Stage Fright, Perfection, Flow, Teaching, and Art

Chairs for audience or students.Stage fright has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  It’s very selective.  I’m fine in front of a crowd of thousands, especially in halls where the lights are on me and I can’t see the faces of anyone past the first row or two… and even they are too dark to see clearly.

Put me in front of an audience of 20 or 30 people, where I can see every face and every micro-reaction to what I’m saying…?  Panic. Total panic.  I have to steel myself to even think about that kind of public speaking.

That’s why, when I teach, I have a firm rule:  I need access to the classroom, in solitude, for at least 30 minutes before the students arrive.  (Otherwise, I’m likely to blurt all kinds of things… usually extreme and unexpected, if you’re not ready for the panalopy of creative ideas that rush through my mind like high schoolers rushing to class before the “late” bell rings.)

During my personal pre-class time, I give myself a “pep talk,” and use breathing techniques that would make Dr. Lamaze proud, to relax myself enough to teach.  With the right mindset — or at least mental distance from “not good enough” self-talk — I can teach a great class with lots of student involvement.

(Without exception, every class I’ve taught that fell flat… it’s because I wasn’t given that 30 minutes to prepare.)

Creating art can be a similar issue for me and many other people.  We may not have that visible audience, but when the initial spark of inspiration fades, the voice of the inner critic can be worse than any heckler in the classroom.

(You know that student.  She’s the one who sighs loudly and repeatedly. And, at the end of the class — when it’s too late to do anything about it — she tells you how deeply you’ve disappointed her, and how you really shouldn’t be teaching.  Or making art.  Or both.)

Regardless of where the message comes from, we’re often striving for impossible perfection… as artists and as teachers.  The slightest shortfall or flaw seems magnified on a big screen and in HD, and every metaphorical pore and blemish is the size of the Grand Canyon.

In fact, we’re often our very worst critics.  We hold ourselves up to impossible standards, and we’re usually using the wrong measuring stick.

Last night, I was disgruntled.  I’ve been working on a series of small (5″ x 7″) oil paintings, based on memory and photos I’ve taken.

Unfortunately, the results are — so far — uninspired. (I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

Pandorica-inspired ink drawing
Click to download the ATC file. (Original is 5″ x 8″.)

So, I took out my pen and paper, and started doodling one of my Pandorica-inspired pieces. (The Pandorica is a Dr. Who story element.)

I was so caught up in it, I let it run to the edge of the page.  And then, I felt so disappointed, because that meant the piece would require an additional, larger support, just to be matted.

This morning, my husband pointed out that it’s a perfectly good work of art, as it is, and there are worse things than needing something in back of the work so it mats well.

He also reminded me that art is about the inspiration.

That gets me back to my paintings… the ones that aren’t turning out.  I said that they aren’t inspired, and I mean exactly that: I’m working on them, production-style.  By definition, that’s an industrial approach. (Yes, I am reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception.  It’s brilliant, inspiring, and terrifying, all at the same time.)

So, I went back to my Pandorica doodles.  I’m waiting for this evening’s sunset, hoping the colors will be inspiring enough to spark (and complete) some or all of the six little paintings currently on my easel.

I want to take them with me to M.I.T. next week, when we’re hearing Seth Godin speak and participating in whatever’s going on at that event.  I’d like to hand out art, at random, in kind of a random acts of kindness gesture.  In other words, just for fun.

But… I feel a little stuck.  And, I’ve been trying to work with a deadline more than inspiration.  Bad idea.

It’s compounded by my fear of disapproval, or — worse — no reaction at all.  Boredom.  Kind of a “What, you think you’re an artist…?” reaction, as they drop the art in the trash.  (Have I mentioned how well I can awfulize when I’m in this mode…? *chuckle and sigh*)

Okay. I’m not sure if this is more stage fright or the visual equivalent of writer’s block.

Either way, it’s putting the emphasis on the finished work and others’ opinions — even their potential opinions, if it’s work I haven’t shown anyone — instead of where it belongs, on the inspiration, and the creative expression that results.

But, what I’m describing in angst-laden terms is how we, as artists, make ourselves tiny and insignificant.  And, it’s why we often stall and lose precious time in which we might be making art.

It’s a toxic, all-or-nothing approach.  It’s so far from being in flow — in the creative process where we’re in touch with the sublime — we couldn’t find it with a road map, a compass, and a laser-tuned GPS.

