A student entering into a Tai Chi class for the first time can find it a little confusing. Most Tai Chi classes are not run like other martial arts and the relaxed open forum can be misleading. Tai Chi classes are run this way because of the relaxed state of mind needed to perform and practice the form and other skills taught within Tai Chi. A regimented, copy cat system of teaching with a very strict code of courtesy would not prove to be as useful, in the Tai Chi kwoon as it does with the external styles. However this does not mean that there are no courtesy rules within Tai Chi, on the contrary, the rules are pretty much the same with some slight modification.
The Students duty - For their part students should always be polite and listen to their teacher when he/she speaks. When your Sifu asks you to practice, do so, mindful that your Sifu is present and able to cast a constructively critical eye over your practice and offer advice to you on how to improve. Talk should be kept to a minimum; there is a certain social aspect to such forms of exercise, and this was no different for your teacher, this is understood yet should not be the purpose of your assembly and should not detract from your training. In Tai Chi the rule is nearly always "do as I say, not as I do" this is because you are not at the level your Sifu is at and therefore you are unable to see clearly what he/she is doing, and poor practise will result if a student follows incorrectly.
A student usualy has the right to decline from a particular practice if they so wish but not if it is something crucial to their training, for example should they be a student that wishes to learn the martial side of Tai Chi, then declining to learn break-falls is not an option and should a student refuse then, for their own safety they would not be allowed to continue on the martial path. Students should also respect each other; in Tai Chi your fellow students are regarded as your brothers and sisters, elder brother/sister for those who are senior to you and younger brother/sister for those junior. It is expected that juniors ask the advice of their seniors and therefore juniors should listen to their seniors. In public with their Sifu, students should be polite and respectful to their Sifu, other Sifu and other students, saluting their Sifu (and other Sifu) before and after they speak to them. Something that is sad but true, is that within most classes of this ilk, compliments are rare however all the criticism should be constructive and taken in such a manor so that one can learn. Remember; your Sifu has a skill you wish to learn, your Sifu can reveal the gateway to you but only you can walk, what can sometimes be, a very difficult path. A student's responsibility is to learn and to practice, attentive to their Sifu's advice.
A Teachers duty - Sifu have an obligation to teach their students openly and honestly if for no other reason than to pass on what they have learned so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of Tai Chi Chuan. Sifu are human too and it is doubtful that your Sifu knows all the answers to all the questions that can be asked in relation to the Internal styles. Sifu should not delude students with incorrect information, passing it off as a truth, this does not refer to a with holding of information until such times as a student is prepared for the knowledge passed on, which is a useful teaching practice especially when a student's theoretical curiosity outpaces his/her physical practice. When teaching a Sifu should not be using his/her students for their own practice, little is ever truly gained, as the real skill is being able to perform their techniques etc, on people of a similar skill level.
Sifu should have their students well-being uppermost in their thoughts when teaching, the idea is to train and injuries prevent training from taking place, this is not to imply that martial students will not suffer bruising or the odd cut lip or that similar minor injuries may not occur, indeed it is without doubt that they will occur, however students should rarely suffer any major injuries though of course accidents do happen. Also a Sifu should be well versed in first aid preferably both oriental and western and use those skills where appropriate, including the simple advice of "Get this checked out by your Doctor". Simple advice often forgotten, often ignored, but advice which should be given none the less.
Communication is usually the key to good teaching, it is not enough to be able to do, to be able to teach a Sifu must be able to explain and demonstrate in a way that the student can understand. Everyone hears what a teacher says yet how often, in your own experience have you explained what to do to a group of students only to look on in astonishment to see them practice something completely different? No one is at fault but both student and Sifu must strive to understand each other.
To end with consider this Zen story; A student of martial arts visited a well known master one day in the hope he would teach him what he knew, upon answering the door the visitor explained his desire, he was invited in and the master agreed to teach him. He began with the basics, explaining how to do the various drills, the visitor interrupted saying, "yes, yes I know this." So the master started to teach him some of the more advanced techniques, again the visitor interrupted saying he knew this too. The master thought for a second and then offered the visitor some tea, he agreed and they sat down. When the tea was ready the master poured the visitors tea as the cup filled, it reached the brim and began to overflow. The visitor cried out "stop, stop my cup is full". The master smiled at him and said, "Ah! Then you need to empty your cup before I can fill it again!"
Sifu Donald Kerr. L.S.O.M
Footnote; Sifu; Teacher, in Chinese systems the classes are looked upon like a family therefore Sifu also translates as Father. Kwoon; Training hall