Be a Better Craft Teacher Part 2: Know Your Student

on September 17 | in Be a Better Craft Teacher, Sewing Classes, Small Business Ideas | by | with 3 Comments

The talented Deborah Moebes of Whipstitch is here for Part Two in our six-part Be a Better Craft Teacher series. The series runs each Tuesday and follows the full teaching process, from the preparation stage through reflection on what works and how to improve. Deborah has years of experience teaching sewing both online and in-person. Learn more about Deborah and the series in the Be a Better Craft Teacher introduction and join us each Tuesday for a new post from Deborah.

Related links:
- Series Introduction
- Be a Better Craft Teacher Part I: Know Your Stuff
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How you plan and prepare for a class begins with who your student is. I want you to have a philosophy of why you’re teaching and a solid handle on the needs of the community; once you do, it’s time to begin thinking about WHO your student will be. Until you know what students you’ll be teaching, it’s very difficult to plan the details of a class.

When it comes to understanding my students, the most useful concept I have ever encountered as a teacher is the idea of the challenge level. It’s actually a concept that comes in three parts: that each of us, when we are learning, has a space in which we feel comfortable; a space in which we feel challenged; and space in which we feel frustrated. As learners, we tend to gravitate toward activities that meet us at our comfort level. (Well, OK, as people we tend to want to remain at our comfort level, right?) We all tend to want to do things we feel confident in and successful at. We don’t, however, tend to LEARN much at that level. It’s a place where we can coast along and feel like we’re accomplishing something, but we aren’t really pushing ourselves too hard.

For an instructor, it isn’t much good to teach students at their comfort level. You’re putting a lot of energy into offering something that your students already have, and all of you walk away feeling a little bit ripped off. When you’re assessing the needs of the community– determining WHAT to teach– you’re already thinking a bit about what lies beyond the comfort level and what students want and need to learn next.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the frustration level. All of us, in some sphere of our lives, have had the experience of being expected to perform at our frustration level. It’s the place where you really don’t know what comes next, where you feel upset and maybe angry and you’re not quite sure why, where nothing makes sense and all the flow stops. It’s the place where, quite honestly, most of us want to cry and quit. A class taught at the frustration level leads to more than disappointment— it can lead to real scars on the part of the learner and bitterness for the instructor. When instructors offer a class to students at their frustration level, 99% of the time it is simply that the instructor has forgotten what it’s like to NOT know how to perform that task. They’re teaching students how to knit lace and the students are stuck on how to perle and everyone wants to throw up their hands and walk away. It isn’t that the teacher can’t teach— it’s that the teacher isn’t thinking like the student, meeting the student where they are and finding their level.

Between the two is the challenge level. This is the point where the student feels pushed to try something new, and maybe a little nervous, but not scared or intimidated. At this level, the teacher understands that this is a journey and the instructor must lead without pushing too far ahead. At the comfort level, the student is bored; at the frustration level, the student has no hope of ever being successful at the task; at the challenge level, the student is engaged and excited and focused because they know they can meet the goal under your guidance. As a teacher, it is truly important for you to recognize what that looks like in a classroom, and to work with empathy and kindness to find that sweet spot for your students. It serves their needs and it makes your own path that much richer and more smooth.

Knowing your student is about understanding where that challenge level lies, and seeking to plan a class built around encouraging them gently to climb up from one level to the next. The challenge level, in any learned skill, will always be moving— that’s great news if you hope to teach for a long time! Your students will always be growing and expanding their skills and interests, creating a constant market for your classes. They’ll only return to you as an instructor, though, if you make it clear that how they FEEL about what they’re learning is as important to you as WHAT they learn.

The challenge level for a particular skill— say, sewing a 9-patch quilt block— is different depending on the age of your students. Ask yourself, as you’re planning your class: are my students children or adults? Seems pretty simple, but you’d be amazed at how many instructors assume they’ll be able to create a one-size class plan for any age group. Instructing children carries very different demands than adults: they don’t absorb verbal instruction as quickly, and don’t process new tasks as fast, so a class will accomplish less in a given time. Your class plan should account for that. Adults, on the other hand, may become irritated if a class moves too slowly, and are usually able to retain prior knowledge (skills they have learned in other classes) for longer.

Experience level is also an issue— whether your students are beginners or advanced, whether this is their first time making macramé or they’ve been doing it daily since the ’70s. Lots of folks want to call themselves “intermediate” at a craft, because they fear getting lumped into a class with a “bunch of beginners,” but they may not have the core foundational skills they need to really succeed. Those students end up at their frustration level pretty quickly, and then find that it’s embarrassing to admit they might be beginners after all! Some students have “holes” in their knowledge, and will need those holes filled as they move forward. Understand these things, and plan a class with a clear indication of what level of experience is necessary to complete it. Are you adding in skills that are just too far ahead for a beginner level class? Are you making your class too complex? Maybe your class should be TWO classes, rather than one. Think about what will best serve your students as they’re learning, and what will help them move smoothly from their current challenge level to what comes next for them. You might do that by having a prerequisite for your class— that’s pretty common, and easy to do. You might also do that by dividing students up by age or grouping students who have studied with you previously (and know the basics that you have identified as fundamental) separately from students who are new to you, allowing you to make some assumptions about the former group and do more guided practice with the latter.

Lastly, I want to point out something that many of you will likely encounter teaching crafting these days: the commercial learner. I had a college professor, whom I adored, who liked to point out that the word “amateur” comes from the Latin root “amas,” which means “to love.” Very literally, an amateur is someone who does it for the love of doing it; and a professional is someone who does it for money (insert college boy joke here). The idea is the same in teaching craft classes these days: some students are casual learners, who want to learn for the love of it, and some students are commercial learners who want to learn the craft so they can make a living at it (or at least a profit). For a while, it seemed as though every single person in all of Atlanta was dead-set on being a fashion designer. If I were planning a class in patternmaking, I would take that into account. I could offer two sessions of the class, each one focused on the specific needs and interests of casual vs. commercial learners. Or I could teach with sidebars, combining all the students into one group but adding supplementary instruction to guide casual vs. commercial learners through the content.

With all these ideas in mind, you are able to begin pinning down WHO your class is designed to teach. In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about designing the actual class, setting learning goals for your students and breaking down what will happen on the ground as the class takes place.

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3 Responses to Be a Better Craft Teacher Part 2: Know Your Student

  1. Carolyn says:

    Deborah, thank you for your words of wisdom and experience. While reading about where the challenge level lies for the student, I realized that your message could be applied to a wide variety of classroom subjects. I’m looking forward to reading your future posts and learning more! Thank you for sharing and writing with clarity and detail.

  2. Domenica says:

    A great post. Thanks. While reading this I was constantly thinking of the zone of proximal development. It’s so important to get students working in that zone where they are a little uncomfortable with what they are learning but still enjoying it. A challenge, but achievable as a teacher.
    Thanks again! Looking forward to next week’s post.

  3. Amy says:

    Wonderful again! Even better than last week’s. can’t wait for the rest.

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