By Wendy Whited
How do I use Aikido in my daily life? As a new principal of a kindergarten through eighth grade, I have found that I use the principles of Aikido more now than I ever have before. New principals are often targeted by parents and haven't had training in handling hostile parents. Most new principals are uncertain of how to handle complaints and will rely on appeasement. Appeasing a parent is easy, but can lead to serious problems with the staff if teachers sense a lack of support. I'd rather fall back on Aikido principles. Saotome Sensei has always stated that verbal and physical attacks require the same kinds of responses. The three I use are accepting, blending and then redirecting the energy of the attack to neutralize it.
When I take a class of Aikido with Saotome Sensei, I often listen to him speak of non-violent responses to an attack. I must admit that I don't get physically attacked on my job, but verbal attacks are frequent. As principal I have to enforce rules that are not always popular with parents, or children. Phone calls will come in with a very angry person on the other end of the phone. I find myself taking a deep breath and listening to the complaint. (No matter how off-base I may feel the complaint to be). Many times a parent must be angry to get enough courage to call and discuss their concerns with me. It is sad that people are intimidated enough by the school system that they can't seem to contact me until they are very unhappy.
Saotome Sensei often speaks of "calming down" an attack by both the use of relaxed body posture and open hands. Verbal attacks also need the same response as a physical attack. When an Aikidoist is attacked with a shomenuchi, he can step aside rather than confront the attack. This takes the power and speed out of the attack and allows the nage to stay centered and calm. When a parent receives a "soft" physical response from me, some of their anger dissipates. Just like with an Aikido attack, no one is right or wrong. Something has caused the conflict and that is what needs to be addressed. A parent has every right to call me with a problem. The sad part is that when a parent calls, they expect me to be defensive and upset. The best set of words ever put together is "I think you have a good point." Once they find that I won't be drawn into a verbal battle with them, and that I validate their right to be concerned, I can move to the next step.
The next part is to try and blend with the attack. This means that I have to find common ground with the parent. After all, our main concerns are with the safety and educational growth of the child. This situation is just like doing Iriminage. When the uke and nage are both facing the same way, the attack can be neutralized. Once the parent and I are heading in the same direction, I can start getting the parent to see that I am just as concerned with solving the problem as she is. The key idea is to change our positions from head butting to each person being in control of her emotions. The problem may be caused by misinformation provided by the student or a misunderstanding caused by a student only telling his parent only some of the story. (Usually, only the parts that will put the teacher in a bad light.) With some careful questioning and clarification, often the parent will not only calm down, but will start to look for the real cause of the problem.
Next, I have to redirect the attack to the appropriate source and real cause of the difficulty. This is the tricky part. Much like doing Ikkyo, the attack has to be accepted by the nage and then turned aside. Parents want to believe that their child would never fib to them. If I tell the parent that Little Johnny is lying, the parent will attack me for insulting the child. This will simply put us back in the fighting mode. I try to reassure the parent that the child is not lying (In fact, I never use the word lying), but rather simply trying to get out of trouble. Usually, it is the child who has not done something that has been required of him. Sometimes it is a situation where the child has not quite told the whole story of a classroom incident to his parent. The ability of children to tell only enough information to get themselves out of trouble is truly amazing. Sometimes I have to investigate a problem and make a second call to the parent. It is not uncommon for the child to be the focus of the parent's anger after the second phone call is made.
As a first year administrator, I have been very happy that I have studied Aikido with a teacher like Saotome Sensei. Using Aikido principles, several parents who have been known to be difficult have seemed to become friends of the school. This has made my first year of being principal much easier that I could have ever hoped it would be.
Wendy Whited started Aikido in 1973 and had the chance to live in Japan for two years where she studied at the Hombu dojo. She just received her 6th dan and has her own "very little dojo" - Inaka Dojo, Beecher, IL - in the country outside of Chicago.