The Tenth Degree with Rachel Auberger
What's your typical morning routine? How do you get your day started off right?
Hah! This is a funny question for now. Right now, we have a virtual learning camp going on at our school and I work the first shift, so that means I am at the center by 6am to get lights on and put all the chairs back down and be sure the computers are charged and get our craft or activity supplies staged for later in the day and all the “get ready for a wild and crazy day” stuff. SO, there isn’t much time for a “routine” because I like sleep and 5:30am is early enough! HOWEVER, before this school year and all the changes it brought, I started my day by either participating in a Spin class at our local YMCA or by taking a 3.5 mile hike with one of my friends and just talking about “stuff”. I followed that up with some coffee and scrolling emails and news sites and reading industry blogs just to see what was happening in the world or what might inspire me to make changes or additions to the programs at our school.

What did you want to be when you grew up? How did you get your work life started?
I really can’t remember even wanting to grow up. I am always enjoying the stage and moment I am in, and I think that was an “always” thing for me. Having said that, I am a planner (I know that those things don’t make sense together), but I like to ENJOY the time I am in – whether that be a “working on a project” time, a “vacation” time, “watching my own daughter grow up” time, or a “growing a new program and watching these kids succeed” time. If I “planned” to be anything, it was something involved with athletics – I explored both being an athlete agent (I even studied pre-law and have a bachelor’s degree in business management and accounting) and personal training (I have a master's degree in coaching and lifetime wellness), but between those things the karate school I was teaching at began the process of closing. I was involved with teaching the children’s programs and the parents came to me (and the other instructor) and asked if we would continue teaching, even if it meant opening a new school ourselves. Twenty-three years later, here I still am – loving the moment I am living in.

Why the martial arts? Did you train when you were younger?
I grew up in Western New York. My parents had gone to an auction, and a local Tae Kwon Do club was auctioning off a membership. Since I liked to roam the neighborhood a little – and really wasn’t afraid of much and thought I was as big as everyone else (I was five years younger than most of the kids), they thought this might be a good idea – maybe I would need some skills to back myself up. Unfortunately, through family illness and a series of moves, I didn’t get to follow that through much longer than my first year. However, after our moving brought us to Tennessee several years later, my parents enrolled me in a Karate school (no TKD nearby) and I have been training continuously since 1990. As for why – why not? I cannot think of a better occupation that would let me help kids (and adults) develop the skills to be successful and to watch the joy on their faces when they realize they control their future. I have some of the best friends all over the world and get to travel (well DID and hopefully will again soon) extensively. This sport provides personal fulfillment and combines it with adventure – what could be better for enjoying the moment while planning for the future?!?!

How did your school come about? Where is it located and what do you teach?
Like I said, the school I was teaching at was closing and the parents of the athletes I was teaching asked if my friend/fellow instructor would continue. We opened our school expecting about 10 kids on opening day (we were still both in college and didn’t know a whole lot about marketing at this point, so we were going with the kids we knew), but they brought their friends and we had over 20 athletes enroll that evening. My friend later married and moved on and signed her portion of the business over to me. We are located in a small-town smack in the middle of Tennessee, Sparta, which is home to just over 5000 people. We teach Shorin Ryu Karate and Kenpo Karate as our main systems. We also teach a lot of sport karate (point fighting, weapons training, creative forms) for those athletes who want to explore the competitive side of the sport. In addition, we have kids tumbling and adult fitness classes on our schedule. We teach 27 classes a week (not counting our virtual learning camp and private lessons) here at BKC.

How do you define success? Was there a moment when you felt like you really made it?
Hmmm. Well it definitely isn’t based on my bank account. I think that success is being in control of your life and being able to do what makes you happy. Obviously, there are some monetary pieces to that, as being able to sustain the lifestyle that makes you happy without having to sacrifice responsibilities or have the stress of being able to afford tomorrow is going to add to a person’s overall peace and happiness. But money is definitely not the deciding factor in determining if you are successful. Being able to come to “work” every day and know that I love what I am about to do, being excited to see my students and staff walk in the door, and at the same time know that through my “job” I am independent and can determine what comes next for me – both professionally and personally – is success. As for a moment that I felt that “wow! I made it!”, I think that is one of those things I am in awe of every day. I don’t think there was ever that “aha” moment. I just did what I do, and now when someone asks, “where do you work?” or “what is your career?” and I verbalize it, it sounds kinda cool – like “Yep, I’m just over here having fun and getting paid for it.” Don’t get me wrong – it's work. A lot of work. But it’s fun work that keeps me energized and loving the life I’m living.
It’s a difficult time to be a business owner this year. What have you been doing to keep your school going?
It definitely has been a challenging and emotionally demanding year to be a business owner – especially a “non-essential”, service-related business. Besides constantly changing local and state guidelines, the reality is that karate is not a “necessity”, and with many families have faced financial struggles from layoffs and furloughs and extra childcare costs, paying bills like rent and utilities and groceries sometimes has left people with nothing to spend on those extras. I can say that I am super thankful that during the summer of 2019 we enrolled with Spark and had begun using their Member App in the fall of last year. Our area began shutting things down at the same time our public schools were scheduled to go on Spring Break, so transitioning to a “virtual school” was seamless for us. We immediately rearranged our schedule, offered shorter group Zoom Classes supplemented by free 15-minute private zoom sessions. We loaded weekly activities and challenges to our app. We did driveway deliveries for merchandise or stripes that were earned. We had a “Circle the Wagons” belt ceremony where we had member families decorate their cars and park around the perimeter of a parking lot while athletes were allowed, one at a time, to come to the center of the lot and retrieve their new rank and any other awards they might have earned (This was SO much fun with all the decorations and honking and noise-making that we may try to make this a permanent thing – at least once a year!). The upside, as we have transitioned back to On-the-Mat classes, is that we will forever have a virtual option where athletes can log in from home (or the beach, or their campsite, or the drive-in theater … yes, we had ALL of those going on!!!) and participate live if they can’t make it to class, or athletes can use their Member App to take a replay of the class at a future time. We also have begun an On-Demand section of our App which our coaches and mentors take turns planning and recording a fun class (that we then edit and put together for them) for and our athletes can use these during Spring/Fall/Winter closure times. We also began a virtual learning camp for students when our public schools began classes again in August using a hybrid schedule. It has been a LOT of work – I remember thinking “why are these people complaining about being bored” when scrolling Facebook back in April or May – we, here at BKC, have worked double and sometimes triple, but because of that, our school is still here, still surviving, and still providing great experiences (hopefully full of memories and life-changing moments) for our community.

