Friday, March 6, 2009

. . . And How I Learn to Teach Better

I'm excited about the chance to teach this August at the big mixed media art retreat in Arizona - Art Unraveled. And I'm really nervous. It's an amazing opportunity, and like anything new, there's a little bit of "Oh no, what if I mess this up?!"

When I gave a presentation on Creativity and Entrepreneurship a few weeks ago at the BizArt Conference in Everett, I went into it thinking I knew exactly what I was doing (After all, I'd done the presentation before, hadn't I?), and came away from it humbled.

Truth was, I'd never done that presentation for that group before, and I'd made assumptions that turned out to be false. While it certainly wasn't a disaster, I walked away from the session with a list of about a dozen ways that I could have done it better.

I've decided to be a little bit more proactive with the teaching at Art Unraveled. I posted a message on the group's listserve asking, in essence, for Tips for Newbie Teachers. And I hit the motherlode! I got great feedback from experienced teachers like Jacqueline Sullivan. I also got great advice from students on what makes a class successful. My favorite set, though, came from Susan, who is the official blog wrangler for her husband Don over at She is also an incredibly hysterical and straight-forward woman.

So, for all of you teachers out there, here's some really useful advice from the (adult) students' side of the desk:

Bridget asked for advice for newbie teachers.
As if I could not butt in on that...

For teachers?
You bet. As a certified elementary teacher who spent the worst year of her life teaching first grade I'm quite sure I can relate to your teaching situation. I did do a lot of training of adults in my later work careers, none of which involved them handing me a drawing and saying, "Here Teacher, I put my best booger on it for you."

1. Be early. Open the doors early.
We come early because we want our choice of the best seat.
If you are in the classroom we can talk to you because we aren't sure we have the right supplies, ideas, confidence, or whatever.

2. Be Very early and lock the doors and set everything up.
We paid for the time in your class and don't like to waste it setting up for you. After you are set up, open the doors early (see #1).
When we come in and start talking about the class, that's when you'll find out you left an important supply off the list. Don't panic. Improvise. Pivot. (see #7) We've all made the same mistake.

3. Intros around the room are nice but don't let them be more than Name-and-Where-I'm-From. It might be helpful for you to hear art experience, expectations, etc, but that's wasting paid-for class time. A show of hands can cover experience-related questions. If someone starts in with their biography, nip it in the bud by saying "I'd really like to hear more at our break time but let's continue our short introductions now." Which brings us to Item #4....

4. Have a definite announced break time half way through.
Don't use it to be time when everyone catches up on work, let it be time when you can walk away for at least 15 minutes to get a cup of coffee and there is a work flow stopping point. Now will be time when we all can finally chat with our table mates and assess what we are doing. And get our cup of coffee. When you come back from YOUR break you can deal with any problems.
Note: Nothing is more irritating that rushing off to the bathroom and coming back to find the teacher has spontaneously already started another demo.

5. Take a hard look at the way the tables are arranged in the room.
Do they really need to all face you in rows? Probably not, but habit makes people set them up that way.

Think about it: The people in the back usually can't see diddley-squat or hear well at all. That means they'll start talking among themselves because they feel separate from the front of the class. Now you have a class where there is disruptive mumbling going on. Not good. All because you didn't think about the table arrangement.

Try arranging them in a U-shape with your table at the top. Or in a V-shape (like diagonal parking!). Both of these set-ups let you be in the center and let you see more of what is going on. Even clusters of tables can be in a rough U-shape.If you do need to re-arrange the tables, it's ok to wait until enough people come in to help you move them (ignore #2 in this situation). Be aware that most people don't understand the table arrangement thing, they think they want to hide in old-fashioned row 3 so no one can see their work.

6. Try to divide supplies into at least two stations or more. And bring enough. If you have people lined and waiting behind more than 3-4 other people, then you've made a big mistake. Students did not pay to stand in line and wait for the one bottle of whatever you bought to be available. And saying "Come up to the table and pick out your favorite color" produces nothing but a feeding frenzy piranahas would be proud of.

7. We all mess up. But if you mess up what we are working on or if your process or technique isn't working right, don't try to bluff your way out and tell us it will look fine. Instead, admit the problem and work to improvise with us. As an artist and a teacher that's where you are supposed to be -- teaching us how to pivot out of pitfalls.

We are the ones who are stuck in the learning rut and don't know where to turn. Remember that often mistakes are the best learning experiences. And sometimes the most valuable lesson for a student is learning that YOUR process is what they don't ever want to do again. Don't take that personally, help them see that a learning step in their progress as an artist. And cross them off your Potential Competition List.

8. When someone in the class has a meltdown it probably isn't your fault. But assume responsibility and walk the person out of the room ("Let's step outside and talk privately about this") and see if you can (quickly) settle them down. Yes, you left the class and you are losing valuable time but nothing is worse than working at a table with a sobbing student. Same process with a person who is trying to dominate the class or is argumentative.

9. Be quick to give specific brand names of what you use but have a reason WHY you use that particular supply/brand. Sometimes students struggle needlessly only because the supply they are using is not appropriate. Try to watch for that and offer suggestions.

10. Loosen up and stop worrying about it all. You'll spend more time on preparation and early set-up than you ever planned on but the pay-back will be that the class will flow smoothly. You'll spend more energy than you thought you had but that's why you have to schedule in #4. And for any unforseen catastrophe, remember the phrase "Let's deal with that at the break. Now, moving on..."

11. Every teacher will have a disaster class at least once. This time it might be you. Don't pretend it didn't happen, instead, at the end of the class try to honestly assess it with the students and ask for their suggestions on how to improve the class. Then go to the bar, get a stiff drink, take it to your room, lock the door and beat your head against the wall.

Now, to print this out, tape it to my forehead, and prepare my stiff drinks!


gl. said...

awesome! this reminds me of what fantastic comments i got from y'all when i revised the "starting a creative business" class. i'm super glad you found generous, supportive teachers to help you out. you'll be great!

Don Madden said...

Oh noooo! Exposed!
----- Susan

Heather - - said...

Good input! Thank you so much for sharing!