Tips for In-Class Teaching

Are You Qualified to Do This?


If you weren't an artist, you wouldn't even be -thinking- about teaching at a commercial festival!

Design something great (a little research on what sells to this market would not be amiss) and go with it! You can do it!

Still not convinced, huh? Ok, chew on this.

If you've been selected to teach, the sponsoring organization thinks your work has a broad enough appeal to sell. Remember, their bottom line is the bottom line! If this festival doesn't make money, they won't keep doing it! *They think you can make money for them.* If they thought your ideas and designs were dogs, they would not have hired you! Please put your fears to rest!

They have confidence in you, so *you* have confidence in you!!

Ok, so the design is good. What about teaching?

A highly-respected piano pedagogue by the name of Frances Clark said something like, "Those who can, teach. Those who can't, find something else less important to do."

What a far cry from the disdainful old saw, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Fortunately, Franny was right.

Teaching well is a special gift. Just because one is proficient in a skill or can do artful things in that medium does -not- mean that person is able to -teach- that skill to others.

Besides technical expertise and artistic competence, an excellent teacher must master the -art- of teaching.

One more ingredient germane to stitch festivals: a teacher who is financially successful teaching at commercial needlework festivals also must add "that certain something" to her teaching that makes her classes so utterly irresistible that students stand in line to study with her.

In this article, we're going to examine these issues.

Why Would Students Take Your Classes?

There are four reasons:

Sometimes students are influenced by others who have taken your classes, but unless they are attracted to the description or the project, the pull of your personality/teaching prowess won't be enough to make them sign on the dotted line.

Therefore, to be successful at needlework teaching, you must do a good job with the first two items, since the third is not an overriding factor and you have no control over the fourth.

Brochure Copy

The description in the brochure must tell the prospective student:

Now add more detail. Imagine you are telling another stitcher about this design. What would this person want to know? What would encourage this person to take your class? In the brochure description you are -selling- your design! Such things as:

If the festival will allow it, write your own brochure copy. You feel strongly about your classes. Someone on staff there will not be able to convey the excitement you will be able to!

Find out the word count and *stick to it!* This is NO time to try to "fudge" a couple of extra words! Space is tight. If your word count goes over, staff will cut and you will have no say!

Along with that great design and convincing brochure copy, there are other real nitty-gritty concerns for successful teaching.

Lesson Plan

A lesson plan is what you plan to do in the class time you have. Write down what you think would be good to do in class. Examine this proposed lesson plan and estimate how much time you should devote to each part of it. (More on time management below.)

Now you have to fine-tune it.

What is your primary goal for in-class time? To learn techniques or to make substantial headway on the project?

Often you can't do both. Which to do depends on what the class title/description is. You are obligated to fulfill this first because this is the "legal" basis on which your students signed up for the class.

Look at the class description. Does it list all the techniques you'll teach? If yes, then you must do them all in class. Left-over time may be used on the project. If no, then you have some leeway. Ask yourself which techniques are likely to cause confusion when the student is home. Those are the ones you most definitely will want to cover in class.

Most students expect to stitch on the project, too, so your lesson plan should leave time for this. Beginning the stitching gives students a chance to ask specific questions they have about the project.

I like to do basting in class, if there is any. Having the basting to do before stitching the piece is a barrier to picking up the needle, I feel, yet basting is crucial to success in many pieces (notably band samplers, book marks that have a blank place in the middle, table linen, and pieces which are "constructed," such as needlebooks). You want your students to be anxious to stitch your design. Having the basting completed when they leave class removes that obstacle to starting the project.

If there is not time for a lot of stitching, try to get everyone started in the correct place on the fabric. Where to start is another barrier, especially for a complex project or for a stitcher who is a little unsure. Offer to stay after class to make sure everyone has begun the project in the correct spot. You want your students to stitch this project successfully!

Completing the project makes the student enthusiastic about taking another of your classes, so keep this in mind as you draw up your lesson plan.

Of the do-in-class items on your list, speculate which parts might be hurried, if need be. Which parts might be left out? These places will be your catch-up points. If parts are cut in class in the interest of time, make sure this information is covered in -great- detail in the written instructions. Therefore you'll need to know what might need extra "coverage" in the written directions by selecting your catch-up points before you write the instructions.

