Saturday, April 10, 2010

What the Good Teacher does

I’m sure you’ve had many experiences of the good, the bad, and the indifferent in various workshops and seminars.  As I’ve begun to do some teaching, I’ve started to try to figure out what exactly the good teachers do (or don’t do!) that is different.

Organized.   Good teachers are well organized, they arrive on time, they have the right materials with them, they have a lesson plan for each day and they tell you what the overall course  plan is (whether it’s a couple of days or a couple of weeks).

Focussed. Several times I’ve been in workshops where the teacher has been addressing some private interest of their own..there was one who spent every morning explaining some obscure yoga theories to us!  a brief aside on some topic that illustrates a point is good, 5 x 3 hours of esoteric, obscure, arcane theorizing is not!

Well Informed.  Good teachers either know the answers, or know where you can find the answers – they don’t make up rubbish off the tops of their heads! (or from anywhere else for that matter!).  They are also well educated in their subject and can not only tell you something but give you the context, and examples from many areas in art – or whatever is appropriate.  Those teachers who have obviously never looked at a decent painting and know nothing of art history are so limited.

Relaxed .  I do dislike those very tense, humourless obsessive teachers who insist that everything be done their way: “throw out all the rules!! now you Must do this and this and this….”.  Eeek..I’m running!  One lady even burst into tears because I was unwilling to do every single mind-fogging example of stitching that she required.

Focussed on the class.   And then there are those who are on their own private narcissistic ego trip and see the class only as a chance to gain more acolytes: “Let me show you just how wonderful I am!”

Greedy.   I don’t like to have to buy (other than essentials not obtainable anywhere else) over-priced supplies in class – especially if the teacher spends all his/her time laying out a shop that overtakes 50% of the workroom (yes, folks! I’ve seen that – unbelievable).  A small selection of interesting things that can be perused when the muse is failing, yes…that’s good.  But requiring me to buy…not good.

Sober:  it is nice too if they’re not drunk, high or hung over!  that slurred speech and falling about is  not very conducive to learning! and I’m not sympathetic if they’re sitting there with bloodshot eyes clasping their foreheads first thing in the morning when I’m ready and eager to learn.

Open about their own work.  One of the reasons we take workshops from working artists is to learn from them; people who are secretive about their work just shouldn’t be teaching.  You feel very embarrassed when they respond “oh I can’t tell you That!  that’s a trade secret”.  Also frustrated!  AND…even more curious.  It’s fine not to want to show the newest work, or current issues with which one is struggling of course.  But learning about the process that was involved in work that is public is one of the best ways of applying information to actual practice.

Respectful and egalitarian.  As I see it everyone in the class has saved up and paid to be there, therefore no matter what their level of talent they deserve equal time and attention and care from the teacher.  It’s easy to go wrong both ways: giving too little attention or too much attention.  Two ladies told me one time that because they were quite independent and experienced many teachers gave them no attention saying “well you two don’t need my help!”.  I was amazed – if they didn’t want something from the teacher, they would not have taken the class.  On the other hand the teacher must be respectful of the class needs, as a whole, if some person is constantly wanting attention (and thus taking it away from others).   

Able and willing to give individual help  I’ve been in classes where the teacher gave 30 minutes instruction then spent the rest of the time sitting at a table doing their own stuff.  I think that’s cheating!  Everybody in the class deserves a little private time with the teacher.  Some have questions related particularly to their own work, others are too shy to ask in question in front of others.  I like to allot gradually more time as  the workshop progresses to spending individual time each day with everyone in the class.  I don’t like to just respond to the needy ones who constantly ask for help, I much prefer to divide the time available by the number of people and work my way round in a relaxed way (not a ward sister flashing past- “okay dear?” – and before you can reply… gone!) but instead actually sitting down right by the person and giving them my full attention.  This has happened to me rarely in workshops, but I think it’s absolutely crucial.  I remember the times it did happen years and years later; those few words of clarification or encouragement are precious and have a lasting effect.

so…write and tell me what you think is important!  You never know, I might be in a workshop with you sometime and be able to add…or subtract!…the required behaviour!  also any funny stories would be good (but don’t use names).  And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth




Christine Staver said...

Elizabeth, I think you hit it on the head. I am a college professor and all the things you have listed I try to accomplish in my classes.

Unknown said...

Reminds me of an excellent drawing class I took this winter--colored pencil with Rhonda Nass. She was all the good points and none of the bad points. All that and she is nice, too!

Two Red Threads said...

Bingo! One addition: I think a good teacher outlines a way for students to measure success in the class. Without that, some students always think they're falling short. They compare their work to their neighbor's, which is further along or "better" somehow. Or they comparing it to instructor-made samples that reflect years of practice and editing from a large body of work.