The teaching…?  I quit, years ago. Yes, that’s letting small-minded people win, but that’s okay with me.  It’s a battle I never wanted to fight.  I’m happy to leave those political games to others who savor them.

The art…? That’s another matter.  Recovering my willingness to be creative, out loud… thats why I changed this website back into the blog it was in the first place, back in 1995 or 1996, when I began it.

And, it’s why I’m staring down virtual stage fright, posting last night’s Pandorica piece here, as a graphic and as an ATC you can download (and print at 300 dpi). Click on the illustration, above and on the left, to print your own copy.

When a student copies

In the days of the Old Masters, apprentices and students would copy their masters’ works over & over again, until they could mimic the technique perfectly. Then, they’d develop their own styles.

When a student (or someone who’s learning a new technique) copies my art exactly–or very closely–I like to think of them in that context. It takes the oh-my-goodness gasp out of the moment.

From my experience, in every class of 30 students, one will want to copy my work very closely, or even line-for-line.

I encourage them to use the class to explore their own creativity. However, some students need to copy, to get comfortable with the materials or the technique.

That’s okay with me. After all, I love to teach, and I’m thrilled when people choose to take a class with me… no matter what their learning modalities.

You may have to exercise your diplomatic skills if one student copies another, or if a student suggests (correctly or not) that another student’s work isn’t entirely original. This rarely happens, but it needs to be addressed swiftly.

Often, it’s best to ask the complaining student to step outside the classroom to discuss this. If the issue doesn’t resolve quickly, you may need to ask the other student to join the conversation.

If you’re out of the classroom for very long, it’s not fair to the other students. Sometimes, you may have to leave it as “Let’s all agree to disagree,” and get back to the class. (When that happens, I usually discover that this has been an ongoing issue with one or both of the students. If so, a five-minute discussion isn’t likely to resolve it; let it go and get back to making the class fun and educational.)

We can’t evaluate every student’s vision, to see if it’s original, copied, or inadvertently “borrows” some elements from existing art. But, in the classroom, I bring up the Old Masters example. That generally takes some of the edge off this volatile subject.

“Plan B” Teaching

Most of us went from making to teaching, pretty directly. In many ways, the best advice is that slogan, “Just do it.”

But, how can you build confidence and prepare for the unexpected?

Start with some “dress rehearsals”

Practice teaching with less formal groups. Older Girl Scouts (high school students) are a good audience. If your church has a social group, especially for women, that might be good.

Consider teaching at senior citizen centers, give a free class at your public library, adult ed center, and so on… all provide ready audiences and good experience for you.

Then, price your classes low to get word-of-mouth publicity at local shops. Teach as many classes to as many people as you can.

I’d start with a project-oriented class… a single product… something that they can complete during the class. Then, find a balance between process and product. No two teachers work alike in that respect, and different students arrive with different expectations. Working around those variables takes some practice.

Bring more than you think you’ll need

Handouts are good.   They should outline, step-by-step, how to complete the product or process that you’re teaching. Illustrations are very helpful. Some students need to see it in print… it’s how they process information.

Bring extra supplies and tools. There will always be one student who didn’t bring the right supplies. Also, every student loves an opportunity to experiment with tools or unusual materials before buying their own.

For example, I often bring my grommet hardware if we’re working with fabric, or dies with letters on them if there’s anything where we can use metal (or even copper tape).

Which “extras” you bring will depend upon what you’re teaching, of course.

Every class has surprises

Start with a small number of students if one-on-one time is important. Five or six students can work well if you’re teaching a lot of technique.

If you teach larger groups, there can be trade-offs, and that can be a dilemma.  The larger the group, the more likely you’ll have more than one student who doesn’t “get it.”
In a class of 20+ (the size that I usually teach), there will often be one or two students who arrive unprepared, who didn’t really understand the class description, or who are simply feeling grumpy.

If it’s one student, you can work with them individually to help them overcome hurdles.  If two or more are unhappy, they talk with each other and there can be an unfortunate ripple effect.

Never, ever take that personally.

Adapt quickly and give one-on-one time if it’s clear that someone just isn’t getting it, and he or she is frantic to figure things out.

Otherwise–especially if two or more students are “stuck”–it’s good to have a second, less challenging project in the back of your mind, that uses the same materials.

After lunch, check with each student to see how he or she is doing. That’s the best time to identify people who need extra attention, while there’s still plenty of classroom time left.