I recommend that your lesson plan be written down and be in a lot of detail.

Teach the most difficult thing first. This may be a finishing technique (include in the kit small doodlecloths so they can practice nun's stitch, for example) or it may be a stitch/technique (say, a drawn-thread area). Teaching while everyone is "fresh" means more success for everyone.

As class progresses at the festival, I make notes on my lesson plan: more time needed here, diagram needed here, directions unclear here, and so on. I look for places where I can improve the handout, even though no one had trouble at that spot or commented about it. This helps me teach my class even better next time. This system may work for you, too.

Naturally, you will want to correct all errors in your handouts! Send correction pages to your students and change the handouts for future festivals.

Don't return to a festival with an error in the handout. Students aren't stupid. They'll know someone else spotted that error at the previous festival and that you are just being lazy or cheap not to fix it.

Time Management

Obviously, time management is a big factor in a successful class. In fact, it can make or break your class! If students feel time is wasted, you'll hear about it on the evaluation forms! And then they won't sign up for more of your classes and will not hesitate to tell others exactly why not. Again, this comes back to the fact that it's not enough to be a good designer; you have to be a good teacher, too.

1. If you've never taught before, you owe it to yourself and your students to do a test-drive of your class. Perhaps some friends/family would allow themselves to be guinea pigs (no fee, of course; ask them to bring supplies from their stash if they have the supplies; you furnish the fabric, missing supplies, and anything unusual, such as over-dyed threads). Perhaps your local shop would sponsor your class. (In this case, purchase kit supplies from the shop. The owner should sell you materials at cost. You might kit the class, or the shop might. Students pay you directly with their personal checks; or the shop will issue you a shop check, consolidating all the payments.)

By doing this trial class, you find out which parts of the lesson plan take more or less time than you projected.

2. A seemingly obvious, but often ignored, rule of time management is: don't waste time!

At the beginning of class at the festival, don't take time to introduce yourself extensively. (If you want to tell stories about yourself, wait until everyone is stitching.) And don't go around the room and have students introduce themselves, tell where they live, and what they're currently stitching. This can easily consume 30 minutes or more! Remember yours is not a meeting of a stitch club; it is a class. Students are there to learn, not to chat or get to know one another.

Give good value for your fee.

3. Work out exactly what you want to do at the beginning of class before your start transmitting the "class knowledge." To give you an idea, here's what I do:

I tell my students I will hurry along in these remarks to leave more time to stitch. I find that I can get through this preliminary material in 5-7 minutes, mostly depending on the number of elements in the kit. Early on in my spiel, I ask the student to prepare threads, such as cutting lengths of pearl cotton. (Some students have opened their kits, but most - - and I number myself in this group when I take a class! - - are throw-backs to the "Weekly Reader" tests and do not open their kits until told to!)

Usually all the tardy students will arrive during your opening speech, and you do not have to stop for them once stitching has begun. Your "class angel" will check off the person's name on the roster and give the stitcher a kit.

From your test-drive class (or from your hopefully-accurate projections!), you know how much time you'll have to spend on each stitching item in the lesson plan. For example, I allow 5 minutes for each new stitch unless it is complex or tricky, such as a Jessica or knots or eyelets, in which case I allow 10 minutes (if I've over-estimated, then we have extra time to stitch the project). Know that some students will be slow stitchers; maybe they move slowly in everything, but maybe they've lost their needle or needlethreader or that darned needle just won't accept the floss. Allow time for this.

Sometimes various things conspire against you, and you won't be able to have your students get to all the "important" things during class. Take along extra supplies in case you have to demonstrate a technique (have them gather around a chair and watch you).

Don't send a single student out into the cold, crewel (sorry!) world not knowing how to do every technique in your design. The student might not be able to do it correctly or do it well, but the student should know what the goal is and how to get there.

On Stage

Guess what?

You are *on stage* when you are teaching.

If you are not accustomed to doing this in another part of your life (public speaking, performing arts), you probably will not look at in-class teaching in this way, but you definitely are "on stage" when in front of your students!

