And it sinks the putt that Proximity is power quite clearly, does it not?

Leverage – use it or lose it
It is no great revelation that we all like rewards. We love gifts, awards, recognition, and acknowledgement that we excelled at something. Schools have messed around with rewards as long as there have been schools. Rewards are basically an answer to “How do I get students to do stuff they really do not want to do?” The fact is, kids don’t like school. If you speak with someone that says “Oh I did! I liked school!” and ask them what they remember liking, it is almost always something like “Being with my friends” or “Playing football” or “Marching band.” Or, for elementary kids, “Recess!” But rarely, if ever, do you hear someone say “I loved high school because American History Studies, or Trigonometry Class, or Communications 1 and 2, excited me.”

School personnel learned a long time ago that if you are going to pack 400-2000 kids in a building who do not want to be there, you better have some sort of incentive system built in. Right? So, what do we have? Grades. Prizes. Tokens. Stars. Medals. Nice comments. Awards. Recognition. Praise. Plaques. Certificates. School gear. Public progress charts. News releases. Showcase trophies. And on and on with all kinds of rewards. The kids are mules and the rewards are carrots. How do we get that danged mule to plow in the hot sun when he would rather be under a shade tree? A bag o’ carrots wins the day!

“But they like them! They want rewards!” teachers say. As opposed to what? Nothing? I guess so, but is that the best we have? Is that our best game, to hand out meaningless paraphernalia, little foil stars or a letter grade on top of a paper? Come on, Educators!

But I have digressed. Reward systems that dignify learning is for the next article.

Leverage in judo is key and embodies the whole system, and why I saved it for last. Leverage is using an opponent’s strengths or actions to YOUR advantage. The easiest example in actual judo is to imagine someone furiously charging at you in a parking lot and, at the last possible second (timing IS essential in best use of the leverage principle), you step aside leaving your leg outstretched so your opponent trips and his momentum carries him head first into the side of (someone else’s) truck.

By understanding your opponent’s attributes, strengths, talents, weaknesses, desires, dreams, hopes, you gain possible leverage to accomplish what YOU want to happen, not what they want to happen. Is this manipulation?

If you do not teach your growing child how to manipulate the world, you are sending a lamb to the slaughter. We don’t like the word “manipulation” do we? “He will manipulate you!” “She just manipulates her husband so horribly.” “Jackson is constantly manipulating the boss with all his sweet talk just to get his own way.” “She is just a manipulative politician!” “Are you trying to manipulate me?!”

Why don’t we like it? Because it is used as if we are speaking of the stereotypical con-man. “He manipulated that old lady right out of her life savings, then left town.” “He was a good manager with something positive to say to everyone, then BOOM! He disappeared – manipulated us all into thinking what a swell guy he was, then he took off with all of the company’s money and the contents of the safe over the weekend.”

Manipulation is just a word. But we put it into the context of illegal, or sleazy, or sly nastiness. But you could just as easily say, “I manipulated that charging guy trying to assault me right into the door of a truck.” And that would be a good thing. “I manipulated that ball just right and picked up the 7-10 split!” And that would be a fantastic thing! Or “I manipulated my wife into going to the doctor by promising her a dinner at Maxwell’s and he helped relieve her pain and anxiety.” And that would be a loving thing to do.

Yes, we get up in the morning and start manipulating the world. We call it decision-making and problem-solving, and making choices and, yes, encouraging behavior we want to see more of with compliments, smiles, kudos, and so on. It is the way our world works for about 98% of the population. Especially in schools. When in Rome…

Might I suggest that the best way to get leverage is to know what a student’s strengths, talents, and interests are, then play to those. Some interests are fairly universal: Fun and games. Humor. Joy. And never forget food!

But, it is especially powerful, leverage-wise, to address someone’s interests personally.

With a bit of conversation, you can usually easily discover things like Erik likes motorcycles. You want him to read more? Motorcycle magazines and websites are your answer. Nashua must write a history paper. You discover she likes making her own cosmetics. There’s your social studies portal for Nashua: The history of cosmetics! Cleveland is crazy about astronomy, and if you cannot work almost any kind of math into astronomy topics, you need to think a little more.

Teaching is an art. Teaching is a science. Teaching is a calling. Teaching is rewarding.

And it can be trying, stressful and stretch you to your limits. But using Judo Teaching can help you benefit from each of these areas just a little bit more.


Anthony Dallmann-Jones, PhD (called “Dr. DJ” by students and colleagues) is Director of the At-Risk and Alternative Education Program at Marian University, located in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The MAE program is 100% accredited and 100% online, and is open to teachers, youth workers, prison educators, guidance people and anyone working in an educational capacity with students at-risk.