At the other end of the spectrum, every class includes at least one student who’s qualified to teach, whether they do so or not.  Let them be helpful, if they want to.

Some of my best classes have resulted from fabulous moments when a student offered to share his or her special tricks and techniques with a particular medium… from cast toilet tissue ornaments, to a clever page-folding design for an altered book.

Your rapport with your students can make all the difference.

The occasional disaster

Now & then a grumpy student will let the anvil drop (sometimes literally) about ten minutes before the class is over, or as she’s going out the door.

It’s one of the hardest things to get past when it happens. We want every student to be very happy with our classes.

If they’re not, we’d like clues or comments while we still have enough time in the day to get them back on track… and happy.

Check with each student throughout the day. Look for hints when someone needs one-on-one time.

That’s the best you can do, usually.

If you have unhappy students in every class, or more than 20% of your students leave class disgruntled, re-examine what you’re teaching and how you’re teaching it.

You may need to make a small change or two, such as a faster or slower pace. Maybe your students each need more space to “spread out,” or need extra breaks during the day.

But, don’t let the occasional, very vocal critic wear you down, especially if you had no opportunity to fix whatever they thought was wrong.

Remember that it happens to all of us, and every teacher feels awful when a student leaves unhappy… no matter whose fault it was.

Fortunately, this kind of surprise is rare. I’m just telling you about it so you don’t quit teaching the first time it happens.

Nobody’s perfect. Just do your best.

Don’t try to be all things to all people. You can’t do it.

Do your best to keep the majority of your students happy, and teach only what you love.

Every teacher has an “off” day now and then. Sometimes it’s your fault. Sometimes, it’s outside your control… a too-hot (or too cold) room, and so on.

Try always to have a “Plan B” for every possible surprise. There will still be occasional disasters… the kiln that won’t heat, the darkroom that has a light leak, or rainy weather when your class includes an outdoor activity.

Students are generally very understanding, if you’re ready with an alternative project and a sense of humor.

And, in many cases, you can take what looks like a total fiasco, and turn it into your best class ever. It all depends upon the situation, your alternative resources, and how quickly you can think on your feet.

In most cases, you’ll come up with creative solutions to unexpected challenges.

Your students will feel that the class was entirely worthwhile, and even laugh about things that went a bit awry. Sharing creativity is what matters. Your students’ discoveries and “ah-HA!” moments can be tremendous. That’s what makes teaching rewarding, and that’s why we keep teaching… not the paycheck.

Practice makes… better!

At each class, you’ll learn more about teaching, about students, and even about your art techniques & materials.

As you gain experience, you’ll get better & better. Before long, you’ll be ready to teach in more professional venues such as shops with fabulous reputations, and absolutely amazing national art events.

Start small, learn as you teach, and keep it fun.

How to start teaching art

The first and most important rule is… Ask how to get started at the places where you’d like to teach.

It’s that simple. Just visit, call or email the people who might hire you to teach.

Other than that, anything that I say reflects only my experiences and opinions. The one and only opinion that matters is that of the person who’ll write your paycheque.

That said, here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Develop your skills as an artist, and think of projects that beginners can tackle–and complete–in a two-hour workshop. And, put your art online at your own banner-free website. (This means being hosted by a service that you pay for.) Learn to use the search engines to attract visitors. (That’s an entire course in itself, btw.)

2. Approach local shops–even Michael’s–with an offer to teach. Also check with Adult Ed, town Recreation Departments, etc. They’ll generally tell you what they pay, or what you should charge.

Let them know whether you’re more interested in making money, or getting lots of exposure; that affects how much you’ll charge. Short, inexpensive classes will generally draw more students.

3. Teach. Teach a LOT. Make sure that every handout has a way for students to reach you… your website URL, your email, and offline ways for people to contact you.

Every time you teach, add that to your resume. At this point, I hardly ever use a resume, but sometimes it comes in handy. I relied on one often when I was a new teacher.

Also remember: It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a degree in art… or if you don’t have any degree. (I have an honorary doctorate, and that’s all.)

Your enthusiasm is what sells you as a teacher, most of all.

4. Keep expanding where you teach. Bigger shops, more students, and so on… that’s not only good PR, but it’s lucrative as well. Also, let TV shows know that you’re available. Many of them–such as HGTV’s “That’s Clever!“–are often looking for new artists to feature.