What does "the audience" expect? It expects the delivery of knowledge (techniques, tips and tricks, etc.), but it -also- expects to be entertained! Huh?! Yes, indeedy! Especially at multi-day events, the festival is a -vacation- for the stitcher.

Make your class a dynamite part of those memories! This doesn't mean you're a comedienne but that you are totally prepared.

Also, be prepared to be on stage. You are showing your professional self to your clients.

-Look- like a professional teacher by your choice of clothing: no athletic shoes, jeans, loose denim jumpers, or other untidy garments. "Sunday clothes," albeit with flat shoes(!), are the order of the day if you are a teacher.

Your hair should not look as though you forgot to pack your comb. Your hands should be clean. Your nails should be short and cuticles well-groomed. Consider getting a manicure just before you leave for the festival. (How are those hands going to look under that lighted magnifying mirror??! Ack!)

-Smell- like a professional. Brush your teeth thoroughly and keep breath mints handy. Refresh your mouth between classes. (Bathe and use deodorant, of course!)

Skip the perfume. Many people are allergic to fragrance.

-Sound- like a professional teacher by your choice of words. Speak up. Speak slowly. Class is no time for off-color jokes or anything that might be construed as bigoted.

-Prepare- like a professional. Prepare your lesson plan and put it in writing, as I mentioned above. Don't "wing it."

It's very embarrassing to get tangled around in something you're explaining, and this is -incredibly- easy to do when you're under pressure, even if you know what you're talking about backwards and forwards!

When you're in front of a bunch of people who expect you to have all the answers, it's easy to become flustered, too; having things in writing will be a life-saver. Just look at your notes. Your written lesson plan will help you preserve your professional demeanor as the knowledgeable teacher you are.

-Be in charge- like a professional. You are not another student. You are not a student's buddy. You are the teacher. You are in charge. You call the shots. Take control of your class.

Another aspect of being professional is your overall conduct while at the festival. Actually, from the moment you leave your front door at home until the minute you walk back in, you are on stage. As mentioned above, give care to your clothing and grooming.

Even more important, I feel, is your deportment. We have all seen/heard students who are loud and raucous at a festival (it's perhaps their chance to "let go," which they can't do at home). Students can get away with it (though their behavior is noted
- - and not favorably). Teachers can't act like this.

This is no time to whoop it up in the hallways and wake up people who are sleeping or resting. This is no time to get snockered at the bar. This is no time to jump from chair to chair in the lobby casting foot-long pieces of pearl cotton over the carpet as though you were Queen of the May (ok, this is a little over the edge; I know you wouldn't do this, but I have seen national-level teachers doing the other things described in this paragraph!).

You are a teacher. Be dignified. You can still have lots of fun, but you must remember that you are not "one of them" (that is, a student). You should not act like a crazy woman allowed a 5-day sabbatical from a convent.

Stitch Directions

No matter how wonderful and professional you are in class, once your student returns home, you will not be there to guide. This is why it's important to have an excellent set of stitch directions in the kit. Your stitch directions are *you* after class is over! Make them clear and detailed. Don't skimp on time, effort, or paper.

Emergency Supplies

Even though you've carefully counted things when making kits for your class, assume that in every class someone will be missing something. What could be worse than being miles from home and your supplies? Ack! Every teacher's nightmare!

Some teachers take along a complete kit or two so parts may be cannibalized from them. (Slip a piece of paper inside these kits when you do remove kit parts so you know these kits are faulty. You don't want to give these kits to students at another festival, and if you don't identify them now you surely will forget. On the paper, write what was removed to make it easier to replenish the kit once you're home.)

Other teachers take along duplicates of only what they think they will need.

No matter what you do, take lots of extra needles. They will be lost, the eyes will break or bend (especially #28s!), some will be defective, and so on.

You'll find the need to clip threads on students' work, and hunting for the student's scissors takes valuable time. Bring your own. If they're a "good pair," attach them to your person, on a chatelaine or a retractable scissors "keeper." (I had my jewelry repair shop solder a nice chain to my scissors and the chatelaine keeper. Now, if my scissors fall out, which they had done -several- times before during classes, at least they'll drag along behind me and make noise! In one class, a student found my scissors. I didn't even know they'd dropped out of the chatelaine and was about to leave the classroom! It was after that that I paid my jeweler a visit!)