To set the tone, in the introduction to most of my workshops I say a few words about the main steps of the creative process and how they relate to class content. Then I outline how we will measure success in the class. That might be something like:
1) If you're having fun.
2) If you're learning. And
3) If you see possibilities for ways you can use what you're learning beyond the class.

This is also a good time let students know you want to help them set and meet achievable goals -- which you can discuss individually.

Thanks for a great list!

Gerrie said...

I can think of one teacher I have had who hit all of your points = Sue Benner. I have had some excellent classes with others, but they have missed many of your criteria and caused students much frustration. Good post!!

Elsie Montgomery said...

Another point might be to establish the experience level in the students and not spend half of the class time telling experienced quilters how to thread their needles and take care of their sewing machines. When that happened to me, I would have walked out had I not paid an arm and a leg to take the session. The teacher also talked very slowly, as if we were ESL students, and as if she thought we were hopelessly inadequate. Hmmm..

Barbara Sindlinger said...

Sew the examples in front of the class. I just recently paid a lot of money for a week long class and the teacher drew on either the chalkboard or a big piece of paper how to do something instead of actually showing us. As I wrote on my comment form, if I wanted drawings, I would just use the book and not pay all this money for a class.

Mechelle said...

Almost choked on my coffee when I read your description of sober VERY FUNNY but I'm sure it wouldn't be funny to the paying students - can't imagaine a teacher showing up drunk!! I don't like it when a teacher sell LOTS of expensive stuff - $20 yarn and $10 thread that I must have at least 3-4 of each purchased from said teacher to complete the class - and the yarns/threads I brought from home just were not right! I really think there is nothing more disappointing than a bad teacher, but also nothing BETTER than a GREAT teacher -grin!

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

Great post E. My worst workshop experience was a 2 day event many years ago. We sat on a concrete floor (she had the tables and chairs removed). We brought our personal work materials which she was going to review with each of us in front of the class to help us find our voice. She never got past the first person...really. The second day only a handful of people showed up and I have no idea what we did because I totally zoned out. Nice.

Judy said...

This post brings back memories of one of the very worst art quilt classes I have ever taken. The teacher was and still is highly regarded and I had wanted to spend time with her for ages, so when I learned that she was teaching just a day's drive away, I signed up - and even talked a friend into flying there to take the class! Worse yet, the day before was my husband's birthday, and he offered to drive with me to the class destination on his aforementioned day. Off we went, bright and early, as there was a pre class-day gathering planned, where the instructor would show slides, discuss what her goals were for us for the weekend class, and then we would all go out to dinner. We arrived on time, my friend arrived on time via plane and rental car, our classmates all arrived on time, but NO INSTRUCTOR! She breezed in about 2 hours late with her sister in tow, offered no explanation or apology for her tardiness, and declared it was time to get to the restaurant for wine and dinner. Class began, unannounced, an hour early the next morning - I only found out because my dh and I were on our way back from an early morning walk and bumped into another classmate who had heard rumor that the class was about to begin. Several missed the first hour, and then we all went to breakfast, before really getting started with class, at almost noon. The instructor clearly had predetermined class pets and spent most of her time either encouraging them or displaying their wonderful work. The rest of us were almost totally ignored, and when spoken to, it was in very derogatory terms. On the first afternoon, the class broke up early, so that the teacher and her pets could enjoy wine and cheese together, while the underlings were left on their own. It went on similarly the next day, which was our last day. We saw slides, but they were simply of the teacher's wonderful works, with no explanations as to design, color, etc. I was really embarrassed that I had not only talked a good friend into spending precious time and money to travel so far for that experience, but also for my husband to witness this first hand! This was about three years ago, and several of the class 'underlings' still communicate via email, wondering how this teacher can hold her head up so highly and continue to have such a following. It is beyond us!
Whew: have I vented enough????

June said...

Great list, Elizabeth. It is sort of like, "Teaching 101." It astonishes me that things like organization, focus, being well-informed and being sober need to be said. But of course, as we all know, they do.

The most difficult part for the instructor, I suspect, (aside from the occasional very needy, very selfish student) is that, in some groups, students' abilities and knowledge range so widely that the instructor can't possibly help as much as she would like. If she teaches to the least experienced, the most experienced could be bored; and if to the most experienced, the least will be bewildered.

I have taken classes where my ignorance was so great that it took the instructor and a couple of seat mates to get me through the first set of instructions. Luckily, everyone was relaxed enough to accept my limitations and I knew enough not to demand more than my fair share of attention.

But an addition to the list might be that the class description include information about what level of expertise the student might want to have before taking the class.

That said, I have had fantastic classes in all kinds of media where I was totally clueless when I began about the processes, and where I had been fairly warned that the class wasn't for beginners. It's humbling but brought me up to speed quite rapidly once I accepted that I would probably have to take the class again if I wanted the fullest experience.