5. Apply at art events. Watch the websites of art events, to see if/when they say that they’re looking for teachers’ proposals.

A proposal generally includes:

    -Class description, sometimes a short blurb plus a longer version-Photos and sometimes actual samples sent to the event organizers-Supply list (what your students should bring)-Your bio, including your website URL

    -Your photo (either in a class, or your shoulders & face, aka a “head shot”)

    -How much you want to be paid, per student (if you set the fees) and how many minimum/maximum students in each class

    -How many days you can teach

    -Whether the class is for beginners, intermediate, advanced

    -Whether the class is process-oriented (you focus on materials and/or techniques) or designed to complete a project in class (product-oriented)

    -How long the class is (sometimes events specify only full-day classes)

    -The application form (often available online)

6. Send your art (or photos of it) and maybe articles to every place that you can find, for PR. This includes magazines such as Somerset Studio, of course, but also zines relating to art, as well as to the subject matter of your art if you’re working in a popular/themed genre.

7. Read as much as you can about your kind of art, as well as books about PR, about running a business, and specifically the business of art. Take courses–especially online courses–relating to this.

Keep doing all of this, steadily. If you let up, even for a few months, people assume that you’ve quit or something. The rule in PR is: If you don’t give them something to talk about, they’ll make it up, and it’ll usually be unflattering. So, keep the PR going.

Then, it’s mostly a case of waiting for things to open up for you. And, they will.

When to make changes

If your teaching career goes flat, you MUST make changes. Either start teaching something new in your field, or look for new places to teach. Every time you reinvent yourself, you are faced with the prospect of teaching at a loss, while you build up again.

If you teach a particular style of widget-making, consider how those widgets can be used in other fields. If you can’t get classes at the widget store, consider questions like these:

– Can you add widgets to a fiber project, to teach at a yarn or weaving store, or a quilting shop?

– Would a paper/stationery shop feature your handmade (or hand embellished) journals with widgets on the cover or the pages?

– Can your widgets be added to jewelry?

And so on. There are always new ways to look at your work, at your markets, and the places where students might be eager to learn what you can teach.

Your students come first, always

Put your focus on your students and ignore the paycheck as best you can. If you’re giving your students far more than they paid for, you’ll get word-of-mouth PR that’s invaluable. And frankly, that’s where the teaching gigs come from, most often.

It’s not far removed from saying, “Do what you love, the money will follow.” And, that is the sequence… do what you love first. If you love teaching, please teach.

(If you’re trying to teach just to make money, don’t even start. Really. The students can tell, and the experience will only make you bitter.)

Students pick up on how enthusiastic a teacher is, and how much he/she cares about them as individuals. That’s the most important part of teaching. If you get that right, everything else will fall into place.

How much do artists earn?

I’m not netting $50K right now, but in past years, I have earned in that vicinity. I earned the most right before my third child was born, and–if you adjust for inflation–my gross was around $180K, with maybe 3/4 of that being net income.

The bulk of my income came from three sources:

Original art

The largest part of my income came from my original work. I sold through galleries and art associations. I made the most at art association shows, especially one-day outdoor shows. My second best art association outlet was selling through banks; a local bank accepted our art (through the art assoc) for their lobby walls, and my most expensive pieces ($500+ in early 1980s) sold there. Art associations also take a lower commission than many commercial art galleries.

Writing articles & books

My second highest–and most consistent–income was from writing. I wrote & wrote & wrote… mostly how-to articles for magazines, for book publishers, for anyone who would buy. I found my markets through the annual guide, “Writers Markets.” (Always get the latest edition. Your library probably has a copy.)

I sold first rights and then reprints, and the money added up. Those twice-yearly royalty checks from books are nice!

A little here, a little there…

I also made money in peripheral ways… doing custom illustration for printers, doing graphics for convention brochures, zines, and so on. I was always finding new outlets for my creativity, and it paid off in word-of-mouth referrals. I placed no paid advertising for my art, anywhere.

Working at home

In those days, I did no teaching at all. I’m painfully shy (really) and even one-day outdoor art shows were excruciating. So, almost all of my work was done at home, with two toddlers underfoot, and I provided the sole financial support of my family.

Then I remarried, had a third (wonderful) child, and my career seemed to threaten my new husband.

20 years later, I divorced and began the rebuilding process. So far, so good!