Consider taking a pair of inexpensive scissors, such as a pair of manicure scissors from the drug store. If they are lost or damaged, little harm is done.

What visual aids might make your instruction better? Festival staff will tell you what is furnished in every classroom. What else might you need? In the past, I've taken "beads," a "laying tool," and a 6" hoop (to demonstrate a lark's head knot in the needle eye).

I've also used demonstration-sized pieces of paper to show how to do things such as folding mitered corners.

I also give smaller sheets of paper to each student so she can practice and make notes for herself right on the paper ("dot A should meet dot B," for example). I learned this trick from Merry Cox.

What to Do During Stitching Segments of Class

Stitch time is not your time to sit and rest, despite what your feet are telling you! Don't sit down, and especially don't sit down and whip out your own work! You need to keep moving from student to student!

Your students are paying for your attention during 100% of class time. While students are stitching, walk around constantly. Look at everyone's work. Offer compliments when warranted (I use the word "perfect" as often as it is justified) and gentle corrections when a mistake has been made that will affect the rest of the piece (such as a counting error).

Some students are sloppy stitchers. Identify them, and unless they ask for specific help in improving their neatness, try to limit corrections on that aspect of their work. Are they using the lamp and the magnifier? If not, suggest they "try" these aids so they can "see better." Don't say, "Hmm. That looks pretty messy. Can you be a little neater?"

Don't neglect the "over-achievers" who are far in advance of the average stitcher. These students, as much as anyone else, want corroboration that their work is just as it should be.

If you are systematically "making the rounds" and a hand goes up, acknowledge that you see it and say you'll be right there. Finish with the current student (without stinting time) and then go help the second one. Now the tricky part: you must remember where you were before you broke your pattern and go back there to continue your rounds!

While you're checking everyone's work is the time to tell funny stories, as long as they don't distract. Be sensitive to students' faces. Are there frowns or raised eyebrows when you start to tell your second or third tale? If so, you know your students don't welcome your anecdotes during stitch time. (Yes, and since you should not use class presentation time to tell stories, you may not be able to tell your anecdotes at all! Save them for one of the "events" at the festival.)

Crowd Control and Dealing with Specific Student Types

When you have more than a half-dozen students, be prepared to handle the class. You will not have to worry about people passing notes or throwing spitballs, but you will have talkers and other "problem students."

The most common problem is the " talker." This is why my opening remarks specifically address quietness in the classroom. (I say something like, "While I don't require the quiet of a cloister in my class, I would like you to be quiet while I'm talking and to keep your comments at other times at a whisper.")

Usually "talkers" don't even realize what they're doing. Talking almost constantly is second nature to them. Gently and consistently remind "everyone" that you would like silence while you are speaking.

What about the person who wants to tell stories during class?

When she launches into a story, wait for a pause (usually when she takes a breath!), and then interject, "That's very interesting! Now let's get back to the Smyrna cross stitch."

Sometimes you can head off the problem because the raconteuse raises her hand while you are speaking; something in your remarks has touched off a memory she wants to share. Recognize her hand up with your open palm or raised index finger. This is a signal that you see she wants to speak, but that you are not stopping your presentation and for her to hold her tongue. As you move around the room during the stitching part of class and arrive at her seat, this is the time to say, "What was that story you wanted to tell earlier?" She probably doesn't care if the rest of the class hears it; she wants to share it with -you-.

Very occasionally you will need to speak directly about students wanting to tell stories during class. If you are lucky, you will have two or more students who want to hold forth, and so you can say, "Stitchers, we love hearing your stories, but we need the time for the project. If we have time left at end of class, though, we can swap yarns." By "lucky," I mean it is more than one person with the problem, so no one would take your admonition 100% personally.

If you have only one gabby student and if the interruption is persistent, you may have to say something like, "I appreciate your contributions to class, but we really need to use the time to ___."

