My Top Teaching Secrets

I have been teaching artists online and at live events since 2002.
While students pay to get valuable content from me, I learn almost as much from them as they do from me. That’s one of the great joys of teaching, and why I will continue to offer live learning.
I can’t possibly put all I know about teaching into a single article, but I have selected a few gems in hopes that they help all of you instructors out there. Take note!

For-Hire Venues

If you teach for hire, you must be clear up front about what your expectations are for the venue. Everything must be in writing.

Speaking to members of the Tennessee Arts and Crafts Alliance. Photo by Mary Claire Crow.
Speaking to members of the Tennessee Arts and Crafts Alliance. Photo by Mary Claire Crow.

The venue organizers who hired you will never conduct the event in the same manner as you. You have to learn to let go and be okay with their way of doing things. Or fight for what you want.
Even though you were hired by someone else to teach, your students will still consider you the leader. They will, therefore, think you are responsible for everything from communication to food to parking. (You’re not, but don’t say you weren’t warned!)


You can be as thorough as possible with your marketing language and still . . . ,
Some people don’t read. Period. If you’re lucky, they’ll skim and have a decent understanding of what you’re offering. But don’t expect them to catch all of the details.
If you send an email about your class with a link to all of the details, you will always get people who would rather hear the details in another email from you than click on the link and find the answers for themselves.

Calming Nerves

It's okay to be imperfect if you have great content to share. Students forgive your stammers and ums when you demonstrate your expertise and give 100% to them.

Meeting students at a workshop in San Francisco. Photo by Jim Finley.
Meeting students at a workshop in San Francisco. Photo by Jim Finley.

Forget the staged entrance from behind the curtains. I like to meet my students before I begin. My nerves are calmed when I shake hands with everyone in the room before getting started.
Some people will forget to silence their cell phones. Forgive them, but do continue to remind people to turn off their phones before you begin.

Managing The Room

You must be the leader. Every person in the room paid to listen to you. They are depending on you to be in charge and control the energy of the room.
And, still, some people can't NOT talk.
They have to contribute their two cents whenever they think of something. This is why I ask students to raise their hands if they have something to say. I want to be sure the quiet ones have their turn.

Teaching at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas. Photo by Rafael Aguilera.
Teaching at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas. Photo by Rafael Aguilera.

Some people will interrupt you.
Put a stop to this right away because 1) it’s rude, 2) it breaks your concentration, 3) it sets a bad precedent, and 4) it isn’t fair to others in the room. If everyone interjects whenever they have a question or comment, you would quickly lose control of the learning experience.

Teaching Online

I have been teaching online classes since 2002. My first lessons were all emailed, and I thought I was pretty nifty when I added Yahoo groups for students to connect with one another.
You have to evolve. I’m always looking for better (not necessarily newer) technology for my online classes.
You can’t imagine what it was like to explain to students that they were going to get lessons in their email or that they would dial a phone number to listen to my content.
Things have improved! But there are still students that are flummoxed by technology. The big lesson here is that you must be patient. Either you stand by ready to assist or, preferably, have an assistant to help respond to non-content questions.
Do you teach? I’d love to hear your tips!

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19 thoughts on “My Top Teaching Secrets”

  1. Three tips I always pass on to new teachers
    Always have a Proper Lunch break
    Go for a pee before you start
    If you can do it in an hour you can teach it in a day, nothing longer
    I love teaching, it feeds my soul and I always learn more from the students than they think..

  2. Part of me really wants to teach, because I actually enjoy it. But part of me feels like I don’t know enough to do so. Which probably means I should do it.

  3. Alyson,
    One thing I learned from a decade of teaching adult education classes is that different age groups may have different expectations. New college graduates generally did NOT want to hear real-life experiences that related to the topic while older adults valued a mix of anecdotes and instruction.
    In addition, this probably doesn’t come up much in your teaching, but there’s a huge difference in what’s required to keep the attention of people who have paid for their own instruction versus those whose employers paid.
    Marcia Yudkin

  4. I have been teaching and leading groups throughout my adult life. Another way to say this is, that I have been learning all my life. It is a evolving process and I look for better ways to present myself and the content. I also value what students and colleagues have to say and teach. There is more than one way to do things. Having a democratic way to hear responses from the audience is important to me. I can’t have all the answers as a leader.

