I have taught since 1992, starting when I was a college student myself. I consistently get really high reviews for my teaching and I want to share with you what I’ve learned over the years so that you can be the best teacher for your students.
Start on time
Always start your classes on time. Waiting for the stragglers to arrive annoys those who moved heaven and Earth to get there on time and worse, it teaches the late comers that they don’t have to be on time, because you will wait for them.
Unless you have been specifically informed that there is a train blocking the road to the class, or some other unusual circumstance, start on time.
On the other hand, make sure that you are ready. I learned in a public speaking class to make sure that you are ready before you start your speech. Feeling “off” when you begin your first demo of an action packed two day workshop can have you performing at less than your best. If you need to hit the bathroom, or really require that cup of coffee, greet everyone, let them know where you’re going and let them know you’ll be starting in 3 minutes.
As we gather
Waiting around for a class to start can be awkward, and you want your students to feel welcome and that their time is not being wasted. It’s helpful to have an “as we gather” activity. This can be as simple as you going around to everyone individually and saying “hello, where are you from?” or a having a stack of books, magazines, catalogs and posters carefully chosen by you to illustrate specific points you’ll be teaching in class.
Bruce Baker, the craft booth and sales expert, said in a speech on craft show sales techniques that when you’re tired of saying something, print it on a card. He did this with his line of vermeil jewelry. Vermeil is not simply gold plated jewelry, but is a very specific, legally defined thickness of 14K gold plate over sterling silver. He got tired of saying that, so he put it on a card.
When I taught metalsmithing, which I did for over 15 years, there were always the same pictures in a catalog, or drawings that I would want to show a student to clarify a point. It wasn’t that I was tired of saying it, it was that I wanted to explain it the best I possibly could, and with pictures. And I could never find the right page in the 600 page catalog when I needed it!
Put it on a Poster
My solution was to rip out the relevant pages and make small posters, 16” x 20” poster board. I created themed posters that addressed common questions that students had about equipment and procedures.
I had the posters laminated and put them all on a little easel next to the books and magazines I would bring. Students were welcome to look at these any time, including during the “as we gather” time.
I would also use them as I taught, or when answering a student’s question.
People really appreciate the posters because not everyone learns best by listening, and not everyone remembers it the first time. By having posters that anyone can refer to any time, students can get the information when they want it, in the form that they want it.
I have continued this process of making and sharing posters as I’ve moved into teaching (wet) felt making, Precious Metal Clay (TM), and now needle felting, monoprinting, protest posters, T-shirt printing and more.
When students think, “What’s the order of operations?” or “What do I do next?” they can check the poster. Of course I am happy to answer each student’s question individually, but sometimes I may be busy helping another student, and this way they can still get their answer and continue their project without waiting.
I also give students a handout at the beginning of class with information, what our schedule is, and a handout at the end of class on how to continue their education on their own. You could include links to useful you tube channels on those handouts.
For years, many, many of my class evaluations have said and continue to say that I am kind. It didn’t consciously set out to be a kind teacher, but once students pointed it out, I worked to continue that as one of my core values as a teacher.
Taking a class and learning a new skills takes courage. Maybe not for everyone, some people love learning new things, but for some people, it’s a huge risk. We must honor that risk taking and support them in our classes.
There are many ways to create a safe space in your classroom. You can do this by setting expectations. Some teachers do this by saying that they expect you to make mistakes. Great, that’s an expectation we can all live up to!
You can also set the expectation that this classroom is a judgement-free zone. Art therapist and art teacher Lisa Sonora has a class rule against subjective comments in her classes. Students may witness another’s work, but they may not make a subjective comment.
Last year, I got help from a friend on one of my speeches/interactive workshops from a friend who ran a reading tutoring program for years. She told me to just flat out tell the students what I expected of them in this 90 minute workshop. “Oh? You can do that? Just say it?”
She had me explicitly say what I was going to do for them and what I expected of them. And you know what? It was my best workshop ever. People knew what to expect and they did it. Clarity. It’s a good thing.
It’s almost like in the movie, Karate Kid, where the master teacher says, “I promise to teach, and you promise to learn.” Sure, that’s implied in any class, but by specifically naming what you will do for the students and what you expect from them, everyone in the class knows the rules. You are setting the boundaries, guidelines and culture of your classroom. And it just takes two minutes.
Another way to be kind is to be empathetic. One of the ways to be empathetic to our students is to BE a student. I suggest you take a class, even if it’s just a few hours, every single year, in a topic you know nothing about. Put yourself in the position of being a total beginner, so that you will remember what that feels like for your students.
Are you afraid? Notice what you’re afraid of. Will you fail? Will be embarrass yourself? Are your questions so “dumb” that you don’t want to ask them?
The more we know about our subject, the harder it is to remember what vocabulary and industry terms that beginners don’t know. Gather these words on a glossary sheet that you give students and put them on a poster.
State as an expectation that you welcome questions. Thank students sincerely when they ask a question that’s about something you forgot to cover. That encourages others to continue to point those things out and ask questions.
Being prepared is essential when teaching. You’re in front of the room, you’re on stage, and you can’t go get anything if you forgot it.
- Write a lesson plan (and refer to it in class)
- Prepare for activity or supply bottle necks and prevent them.
Think through each step that your students will have to do in class. What materials do they need for each step? Will everyone need the same tool at once, or will they need it at different times? When I teach my Kirigami Prayer Flags/Blessing Banners class, everyone is cutting out paper patterns at the same time. I need a lot of scissors.
When sewist Lisa Polderman teaches children ages 5-7 to sew, she has a foam core board full of pre-threaded and knotted needles for the children to use. If she didn’t, she’d spend the entire time threading needles for students, instead of helping them learn to sew their project.
- Stand still when you give directions. People will read, or listen to you, but not both. Pass out handouts after you have given your demo or instructions, not before. (this is a tip from the book Teach Like a Champion by Dough Lemov)
- Don’t talk to much at one go, and remember that people need to go to the bathroom! Keep a timer so you don’t go over. Lectures/demos should be 30 minutes or less. Whenever possible, break your lessons into smaller parts.
Check in with your students.
“Do we need a break?” “Does that make sense?” “What can I clarify for you?” I find that asking, “What can I clarify for you?” invites more questions than, “Any questions?” The threshold is lower for the former.
Lastly, as you watch other presenters, online or in-person, and take classes, notice what the presenter or teacher does well or poorly. Become a student of teaching itself, be responsive to feedback from your students, and dedicate yourself to always improving as a teacher.
If you focus on serving your students, are prepared and kind, class will always go well!