If your opening remarks have not tacitly encouraged personal contributions - - that is, you have not asked everyone to introduce herself and tell about what she is stitching - - your students will know intuitively that your class is going to be stitching, not visiting.

How about the quiet student? She won't press her personal stories on the class, but she won't say anything to let you know she needs help, either! This one will struggle silently rather than ask for help and disrupt the class. To help this type of student is why you keep moving - - you give her a chance to speak up privately when you arrive at her chair.

What about the student who requests your assistance constantly? If the hand goes up more than twice in a 5-minute interval, on the third time (after you've helped her twice out of turn), tell the student you'll be there in turn. She will either wait, or she will figure it out on her own. Sometimes a neighbor will give her a quiet pointer.

Sometimes a student needs help more often than you expect her to need because the class is too advanced for her current skills. She didn't read (or believe!) the class description, she over-estimated her abilities, she wanted to be in class with a friend, the project was too delicious to pass up, or some other reason placed her with you. What are you going to do? Kick her out? No, you are not. Give her as much extra help as you can, but do not neglect the other students. They paid just as much for your class as the needy student did. If necessary, stay after class to help the one with problems. Taking extra pains with this student is a sure way to insure that this student and all those within hearing distance tell many others how fabulous your class was and how dedicated you were to make sure everyone learned!

Then there is the student who sits in your class with arms folded across the chest and a facial expression that suggests a recent run-in with a lemon. Her body language says, "I dare you!" This student does little stitching, brushes you off when you make your rounds, and generally acts as though she would prefer a simultaneous tax audit and root canal than taking your class. The question that comes to your mind is, of course, Why -are- you taking my class? If it's so boring, why don't you leave?

Although you might want to voice such sentiments, you may not do that. This student, sour as she is, still paid just as much as any other student. Presumably there was something in this class that she wanted to learn or she would not have taken it. Your job is to wait her out and discover what this alluring morsel of knowledge might be! Continue to be pleasant as you pass her chair ("Everything ok here?" and "Need any help on this?"). Under no circumstances must she see that her behavior is affecting you. You smile and sail right on to the next student, never neglecting her in your rounds, but never querying intently as though you wonder if she is perhaps just shy instead of grouchy.

Admittedly, some students come to class in a bad mood for various reasons (not enough sleep, not enough time for breakfast, headache, worries about what is going on at home, etc.), but usually they will "soften up" as the class goes on and will leave the room as happy campers. The student I referred to above is contrary for some reason known only to her, and she chooses to exercise herself on you. It's too bad, but there you have it, as the king of Austria would say!

Many students come to class with food or drinks, especially for early morning classes. As you prepare for class before the appointed hour (you -are- there early to set up, right?, since you must start right on the dot), tell those you see that they "must finish" the food before class starts. This gives them time to do so.

When it's time to start class and you begin your opening remarks, do not be afraid to insist that food and drink be removed. Sometimes folks aren't too pleased, but be firm that this is your class rule. Sometimes it is a festival rule, too; if so, say so.

I tell a horror story about this. Do you have one? If not, say you know of a teacher who had this happen.....and you do! It happened to me! Gory details: student spilled cola - - all over her neighbor's work; and this neighbor was a stranger, not a friend from home. Not a drop went on her own work. And this was -after- I had told everyone at the beginning of class to finish with food and drink before class started and had asked the offending student more than once to throw away her can of soda.

What to do? No, you can't reach over and divest a student of a can of soda as you would a two-year-old about to knock over a glass of milk if the student insists on keeping her beverage. Hope for the best.

Occasionally, you will have special cases involving food and drink (ex.: a hypoglycemic student). Staff should notify you that you have such a student. Speak to the student before class as to how you two will handle her need to eat. The best solution is for her to step to the back of the classroom, away from the stitching area, and have her necessary snack. Arrive at the decision jointly ("Suppose you go the back of the room to eat? That way people won't think you're breaking the rules.") so she does not feel you are in Moses on the Mount Mode.

Sometimes you will have a student with hearing or visual impairments, a learning disability (it has been estimated that 10% of the population has one), or a physical disability. Again, help as much extra as possible without neglecting the rest of the students. Offer to stay after class to help.

