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.

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