If you are thinking of choosing a Taekwondo school or other martial arts school, you’ll have a number of things to think about. You’ll have many choices to make, so our best advice to you is to ask questions!
Are you looking for your child or youth/teen? Instructors who are good with children motivate them more through words and instructions than through discipline. Watch a class for your child’s age group (if you are not allowed to observe a regular class, you may not want to trust the school). Do you see excitement and energy in the participating students? Are the classes grouped so that children of the same ages or abilities/belts are together? Does the instructor maintain order? Many martial art instructors “bark” their orders, so understand that they are not really yelling at the students. Look for the students’ reactions - do they cower, or do they respond quickly and appropriately?
"Point Toes Down", by Kathryn Lichlyter
For teens, are the classes challenging? Does it look as if the students like to participate? Are the instructors giving praise as well as instruction and correction?
Are you looking for yourself or another adult? Observe an adult class and look for similar indicators. Keep in mind that adult classes may have more repetition and drills than those of younger students. An adult class should focus not only on technical aspects of Taekwondo but also on conditioning and fitness.
Talk to the instructor about any injuries or age factors that might make some of the jumping and spinning techniques challenging (or perhaps impossible).
Where, When, and Who
Think about the location of the school. Is it close enough to your work or your daily travel path that you will actually go?
Look at the class schedule. Does it work in your life? Are the class times reasonable for you? How long are the classes? If you are looking for a child, you probably want to find 30 to 45 minute classes (perhaps an hour for a teen). For an adult, a 30-minute class may not be time enough to accomplish your fitness and practice goals.
What is the master instructor’s degree? This is one of the most important aspects of certified instruction in all martial arts. In WTF Taekwondo, a master instructor is a fourth degree black belt or higher. A first to third degree black belt is allowed to teach, but with a master instructor’s approval and leadership. It is possible for a master instructor (sah bum nim) to be in charge of a school which uses assistant instructors to teach the classes, so be sure to ask. However, if a WTF dojang has a first to third degree black belt actually running it, you may not find it a good place for learning.
Depending on the program that the school offers, you will have monthly or yearly fees for instruction. Some places offer complete packages which will get you from a white belt to a black belt for a monthly or one-time fee. However, be cautious of that kind of school – what I term a “Black Belt Factory” (learn more here).
Tuition is not the only expense. Most schools charge additional fees.
- Testing fee: Advancement to a higher rank involves a test, which may mean an additional cost. This fee usually covers additional classes, new belts, and the guest judges who may have to be present to certify the testing.
- Equipment Fee: Your school fees may not include necessary class equipment such as boards or weapons. Your dojang/school may require particular equipment, but it may be cost-effective to purchase equipment online or used (check sites like Craigslist).
- Uniform: Some dojangs will provide a free uniform, but it will be basic. Upgraded uniforms cost extra money.
Most Taekwondo schools have sparring drills or practices to allow students to test their kicks and punches in a real-life or sport situation. Depending on your style of school, you may find different styles of sparring.
If you are checking out a school for the first time, ask about the sparring classes. Are they full contact, light contact, or no contact? What protective equipment is required? At what level do students start sparring? How does the instructor avoid injuries to students?
Are the black belts/higher belts skilled and mature? This is subjective but important. If you are able, check out some of the senior students (such as the black belts), especially if you are looking at several different schools. Are they people whom you would respect in everyday life? Are they persons whom you and your child can look up to? Are their skills evident in their classes?
Talk to other parents/adults. You may meet parents watching their children’s classes while you visit the dojang. Ask them how they feel their child is doing. Ask their opinions of the instructors. Ask if the instructors give parents feedback as to how the child is doing. Ask if they wish anything were different about the school or classes. Again, compare the answers to your needs.
Take a free lesson. If you feel this school might be a good one, then schedule a lesson (don’t show up for an advanced class with no notice or without previous training). Did you enjoy it?
Ask about a family plan, if you think several family members are going to want to participate. Some schools offer discounts for multiple family members.
Look at the condition of the building. Think safety. Older buildings may be perfectly safe. But check out the practice floors. Are there pads to protect students in the event of impacts and falls? Are there posts in the middle of the floor without safety protection? Are mirrors cracked and damaged? If the dojang surface is carpeted, can the pile grab toes and twist ankles?
Although this seems like a long list, these are all good factors to consider when looking for a Taekwondo school. You’ll need to determine if each factor is more or less important to you and your family.
I traveled to Portland, Oregon, for a tournament once with the Taekwondo team, and we arrived a week early to train. A dojang had been generously donated for our use. The building was about 30 years old, with a concrete tile floor. The school was above a laundromat, so our workouts were hot and humid. However, the people – both students and black belts – were some of the best I can remember, both in attitude and in technique. As the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover; despite the facilities, this school had a lot of great things going for it!