Monday, August 08, 2016

Things I know about TEACHING ! ! !

Barbara Becker Simon

I love teaching.  I get a real rush when I experience those first moments before I say “Good Morning, Let‘s get going!” and when I sense the eagerness in the class that the fun is just about to begin.

We are all here in the room to experience new things.  I say “we” because teaching is a two-way street where I learn a great deal from the students.  Besides, the technical tips I might pick up, there are:  new tools, what new sci-fi books to read, new sources of supplies, recipes, new materials, other good classes to take, best restaurant and other points of interest in town, new jokes, travel tips, where the nearest Trader Joe’s is, and simply getting to know new people and reconnecting with friends.

A portion of my teaching history took place in two university settings: courses in metalwork/jewelry and basic design at the University of Wisconsin-Menomonie and Iowa State University.  Granted, the students chose to major in art and were technically “happy” to be in class, but it was a serious learning situation with tests and grades.   Since I have been teaching workshops such as we are used to, it has been such a pleasure to stand in front of groups of people who, for the most part, are squirming with delight at being there!  So right from the get-go, the atmosphere is prime for a great experience.

I would like to offer some things that I, as a teacher, try to do to make the workshop experience the best it can be.

First, I like to know who is going to be in class.  No, not Mary Jones specifically, but, are they beginners? advanced? mixed bag?  A teacher needs to know her class and what the expectations are.  Often, I will blatantly ask what folks want out of the workshop.  Can’t hurt to be direct!  First thing, I like to go around the room and have everyone offer short introductions.  I ask where they are from and what their experience is with metal clay.  This not only gives me an idea of the skill level of the class and the personalities, but everyone else is listening too and getting to know their classmates.  It sets the tone for the workshop and gets the engine greased!

Weeks and sometime months ahead of the workshop, I plan what I am going to teach and how I am going to teach it.  A basic time line of daily activities is either in my mind or actually written down.  Previously, I have sent detailed class descriptions revealing the topic and the techniques that will be emphasized.  The students and the host of the workshop receive a specific set of supplies and tools to be responsible for.  I make sure to include my email for questions.  There is nothing sadder than a student who comes to class with the wrong stuff or the absence of stuff.  Bad for every one!  If possible, I always try to have back up tools and materials with me just in case this happens.

When presenting information, realize that there are different ways that people learn.  Luckily, most of what I teach is demonstration.  There is nothing better than seeing things happen right before your eyes.  And repeating a demo as many times as necessary is a good thing.  I can tell from the blank and/or confused look on faces, that I didn’t get through.  So I will do it again, with variations if possible, until I see the light bulbs click on overhead!  Sometimes I will ask a student to stand or sit right behind my shoulder so she can see exactly what I am seeing as I perform some technique. 

I will ask the simple question, “Is that clear?”  And I will wait for an answer.  If the time lapse between the question and the answer is longer than I like or I don‘t hear a rousing chorus of yesses, I know I have to figure out another way of explaining.  Maybe a diagram, maybe better, more exaggerated hand motions, maybe a joke or a funny phrase such as “slip flicking“?  Humor is an excellent memory tool!  

Many students, for lots of reasons, are afraid to ask questions.  I try to establish an open, free-wheeling atmosphere where no question is out of bounds. Often, before I answer a question, I will complement the asker by saying how much I like the question.  You just know that there are others in the group who are saying in their heads, “Thank goodness she asked that!”  And maybe next time they are puzzled about something, they won’t hesitate to ask.

The rhythm of the class is important to the enjoyment of the workshop.  No, we don’t get up and cha-cha.  (But of course I am not above doing that if it helps get the point across…)  What I mean is that a good teacher varies the length of each segment of activity.  Don’t sit the group down for hours on end doing one thing.  

I like to start with a demo that has enough information to get the students going on the first project.  I organize it as a need-to-know process.  Don’t overburden the students with info that they don’t need to know for the next 30-40 minutes.  That way, they can focus on the task at hand.  Then follow up that work time with the next demo and add more info. 

I also like to inform the class at various times that there will be X-number of minutes of work time; usually 30 minutes to an hour, where they are in full control of their time.  Always let the class know what is coming next; or even what the whole morning or afternoon will hold.  It’s comforting.   In addition to keeping info in bite-size increments, physically moving to a new area from time to time keeps things fresh.  It is very disturbing to see a yawning student…….

Speaking of yawning, be very attuned to the mood of the group.  Speed things up, slow things down as needs be.  Be thoroughly prepared but also be able to change your plans based on what the class sensibility is.  I am never averse to going off on a tangent if the class is curious about something and we have the time.  I like to have an “organic” approach to the learning experience even though I have formally established what will be covered in the workshop.

One last thing that will make a good teacher, is to be taught by a good teacher.  I have had some stellar examples in my past, from which I have unashamedly stolen teaching methods.  A good teacher always remembers what it is like to be a student in a disappointing class as well as a great one.