  5. I find it important to spend one-on-one, focused time with each student and to address individual needs as much as possible…this helps each person feel valued as a member of the group (which seems to lead to generosity, sharing and overall good morale.)

  6. Susan Purney Mark

    I’ve been teaching adult art and quilting classes for over 20 years and have found that students come to class for many reasons, not always to learn from you! Sometimes its to get away from home, family or kids, sometimes they just need to be with other kindred spirits.
    Sometimes they know just as much or more than I do about the topic but are looking for just a tip or hint to take home and add to their art.
    Its so important to each out to each and every students to encourage and support their work at whatever level they are. Often they just need a pat on the back, a smile or a few words of encouragement. Many students are still suffering from grade school comments of an unthinking teacher.
    Its my part of my job to turn them away from “I can’t, I can’t” to “I can, I can”.
    Its also important to know that with many choices out there for their time and money, they have chosen to come to my workshop. And they are there to have an enjoyable time. My motto is “stress over world peace, but not your art”.

  7. After having taught elementary kids on and off for 42 years, I left teaching to focus on my artwork. That was 6 years ago, and during that time, I’ve been approached on many occasions to teach oil/wax workshops. Rebecca Crowell was responsible for my journey back to oils, with the addition of wax, and I am so grateful for her teaching and guidance. During the past 6 months, I have felt the urge to ‘teach’ again, and having given a couple of short demos, I feel I am mentally ready to lead a workshop. Thank you for this article, Alyson, and thank you for all the comments, folks. These thoughts take me back in time……. a room full of kids is not very different from a room full of adults, in many ways.

  8. Excellent article, Alyson! I received my mentor’s sage advice when I shared my desire to teach art classes & thinking I wasn’t qualified to do so. She said, “You’re ready. Just start teaching what you know.” I took the plunge & am now in my 3rd yr of teaching. I continue to learn from my students & know my skills are improving too. I like to have packets, name tags etc, ready…even to the personal small trash bag masking taped at their station. I like to get everyone involved with quick intros & telling me their goal to take away from the workshop…..Which gives me a clue what to focus on each student. We go over the itinerary for the day. To keep myself on task, I have a small clock on my station not really noticeable to them, Try to stick to the plan with some flexibility. Near the end, have a positive gallery showing. Brief discussion about their “take-away” thoughts. Also share your next workshop subject matter & sign up sheet.

  9. The words of Susan Mark resonate with me about giving encouragement to students and I’ve always tried to do that. I was 15 years old when I taught my first art classes. And for many years during most of my 20’s and early 30’s I taught a weekly group at a senior citizens center. Sadly most have passed on but I loved that group. It was like having multiple grandmothers and grandfathers. However, what Alyson said about managing the room and the class being dependent on you to be in charge as well as controlling the energy of the room at one point I felt I was losing control. Some were complaining and thought I didn’t spend enough time helping them but when I explained they were doing so well on their painting I didn’t have to come in and help fix anything. They hadn’t even considered that and then they were happy again. Then some suggested using a timer so everyone had exactly equal time and I said that won’t work either. I said they would be even more upset if that timer goes off and it wasn’t enough time to help get them out of a painting bind. They didn’t realize I was giving to each according to their needs at the time and it varies from week to week, but they all got help and it balances out. Perhaps it was the age difference. So as an exercise I had everyone in the class make a 9 step gray scale using white and blank paint in order to learn values. I was able to make it look pretty effortless. They struggled!! After that I didn’t get any more complaints about not getting enough help or time management of the class. I think I reestablished my authority as a teacher and that I knew what I was doing. The mood of the entire class then returned to it’s happy atmosphere. It was a joy to be there.
    Yes, you do learn as you teach, but you do have to establish yourself as an authority or at least minimally convey you know what your talking about, otherwise the class will suffer and produce a mood that’s not conducive to learning and that’s no fun for either the teacher or student.

  10. This is such a timely post because I have just been asked to teach an adult art class (mosaic). I would like to try giving a class, see how it goes, but too much studio time has left my people skills a little rusty.
    While I have experience teaching kids in all grades as a substitute, teaching adults intimidates me.
    Maybe I won’t have the patience for folks who ask questions of the very thing that was just explained and I’ll wonder if it was explained in Super Simple terms, steps etc.

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