Thanks for being one of our awesome Black Belt Excellence schools! What is it about the program that you like? Are you using it in any interesting ways?
Our athletes love getting their monthly homework folders from Black Belt Excellence. It provides us with a great tool to help our young athletes become successful by taking charge of themselves and responsibility for their own thoughts, words, and action. It’s great that I don’t have to think up a monthly theme (I used to try this, but often just used the same theme for two or three months in a row) – I have lots of things to do, and really appreciate not having to do this one! Our athletes love the homework packets so much, that they weren’t satisfied with just one “worksheet” a month. They would bring it back within just a few days of receiving it and ask for another one. SO … we got creative. We now have a weekly worksheet (coloring sheets, a word search, or some other “fun” activity) that we provide (through our Member APP) and that corresponds to the monthly theme. We also create a BINGO sheet, and students who complete the activities (practice at home, clean their room, make a treat for a neighbor, make a poster, etc. - again, all centered on the monthly theme) get to break a board. We also partnered with our local public library to find two to four books children’s books that emphasize the monthly theme. We check out the books and record a coach reading them and then upload that to our Member App. The library will keep the books available for our athletes to read there over the month should they want, and we give a quick little assignment (usually drawing a picture or telling us about a similar experience that they have had) at the end of each video-reading. Completing any (or all) of the “BONUS” activities throughout the month lets an athlete earn tickets for our “end of semester” drawing for lots of fun, FREE stuff (with our logo on it of course).

What advice would you give to your fellow school owners? What has been working well for you these days?
Stay focused. Remember the why behind your job. There are lots of distractions out there right now. Lots of trying to compare one success to another. Even within your own school. You certainly can’t compare this year to last or this summer’s camp to last or even this month’s numbers to last. Find ways to provide the fun and excitement that families are now looking for after so many months of doing things differently at home. Parents are running out of creative ways to make sure their kids aren’t missing out on childhood and to relieve stress themselves. Meet that need. Don’t get discouraged by numbers and charts and predictions. We are martial artists. By nature, we are the best people on earth at adapting to the situation. We, more than anyone else, have been training for this our whole lives. This is who we are, this is our arena, and this is our time to rise and show our communities how being a martial artist can benefit them (and their children).

What is currently inspiring you and in what way? (book, movie, song, charity, anything really…)
Right now, I am most inspired by my teen coaches. I have one full-time and five part-time coaches between the ages 1 and 19 who are killing it on the mats every week. They have rolled with the punches, adapted to changing schedules, learned to teach virtual classes, learned to teach virtual classes and on-the-mat classes simultaneously. They have cleaned and sanitized every inch of this building repeatedly. They have brought the same energy to a class with two athletes (on occasion) as they do to a class with 20. They are constantly finding new ways to challenge our athletes and keep them working towards their goals despite the difficulties of social distancing, smaller class sizes, and virtual classmates. I have been depending on them a lot for our evening classes, as myself and one other coach have been running the Virtual Learning Program and have a lot of carry-over responsibilities with that program that cross into the afternoon and early-evening hours when our “normal” classes are beginning.  They have gone above and beyond their pay grade and taken ownership of their classes and done everything in their power (I actually think a couple of them may even have superpowers) to ensure the success of our school and the future of our programs. Their eagerness to come to work and put every ounce of energy they have in to teaching and training our athletes inspires me to keep giving that same energy and effort. When I watch them, I know our programs must work and we “must be doing it right.”

How do you end a typical day? What do you do to unwind?
After a day full or people, I go home and play with my dog! I have a Giant Schnauzer who is eager to see me each night and can’t wait for me to play ball with her. I can go home and throw the ball and let my brain rest. If we get tired (me more so than the dog), we will often sit by the fire pit and just watch the flames or listen to the tree frogs. The key is to not think for at least an hour. Just be still and realize that life is good. Really, really good.