Back on track

I have been very successful in the past, working almost entirely from home. I expect to continue in that mode.

The “starving artist” cliche isn’t your only option if you want to earn your living as a full-time artist. No two artists will follow the same path. Find what works for you.

Remember that the average toddler falls down over 300 times before learning to walk. If you try career options that result in dead ends, don’t give up. Hope that it doesn’t take you 300 tries to find your best career path, but don’t give up!

How to pace your art classes

Planning your classes and workshops is always important. However, you should think about pacing as well as actual content. “Pacing” applies to you–your personal style of teaching–but also to your students. In fact, your students should be your first concern.

Divide the day into thirds, at least

I’ve always figured what we’d accomplish in the morning, then what can be done by mid-afternoon, and finally what will wind things down happily as students become tired at the end of the day.

Generally, I do most of my teaching in the morning while students can still absorb a lot of information. Immediately after lunch, I try to tackle questions, and improvise demos if students need a little extra help.

By mid-afternoon, it’s never wise to teach new information. At that point, I’m mostly a cheerleader to keep students from going too far with their work, and prevent them from quitting if the art isn’t turning out as they’d expected.

And, at lengthy events, I also consider where we are in the week.

The pace varies during multi-day events

On the first day, many students are easily distracted and new folks can be anxious about how these classes are run. It can take them until 3 p.m. to unwind enough to start doing what they’ll consider “good” work.

By contrast on the last day, I’ll need to explain things in more detail if it’s a new technique. Students are tired and a bit dazed at that point. And, by three in the afternoon, they’re looking for an excuse to go back to their room and catch a nap.

Permission helps

Especially on that last day, I’ll start my class by saying that nobody needs my permission to leave at any time, especially by mid- afternoon. They can leave for a cigarette, for some munchies, or even for a nap, and return to class later. Or, they can pack up early if they like.

Since I started making that announcement, people are vastly happier and actually tend to stay later. If they know that they can leave if they want to, they relax and aren’t so antsy by three or so.

But, by one or two in the afternoon on the last day, many students have already max’d on what they can learn.

If I am teaching more technique then, I’ll need to demo it at least twice–usually two different ways–with the second demo being very s-l-o-w for those who are truly exhausted, or have “information overload.”

Plan for a variable pace through the day and through the week. It’s better to plan hour-by-hour, than to simply “wing it” with a vague, general plan for the day.

No two teachers will use the same planning methods. Find what works best for you, and allows the most flexibility. When the students go home happy after one of your classes, you’ll feel amply rewarded for the extra preparation time.

What art teachers are paid

Many teachers won’t talk about how much they get paid. They don’t want to risk future gigs by revealing the financial side of events. After all, many teachers make more at a four-day event than their students earn in six months.

Some event organizers won’t talk about money, either. They prefer to keep their profit margins a secret.

I got tired of teaching at events that put profits and politics ahead of students’ interests, so I have no hesitation about sharing this “insider” information with you.

Don’t teach just for the money. Your first priority should be your students. But, if you want to earn a living–or supplement your income–with art classes, here’s how to begin and how much you can earn.

Start teaching locally

If you haven’t already read it, start with my article, How to start teaching art.

New teachers should ask the shop (or whatever the venue) what their usual rate is for a new teacher.

Shops usually pay less than events do. In 2004, shops paid me $10 – 30/student for a half-day class. For ten students, that’d be $100 – 300 for three hours’ work. But, when I started, I was often paid a flat fee, like $30 for a two-hour class.

(For $30 per class, total, I taught locally… usually within a two-hour drive of my home.)

Today, it’d cost more to drive that same distance. But, keep in mind that your students are driving, too. Some of them will pay more in gas than the cost of the actual class. Keep your class prices as low as you can.

National art festivals, shows and events

At national events, organizers often tells you up-front what they’re paying (usually between $50 and $150 per student, per day, for full-day classes). In some cases, they ask you to set the rate; then, they add on their administrative charges.

Remember, the biggest single expense for many events is not paying the teachers, but renting the hotel rooms that we teach in.

Hotels give events a price break if a certain number of guest/sleeping rooms are rented by conference goers. However, event organizers can’t count on that when setting student prices.

So, don’t gasp for air when you see your fees doubled or an even higher price that the students pay, so that the organizer can afford hotel classrooms.

    Church centers, camps, hostels, and conference centers are usually vastly less expensive for organizers… though a bit more rustic for students.But, organizers can price their events at 1/3 the price of hotel-based events, and still make a reasonable profit.

