Deborah Moebes of Whipstitch is back for the Be a Better Craft Teacher series. Today’s topic is “Know Your Limits!” What happens when you start teaching that class on the actual day, with actual students?! Deborah’s series is great for everyone, from beginning craft teachers to experts with years of experience. Deborah’s talent and skill as an educator shines through; she’s a former high school teacher and has lots of experience teaching well-received online and in-person classes. Learn more about Deborah and the series in the Be a Better Craft Teacher introduction and be sure to follow the full series through the links below.

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And so here it is: Your Big Day. The day you’ve been waiting for while you did all this thinking and planning and dreaming: the day of your class. It is full of magic and excitement and maybe some nerves— even if you’re a serious veteran of the classroom and have taught a bazillion times before, that first class with new students is always a thrill and sends a buzz down your spine.

You’ve got all your supplies arranged, you’ve communicated with your students in advance of your first meeting, you’ve prepared for their arrival in the physical space by setting out chairs and making a welcoming environment. You’ve given time and thought to your objectives and goals, to your students themselves, to your topic and to the techniques you’ll use to teach the material. And now you get to put all that into action as your students arrive and take their seats and turn their expectant eyes to you. You’re going to be awesome, your class is going to be awesome, everything is going to be awesome… Until it isn’t.

Yep. It happens. You’re there, on your feet, in the spotlight, and something doesn’t go quite the way you anticipated. Implementing your plans doesn’t always go smoothly for the obvious reason that teaching involves actual PEOPLE, and humans are nothing if not unpredictable. That variation is what demands the most of teachers— I love the planning stages, and have the best time creating classes on paper, but it is in the implementation of those plans that every teacher is most challenged and tested and invigorated and rewarded. It’s in the hiccups along the path to completing a class that we learn the most about ourselves and cement our love for the topic we’re teaching.

Implementation is a time to recognize your own limits, and here’s the really great news: by understanding your limitations ahead of time, you can actually fold them into your plans and avoid a lot of the heartburn that comes along with the quirks of groups of humans working toward a goal. This installment, we’re going to talk a bit about what those limits are, how you can anticipate them and plan for them and how, when the worst happens, sometimes it’s the best thing for your class.

Time Constraints
You only have so much time to teach your class. As you’re planning how you’ll use that time, it’s wise to start by estimating how long each segment of your class will take. Do this very literally: make a bullet-point list of each segment of class, starting with “students arrive” and going through “introductions” to “pass out instruction sheet” all the way up to “say goodbye.” Seriously. Then, next to each bulleted item, estimate how much time that segment will take. And I can’t stress this enough: OVER estimate. OVER. Chances are, you’ll come in under for at least a couple segments; at that point, you will surely pat yourself on the back and think smug thoughts about how well things are going. This is a mistake, since in about 22.3 seconds, you’re about to go WAY over on another segment.

Understanding that some things take longer than you expect is such an incredibly important part of the teaching experience, and the key is to remember what we said when this whole series began: you must, as the teacher, keep in mind that you are showing someone how to do something that you do easily and well, but that they have NEVER DONE BEFORE. You may have genuinely forgotten how challenging it can be to tie that first macramé knot, or you might not have really appreciated at the time just what it took for you to really “get” it when you were learning to make a macramé plant hanger. You’re about to really appreciate it, because you are going to watch the penny drop in the minds of your students— and that, my friend, is the most magical thing in the universe. Being present when someone finally understands how to do something that they really want to know how to do, as the result of their interaction with you— it’s truly amazing, and such a privilege. Give yourself room to have that experience, and for them to remember it.

That room is called MARGIN, and it means the same thing in teaching that it means on your notebook paper: it’s the extra space, the space set aside for emergencies, the room to breathe that makes all the rest make sense. We don’t write all the way to the very edge of the page— we save a little white space to frame what we’ve written down, to set it apart from the rest of the world, to indicate that what we’re doing on that piece of paper stands alone and has meaning. Margin does that, and adding it to your class is immeasurable in importance. Your students need a chance to breathe as they learn, some room to process and digest what you’re teaching. Build that into your class, so that as you implement these amazing plans there are enough minutes surrounding the segments of the lesson that students can sit back, get a glimpse of the big picture, situate themselves and then dive back in for more.

Putting margin into your lessons might mean revising them. Totally cool. Don’t think that if you’re revising that you’ve done a poor job in your planning; on the contrary, teaching is a recursive process, one that asks you to plan, consider, re-plan, implement and consider again. By stepping back with your plan and reviewing it to be sure that you’ve built in that margin– that room for your students to absorb and grow like the crafty little sponges they are– you’re creating a plan that is about THEM rather than being about you. Your job in front of that class isn’t to be awesome (let’s be honest— you do that without even thinking about it, am I right?). Your job in front of that class is to lead THEM to awesomeness, alongside you. Your planning should be wrapped around thoughts of them and what will benefit them most. In order for them to best benefit from your instruction, they’ll need some space. Margin rocks.

Margin has another benefit: it gives you room to make mistakes. Because mistakes will happen in your class, no matter what. It’s pretty much guaranteed. You’ll make mistakes (it’s OK, it happens) and they’ll make mistakes (and you pretty much want them to).

Wait, what? WANT them to make mistakes? But didn’t I just get done saying your job was to lead them to the Land of Awesome Craftiness? Yes, I did. And that’s true. What is also true is that most of us learn at least as much from when we make mistakes and totally blow it as we do from when we get it right— sometimes even more so. How many of us have put a row of stitches in absolutely the wrong place and had to spend precious time ripping them out so that we could put them in all over again in the right place? All that time ripping out is time spent thinking about what you just did, and how you’d really like to not make that mistake again.

In the classroom, mistakes nearly always lead to what’s called the TEACHABLE MOMENT. This is the sweet spot when students are eager to know what you have to teach, and they are ripe for the instruction. It’s when someone gets to a tricky spot in a pattern and needs your help right then, and there you are to offer it. Like the perfect Google search that lands you on the mother lode of crafty advice right when you’re stuck on a pattern, the teachable moment gives you room as the instructor to capture the attention of your students when it is most focused on what you have to say. And whether students know it or not, mistakes often lead them to that place.

Margin gives you extra time built in your lesson to take advantage of those mistakes and turn them around into chances to really drill down on a concept or technique when students are most likely to absorb and remember it. You’re using your powers for good, and they won’t even know just how awesome that is; they won’t even necessarily recognize that it took foresight and planning on your part to ensure that you’d have five extra minutes to spend on that little nugget of wisdom. They didn’t see the man behind the curtain, anticipating their questions and, yes, even their mistakes, and preparing ahead of time to be able to address those concerns head-on.

You don’t always have exactly the right answer or solution for every question— I get that. You can’t always be a superhero when something goes awry in your class. In the next installment we’ll tackle those moments, the ones where even margin didn’t make it better and you need something else to get you through. We’ll talk about evaluating your own teaching and employing that recursive quality of instruction to go back, massage your plans, and make your classes better and better the more you teach.