And then there is the student who offers alternate methods, sometimes vociferously. Your best response is, "I have no objection if you do it your way, but I want to teach the class what is in the handout." This response implies no value judgement on the student's method but lets her know you will not be deviating from your own lesson plan.

If this student wants to demonstrate this alternate method, resist. You don't have time. Say, "I'd be happy to have you show me when I come around during the stitching part of class, but right now I need to get over the general material so we can all start the project."

Don't forget where she's sitting! You must ask her about her method. If perchance she persists in her desire to demonstrate during the public part of class (heaven forfend!), say, "I'm sure it's an excellent method. Will you share it with us at the end of class? There is so much more I need to cover now for everyone." Smile and be gracious as you say this and then begin speaking on the other topic where you left off. If you have time at the end of class, ask. If not, ask her personally as other students leave ("I'm so sorry we all didn't get to see your method. Please, will you show it to me know? I'm always interested in new ways to do things.").

Let's stop to analyze each of these situations.

Notice that the student doesn't want to detract from your teaching or criticize your ideas so much as she wants validation of her own opinions. Stating that you'll be happy to see/hear about it as soon as the class is stitching on the project will work 99% of the time. And as I said before, remember to go to her and inquire specifically about the topic she wanted to discuss. It's not enough just to go look at her work and wait for her to broach the subject again. You must show genuine interest in hearing from her since you put her off publicly during the presentation portion of the class.

Now, believe it or not, sometimes as you make your rounds, you will have a student (vocal or not) who actually has a splendid idea or a technique that is better than yours! If so, give her credit immediately. "Sorry to interrupt, but Jane has just shown me a wonderful way to __." You walk to the blackboard or teaching frame. "Those of you who are interested, please look up here."

I have heard tell about teachers who had to have students ousted from class for misbehavior or for being ill-prepared or in over their heads. Needless to say, I don't advocate something like this.

Teaching Practice

If you are to use a teaching frame (oversized piece of "material" made from elastic and stretched on a stout wooden stretcher frame), do some practice on it beforehand, if possible. It is -very- different doing stitches vertically rather than horizontally. Try not to leave yourself open to being embarrassed and flustered, which is easy to do when you're presenting something to a group.

Likewise, practice all stitches that are the least bit tricky before class. (Is the top leg on that Smyrna Cross going to be vertical or horizontal? What does your handout say?)

If you are using knots or hemstitching, practice left-handed, too.

Teacher-Comfort Supplies

Teacher comfort is something you'll have to look after yourself. Flat shoes have been mentioned.

Now let's discuss lecturing. Talking is -very- dehydrating! This is why a glass and pitcher of water are always on a speaker's podium!

One glass of water probably won't do the job if you class is longer than 45 minutes. Find a glass and a -pitcher- of water, if you can. Your angel can help here. (In some of my classes, my angels have automatically brought these in for me without my asking because they know I drink plenty of water during class! Bless them! Times like this are when I feel really well taken-care-of!)

Avoid a "sports bottle" (the kind with the pull-up-push-down closeable top) or a screwtop bottle (like water comes in at the grocery store). It is undignified for you to be swigging out of a bottle in front of your students.

How to reconcile your having water but the students cannot? You are talking. They are not. Your water is not sitting near anyone else's stuff. (Put it on the table at the front of class. Under no circumstances do your rounds with water in your hand!)

I also keep some TicTac mint candies on hand to moisten my mouth (and freshen my breath).

You should worry about bad breath because your head will be so close to students' as you make your rounds. Keep some breath mints nearby and indulge yourself often.

Just as kitting needlework isn't divvying up stuff into bags, teaching needlework isn't standing up in front of people and saying, "Now we're going to do this and then this," but, oh, it's so much fun!!

Also see my two articles in Just CrossStitch:

"Grow Your Own Stitching Buddies," Just CrossStitch, vol. 16, #2, August, 1998, p. 24-27.
"Teaching Children to Stitch," Just CrossStitch, vol. 16, #3, October, 1998, p. 16-18.

copyright 1998-99, Martha Beth Lewis
Contact me about reprint permission.

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