    Everyone wins when events are priced within the budget of the average art enthusiast. Those who are willing to accept “summer camp” accommodations–and sometimes ho-hum meals–can still enjoy a fabulous week of inspiration.

No two events will offer the same pay, or the same benefits. If you keep your focus on the sheer joy of sharing art with your students, you’ll almost always go home happy… and so will they.

How I set my prices

When events asked me to set my prices, they were based on several factors.

(A) The going rate. If I priced myself too low, students got the idea that those classes weren’t valuable. If I priced myself too high, I didn’t get enough students. It’s a tricky balance, and always a risk.

(B) My expenses. It cost me more to teach in Washington State than it did to teach in Houston. I checked flight costs, car rentals (if necessary), hotel (sleeping room) fees, and so on.

When you’re new to national events, you may actually lose money the first couple of years, until your student registrations are high enough to cover your expenses.

Yes, I taught at a loss, but–in those days–event organizers weren’t making large profits either.

(C) How eager I was to teach at that location/event.

If it was a great audience and a fun event with no headaches, I’d set my “minimum number of students” figure at the break-even point.

If it was a high-stress venue where I could count on “surprises” that could short-change my students, I was less eager to accept the gig.

    Surprises can be positive or negative.  Once, an event organizer “forgot” about my class. My students and I stood around for nearly half an hour while the staff located a room that we could use. That was unfortunate and extreme, but not unique.Later that year, another event not only gave me a room with huge tables and comfy chairs, the room was beyond amazing. We had an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, so the students could use nature–green and gorgeous outside our windows–as their inspiration. We had a wonderful day!

    No two events–or event organizers–are the same. But, some events will be more personally rewarding than others.

At most events, the opportunity to spend about a week with like-minded artists… Well, it can’t be put into words. It is one of the best experiences in the world.

When things go awry, they’re generally minor; no event is perfect, and most event organizers go out of their way to make up for inevitable “oops” moments.

And, when things go well–as they usually do–each class is rich in ways far beyond the paycheck.

Be sure that you can afford it

I can go on & on about the non-monetary rewards of teaching, but that “bottom line” can be the make-or-break issue for teachers.

You’ll need preparation time before an event, and R&R time after an event. Even when it’s a fabulous event–and most of them are–it’s still stressful.

Whether you travel into jet lag territory, or stay up late each night at journaling parties, you’ll probably go home exhausted… but happy.

I generally figured that it would to take me 3x the amount of time that I was gone, to catch up on sleep and general rest, in addition to the tidal wave of phone calls, emails and snail mail that awaited me when I returned to my studio/office.

The income builds slowly

Don’t expect to make much money the first year. And, even when you’ve been teaching for awhile, remember that the paycheck represents far more work hours than the time you spend in front of a class.

That said, once you reach the point where your full-time income can come from your art…. Well, I’d much rather be a professional in this field than doing almost any other kind of work.

Related link: The Benefits of Teaching One-Day Workshops (at ArtBusiness.com)

When not to teach

In the arts, the rules can be very different from other businesses. Our intense desire to share creativity with others can override common sense. Keep this in mind when teaching. First, decide what you absolutely must have to teach a good class.

Can you teach in a room that’s too hot? Too cold? Overcrowded? So large, you shout yourself hoarse?

Can you teach with construction workers using power tools just three feet away from you? (Once when a pipe sprung a leak, I had to teach a class while emergency repairs were made… right next to me.)

Every teacher has different standards. Decide what yours are before you teach.

What works–and doesn’t–for me

For me, the biggest challenge is starting the day well.

I absolutely, positively must be able to get into the classroom at least 30 minutes before the class starts, to set up last-minute supplies, and collect my thoughts.

I turn on glue guns, review my teaching notes, gear up for a fun, high-energy day, and–above all–get in focus so that I am at my best.

I’ve broken this 30-minute rule just three times. These are my personal ‘horror stories’.

    The first time, the event staff couldn’t find the classroom key. My students and I were locked out until five minutes before class. We were stressed, not sure if we’d get into the room at all. (That wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t my best class, either.)The second time, the event’s shuttle bus driver arbitrarily changed her route and didn’t return for over an hour. (That’s how long I waited, standing next to my boxes of supplies. The event was out in the boonies; there were no taxis.)

