Pick the Style first.............
There are so many great articles out there that talk about how to find a good teacher, it would be redundant to just rehash what has already been said so many times. But what is rarely said is that the student should choose his style first, then the search for a teacher becomes much easier. Now this will go directly against what a Sensei in a McDojo will tell you, all while pushing a lifetime contract at you and using every high pressure sales trick to get you to sign. But for people who want a real martial art and quality instruction, the path I will describe has a high success rate.
First a student should understand that there is nothing new under the Sun. With relatively few exceptions, every style in the Chinese Martial Arts shares similar techniques and skill sets. This is best understood when you remember that everyone is built the same-2 arms, 2 legs and a head with a body in the middle. That really limits what can be done while fighting. And any good style will have explored and developed all of those tools to the farthest extent possible. So never believe a teacher who tells you about their "Secret" technique or training. That is a song that only suckers fall for. And since now we understand that most styles share many techniques, we have to understand what makes a style unique among others. I would argue it's the personality and application of the style that makes it special. My personal arts of Xingyi and Bagua use many of the same movements, but they apply them in much different ways. For example, the Hou Tien movement "Tan" is very similar in body movement to Beng Chuan in Xingyi. Or the Wing hand in Hung Gar and the Praying Mantis hand, they are only different because of minute finger placement. There are many other examples as well, if you take the time to look. So now we understand that the practitioners mind and how they apply the movement makes the style, so what does that mean for a new student? It points to a truth that every style of martial arts has a "Personality", for example Hung Gar builds and uses tremendous power, where Praying Mantis relies on speed and angles, Xingyi uses vertical circles in its movements while Bagua prefers horizontal circles..
Why is the personality of a style important you ask? Because each person has their own personality as well, and many times if the mindset of a person and their training style aren't matched, the student won't naturally understand and learn how to react instantly with the skills developed. Or they might not be able to perform the movements well enough to protect themselves. If an older man tries to overpower a younger man with a Hung Gar approach, he has a higher risk of failing than if he had used a method of defense from an Internal art. So is it worth his time and effort to train in Hung Gar? Not really! If we are looking for the best method of self defense, part of our research should be devoted to which styles we can physically perform. I know this sounds a little confusing to some people, but I think if you take the time to read and research, you will see the truth in my words.
So lets use me as an example of a student looking for a new school. I would have to look at myself and see what my personality is and how I like to handle problems and situations. I would look at my past training that went well and I understood correctly. My mindset is more aggressive than many people. I like to drive straight into problems and solve them with limited time and effort spent. I don't worry too much about manners and politeness when I am in a difficult situation. I was an All American in Greco Roman wrestling which means top 20 in the US. My experience in Xingyi has been wonderful since it fit my mentality. So taking all of this into consideration, I would look for a direct, aggressive style that favors or allows for close contact fighting. I wouldn't do well if I chose to practice Tai Chi as a martial art or Northern Shaolin which has many leg techniques. So just now I narrowed my search to what I am more likely to do well in.
Now the easy part of the search begins, I can simply start to search the internet and find teachers of the styles that I am open to and try to match how I learn to their teaching style. Many teachers love to teach hands on, but not every student learns that way. Some students learn in a more abstract manner and like to have examples and comparisons given. Also I have to make sure that I will fit in with the school population, since that is a MASSIVE factor in my future success. No one every became a master alone, without the help of senior students or a close relationship to the teacher, the chances of learning well will decline greatly.
I hope that this article hasn't been too confusing or ethereal for most. In summary, pick a style that you can easily understand WHY it does things the way it does, and look to see if you can mesh in well with the school family. But the most important part is to not take forever, every week you spend THINKING about training, you have just lost a week of ACTUALLY training! So get to it!