Your post should become a handbook item for any one who decides to teach.

Natalya Khorover Aikens said...

teaching 101 indeed! thank you so much as I begin to take tiny little steps towards teaching....

Kay said...

Good teachers don't conduct private conversations with a few people in the class, or spend a large amount of time talking about their children, their past career, etc. Just attended a workshop where this happened and I was not pleased.

I taught for years at different levels, and tried to follow the rules you outline. I also tried to be interesting, which you didn't mention, but since your students are there by choice, perhaps that's a given.

alison schwabe said...

Thoughtful comments, and I totally agree with pretty much everything.

One of my pet hates is the "lets go round everyone and find out where you come from/where you are in quiltmaking/what you are hoping for in this class" kind of beginning activity - it invariably wastes at least 1/2 hour, and potentially more, of precious paid class time. I don't do that - I welcome people to the class, then get on with it - they know what I am offering and presumably haven't paid up good money to find out what other people want/expect - they sign up to learn from ME and that is what I seek to maximise in a fun, encouraging class loaded with as much as even the most advanced/talented student can be challenged with. To a trained teacher it soon becomes obvious who is less advanced, struggling with content or technique, and this teacher modifies her intereaction with each person leaves at the end with a sense of having learned a lot and succeeded within the class.

magsramsay said...

Such a great post and comments - see me frantically nodding my head!
One thing I would add is about controlling the pace of the class. I've been in a few classes where we take a lot of time over one activity that is introductory material and then have to rush at the core stuff that we've come for. This happens usually when the teacher is taking their cue from the slowest rather than somewhere in the middle.
As an example of good practice,
on a painting course with one particular tutor, there's a questionnaire BEFOREHAND which asks what experience you have, what you want out of the course but also asks whether you want a structured or flexible approach or somewhere in between. I've been a few times and I know she does alter it accordingly (eg spending less time on techniques when most of us know it anyway).

My experiences have been generally good except one painting course where I left half way through as not only was I totally ignored as I had some experience already but his teaching of colour theory was totally incorrect (mixing watercolours together to make white- I don't think so!) I wrote to complain and although I hadn't asked for it , got my money back. I was more concerned that he shouldn't be teaching and they did reply to say that I wasn't the only one to complain and he wouldn't be employed by the organisation again.

Jackie said...

I think I had the same teacher once as Judy. Supply list didn't arrive, description was incorrect but did she alter her plans? NO, we had to scurry so what we thought we were getting wasn't what we got--though to make up for it, she showed us lots of slides of her work. She didn't answer questions about why she chose this or that technique--"because that's the way I do it!' It was a BIG ticket class where I'd been before. I wrote up the evaluation and never heard from the director, so I won't go back! I learned so much from Elizabeth's class in clear steps, I can recognize now specific topics or techniques that would benefit my growth. While it is sometimes cathartic to vent about bad experiences, I want to grow! Thank you, Elizabeth, for teaching and writing!

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Sharon Benton said...

Hi Elizabeth!
I'd like to add to your list: If you have friends and acquaintences in class, it is not OK to spend teaching time catching up and gossiping! Especially while students are waiting around for your time and attention.

BTW - I was fortunate enough to see an exhibit of your work several years ago in Gwinett country. The name of the venue escapes me, but it was a beautiful show and one of my favorites to this day.

I'm happy to have run across your blog!

Connie in Alabama said...

Don’t allow an aggressive student to hijack the class. These folks come to class with their own agenda and want to change the class objective, the content, the techniques, the class format, etc. They may be knowledgeable, and you may decide to allow them to do their own thing in your class, but don’t tolerate them trying to change the class for the rest of the students. And if you need to have a private conversation with this person to manage comments like “Well, I do it this way,” please have that conversation early.
Be kind in your criticism. A friend was in a class being taught by a teacher known for her piecing precision. Yes, the stars would look better if the points were perfect, but my friend was doing the best she could do, so don’t belittle her. At lunchtime she came to my class in tears, and we told her not to go back to her class that afternoon.

Unknown said...

I would add as examples of bad experiences I had - (1) don't constantly describe the techniques as 'tricky' 'difficult' 'not really useful' 'hard' etc - especially when they are not!
(2) learn about the venue facilities and especially where the light switch is - I did a two day 'Masterclass' in very bad lighting once with us all - teacher including - complaining. and it was only when the show organiser visited that she asked why the teacher had not put the lights on!

Dee / Cloth Company said...

the forum has to do its job well, too -- my big beef is not having enough space. If you pay to hear a lecture/demonstration, that's one thing, but if you're supposed to be sewing,cutting,ironing, too -- you need a little elbow room!

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