    I arrived after the class was supposed to start. My students were very upset… with good reason.

    The third time, the event organizer “forgot” about my class. We had no classroom for most of the first hour, and not enough chairs for the first two hours.

Each time, I tried to pretend that everything was fine. That was a huge mistake.

From those experiences, I’ve learned to say, “This delay was outside my control. I don’t always teach well when I start the day this rattled. If you like, you can ask to be placed in another class that’s more of a ‘sure thing’ for you.”

(I also learned not to teach at that event again!)

But, what would you do if something like this happened to you? What are your basic make-or-break rules for a successful teaching environment? It’s important to decide this ahead of time.

Think in “worst case” terms

I do not want to scare you from teaching. Most of my teaching experiences have been fabulous fun for me and for my students.

These very rare examples of disasters are just to give you an idea of how prepared you should be, to teach a great class.

Will it drive you crazy if your students have a five- or ten-minute walk to the nearest bathroom to wash their paintbrushes or their hands?

If your classroom has thin walls and the students next door are hammering on metal all day, will the noise give you–and your students–migraines?

What if your 20 students need to use glue guns or power tools, and there are only two working electrical outlets in your classroom?

What if the meals are awful, the rooms are cold, and a crew is working on sewage pipes just outside your room… all at the same event?

What if a student has an emotional crisis in the middle of class? (This happens regularly when working on deeply personal art.)

What if you have a ‘heckler’ in your class? What if someone criticizes you–or another student–and won’t stop?

Each of these examples is drawn from my own teaching experiences.  In most cases, I handled the situation gracefully.  In a few others… well, I still wince with regret when I think about them.

Decide what you need to teach, and make that clear

Make sure that everyone’s on the same page. When you agree to teach, clearly state what you require. If you encounter problems, don’t teach until (and unless) things are set right.

That is the most difficult thing for me to say. It may be the most difficult rule for you to stick to. But, you must be prepared. You must always put your students first.

At least 80% of the time, you won’t encounter anything this dramatic. Usually, the “oops” moments involve something minor like a window that won’t open, or not enough paper towels for cleanup.

And, most teaching opportunities are tremendous. By the end of the day, you and your students will have forgotten any minor inconveniences.

I’ll sheepishly admit that it shouldn’t have taken me three bad experiences to learn this lesson: If your minimum, reasonable standards aren’t met, don’t compromise. Don’t start teaching until you can give your students the great class that they’ve expected.

If you’re too inconvenienced, rattled or annoyed to be at your best, give your students the option to switch classes. Or, speak to the event organizer immediately.  Or both.

Learn from my mistakes: Think about your minimum standards, make them clear from the start, and then stick to them.

In general, teaching at shops, shows, and events is so much fun, I’d teach for free. (And now, I often do!)

It’s rare that anything goes terribly awry.

If you’ve planned ahead and are firm about protecting your students’ interests, every class can be fabulous fun for everyone involved.

Teaching at National Art Events

If you’ve been teaching at shops for awhile, national art events might be your logical next step. However, they’re not the best choice for everyone.

For the first year or two, expect to lose money teaching at art events. Event paychecks may look juicy, but when you factor in travel, supplies (that you provide), and prep & recovery time, it can equal minimum wage.  Events often require more complex classes, with far more info, more demos, plus more handouts and supplies that you provide.

To learn more about paycheck issues at events, see my article, What Art Teachers Are Paid.

You’ll need to create very different classes than what you usually teach at shops.  Students won’t pay high event prices for classes they can take — for far less — at a local shop.

You’ll need to steadily create new classes, anyway. Some of your event students will go home and teach the exact same class… for far less than you’d charge. They may even use your handouts without your permission. (Almost every teacher has dealt with this at least once. Be gracious about it, but be certain they’re crediting you for the original information. After all, that’s good for your reputation.)

Some teachers continue teaching at shops.  Many don’t.

Within a couple of years on the national scene, other income opportunities will open up.  National events make you into a ‘name’ in this field. Your artwork might earn higher prices in galleries. You may discover licensing opportunities, book contracts, and — of course — fabulous networking… but don’t count on that your first year or two.

The tricky part can be bringing in income during those “bridge” years.  Etsy is one of many options.

Teaching at national events propels your career so quickly, it can be breathtaking.  It’s not a smart choice for everyone. But, if it works well for you, the personal rewards — far beyond the paychecks — are tremendous!