Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tai Chi Teacher Certification Pros and Cons

What is the value of a certification to teach Tai chi? Let's look at some pros and cons of Tai Chi teacher certification.

I was recently asked to teach a Tai Chi class for a fitness program. In my interview with the program director and another Tai Chi expert from China, I demonstrated my old Tai Chi form which I amped up by incorporating my Wujifa skillset.

After my performance, the director asked me if I had any certifications. "Well, not with me." Luckily, the other interviewer, the Tai Chi expert, told her my Tai Chi was "professional level". And I got the job.

This experience raised a curious question for me. My skill is recognized as being professional level by an expert and yet I appeared questionable to the unknowing because I didn't have a certification.

As you may or may not know, the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association (ATCQA) offers independent, "third-party" certifications of Tai Chi teachers.
"The ATCQA Certification is not affiliated with any particular school, program, style or lineage. ATCQA provides independent accreditation of Tai Chi/Qigong practitioners and schools."

Outside of the ATCQA, I'm not aware of any other independent third party certifying organizations. Email me if you know of any. I'm curious.

Without a standardized, independent certification system, comparing Tai Chi teaching certificates from any of the many Tai Chi and Kung Fu schools is like comparing apples and oranges. There's no basis for comparison. That said, I do think certificates from these schools or organizations serve a purpose of providing a level of credibility to the unknowing such as I encountered in that interview.

Once upon a time, I was teaching Tai Chi at an Adult Education class. The following semester I learned that one of my students who was a first time learner, was now teaching Tai Chi at another club. So surely certifications serve to protect both the teacher/school (No, that person is not certified to teach my material.) as well as protect the unknowing public from such learn-one, do-one, teach-one hucksters.

Unlike American public high schools and colleges where the entire school is certified or accredited by a third-party organization, when it comes to Tai chi schools, the only accreditation the school proper has is the certificate of the teacher from his/her teacher. To me, this is the same as no accreditation.

I recently saw one school's website which posted an extensive list of apparently every training certificate the teacher had accumulated. I think this is how certificates can be abused to mislead the unknowing. Breadth of attendance at seminars does not necessarily translate into depth of ability.

There are also many who claim to be part of a "lineage" which I do not consider to be a certification but rather a setting of an expectation. Advertising one's lineage may impress the unknowing, however, in itself, one's lineage is not an assessment of one's skill level. I used to belong to the camp that valued one's Tai Chi lineage until I woke up to this dark truth about the lineage claimers.

For me, the central question regarding Tai Chi teacher certification is, "Certified at what level to teach Tai Chi at what level?"

Even though a certified and lineaged Tai Chi teacher may have a long-standing, reputable and profitable Tai Chi school, and may have published books and videos on Tai Chi, and may have even won Tai Chi push hands and/or sparring competitions, and may have enough certificates to wallpaper a lavatory, this does not in itself mean that s/he can demonstrate or teach internal strength skills and full body connection which I consider to be the hallmark of real Tai Chi.

It happens that long-time certified teachers remain stuck at an amateur level and their advanced students remain stuck at the same level no matter how advanced they are in that teacher's system. On the other hand, a certified teacher may be "professional level" and provide advanced students higher level instruction and yet, according to the current ACTQA criteria, these two certified instructors could appear to be equal.

I applaud the efforts of the ATCQA and all involved to establish a baseline, third-party certification. However, a huge downside for me is that their certifying criteria (as of this writing) is based solely on counting hours in training or teaching and counting reference letters. There is absolutely no criteria involving an independent exam of academic knowledge nor assessment of skill level in specific skill sets.

I would like to see certification levels that get beyond counting hours and reference letters and gets into distinguishing functional skill levels such as:
Demonstrated skill in sinking/dropping.
Demonstrated skill in whole-body connection; internal strength.
I think by establishing certification levels based on functional skills would help distinguish teachers from masters and could provide a training path for those teachers who want to advance to master class certification.

However, there are probably issues to resolve like, finding the rare individual who has whole-body connection/internal strength and who would participate in assessing those interested in advanced certification.

And then too, there is probably little interest in establishing a certification level based on skill level because many "masters" may find themselves demoted to advanced teacher status.

What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of certifying Tai Chi teachers? What do you consider to be essential skill sets? How would you test and distinguish skill levels in these skill sets? I'd love to hear from you.


  1. If I we're an ELK or a Mason... Just means I'm part if the "Club" and many martial arts certification groups are basically the same. You pay dues and kiss up to the board and you are certified. This topic has been talked about for years and it should be talked about... Yet the bottom line is buyer beware... Just because you're Micheal Jackson's doctor doesn't mean you are a great doctor... Then again Micheal may have wanted "that kind of doctor" by he may not wanted the results he got in the end... Same with Tai Cheese... You may really want to join a certain club yet you may find out the results are not what you wanted in the end. Buyer beware... Bottom line is "Why would someone stay in those relationships after they discovered that they were looking for something very different? Now that would be an interesting topic.

  2. Dear Uncertified Whore,

    Sell yourself. Why bother with certification? If you dont have it dont flaunt it. What does a paper matter if you got VD the night before.


    Uncertified and Unwilling

  3. Dear Mr. Burr,

    many of us have certification from schools such as those led by masters Yang Jun and Chen xiaowang. These schools define Tai Chi. Where did you say you got your certification?


    Certified and Proud

  4. I have come across the lineage issue many times and try to explain that crap can come out of any lineage and hidden gems can be found if you truly seek.

    Accreditation = Politics
    definition of Politics...
    Poly means many
    and Tics are blood suckers

    My personal experience was like being led along with a carrot. Finally this donkey said enough was enough and I split.

    Rogue and proud

  5. Thank you for this article.
    Did Yang Zhenduo pass a certificate? Yet he was only 9 when his father died, how did he learn? Is it serious? If we are called Yang, can we be certified? I think that if Yang Luchan come-back incognito, he would not have his certification.We have to judge the person by his skills and not by his certificates. My mother made excellent dishes and she has no certificate in comparison to "chefs" cook we eat frozen products. Today, there is also a lot of tai chi ready as cooked dishes, especially since the opening of China.