Today brings us full circle with our craft class preparation, teaching and evaluation! Deborah Moebes of Whipstitch is here with her Be a Better Craft Teacher series, perfect for everyone from beginning instructors to experienced teachers. Today’s “Know Your Effectiveness” is packed with excellent tips about how to evaluate your teaching and make the experience positive for everyone. As always, Deborah’s talent and skill as an educator is clear; 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 posts in the Be a Better Craft Teacher series introduction. Deborah will be back for a wrap-up post next week!

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The glory of planning— real planning, quality planning, DEEP planning— for a class, is that it gives you a solid framework for everything that happens when you’re in front of students. You know who they are, and why they’re there, and what it is you hope they’ll accomplish before they leave. You understand what you’ll be teaching and how you’ll be teaching it, the mood you want to set and the environment you’ll create. You know how much time you have and how much time you’ll need, and you’ve even built in a little wiggle room for yourself, just in case.

After all that, it would seem as though classes should go off flawlessly, every single time. But they don’t. It can be frustrating, or disappointing, and sometimes it’s just downright discouraging. All that hard work, and it didn’t go the way you thought it would! Fear not, sweet teacher— this is the manner of classroom instruction. Sometimes it rolls and other times it puddles. I have had experiences where I taught the exact same content to two different groups of people in a two-hour span of time and one went so well I thought I’d invented chalk, and the other went so poorly that I wondered if I could sneak out the back without anyone noticing. Your job, whether your class goes well or poorly, is to end the planning journey by evaluating what you’ve done.

Now, I’m going to anticipate some push-back here. I know that some of you are thinking that every single class is a unique experience, and that you’ll never need to evaluate because you won’t be teaching that exact class again ever ever ever, so why waste your time reviewing what you’ve already done? If it worked, it worked… Right? Wow. OK, so first: why would you spend ALL that time planning and then never ever ever teach that class again? One of the great things about doing really effective planning is that you have that class prepared already, and are able to massage and adjust those plans to fit new groups as the opportunity arises. So while every class is a unique experience, every course you teach does not need to re-invent the wheel. Second, evaluating the class isn’t so much about the CLASS— although that’s part of it— as it is about YOU and your effectiveness as an instructor. And no matter what class you’ll teach next, you will do well to be reflective and consider your own impact in the classroom. You will learn a great deal about yourself from looking at yourself objectively in the classroom, in ways that will impact you far beyond the classroom. Teaching is powerful, powerful stuff, y’all; looking back at what and how you’ve taught can change you, and I encourage you to welcome that change in and make friends with it. You won’t be sorry.

Listening is Key
Your students will tell you whether you’ve been effective. They’ll do that in really obvious ways: they’ll literally TELL you. As they’re leaving, they’ll say things like, “I really enjoyed this class!” or “This was exactly what I needed to learn” or “I feel so inspired now!” Those are sure-fire ways of knowing you’ve hit the nail on the head.

Students will be less likely to tell you when you have NOT been effective. You won’t hear (from most adults) that they’re dissatisfied— most folks are polite enough to wait until they’re in the parking lot to spout off. You might read a review on Yelp, or you might see a negative comment on Facebook— these are the times in which we live, and as easy as it is to dismiss those comments, it’s beneficial to take them seriously. Someone took the time to write them and to specifically bring up your class, so do them the courtesy of looking for the kernel of truth, even in the most outrageous of claims. I once had a scathing review of my class posted by someone I assumed was a total lunatic (it was a bit of a rambling review, to be fair), but I took what she had to say seriously— I thought about her words and worked to tease out the legitimate concerns from the frivolous, and sincerely worked to correct those errors in future classes. Notice I didn’t say that I disregarded her emotional concerns— when it comes to leading someone to create, their feelings matter a great deal, and as instructors we serve all our students best when the sense of pride and fulfillment each of them takes away from our classes is a priority.

Students will also tell you non-verbally when you’ve been effective in front of the group. Fidgeting, distraction and even steaming ahead in the lesson are all signs that you’re not meeting your students where they need to be met. If you catch two of your ladies in a side conversation every 45 seconds, they’re not fully engaged in your class. Yes, I get that some people are just jerks and that not everyone has invested the same importance in your class; I also know that the only consistent variable from class to class to class that you teach is YOU, so if you’re witnessing this kind of behavior repeatedly, it’s time to go back and re-consider your methods.

Let’s say you are evaluating your class and you feel as though you’re getting more negative comments and responses than positive. What to do? You’ve listened to your students, how do you respond? As a baseline, consider the following: connection, completion and frustration.

Connecting with Students
Looking back over the class you just taught, you’re sensing that some of your students left feeling unsatisfied. It wasn’t that they didn’t enjoy the project, and it wasn’t that they didn’t work at their challenge level— it was something more ephemeral than that, something they can’t quite put their finger on. Is there a chance that what they’re sensing was missing is a deeper connection to you?

Connecting with students is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world. On the one hand, it’s just people being people and crafting together! What could be simpler than that? On the other, it requires of you as the instructor a great deal of energy— physical and emotional— to connect with a large group of students on an individual level. It’s taxing, and it’s the reason that so many first-time teachers leave the classroom and head home to take a nap. It’ll wipe you out! But that very connection is just what so many students are craving. They need to hear that you care about them, that you care about their project, that you’re interested in what they’re learning and in seeing them complete the task well. Students won’t say it out loud, but all of them would like your approval and support and encouragement, regardless of what stage they find themselves at. I have said for many years that if I wasn’t a mother, I wouldn’t have been a very good teacher, and if I hadn’t been a teacher, I wouldn’t have been as good a mother. I still believe that’s true: that teaching is about nurturing and communicating on the most basic level that our students matter to us, and that their success is important. Sometimes that means staying late after class to help them finish a project, and other times that means holding a student’s hand when her frustration at not mastering a skill taps an emotional soft spot and she bursts into tears. They’ll remember what you teach them much better if they know you care how they FEEL.

There are some really practical ways to do that, and while I work hard to avoid criticizing anyone, I am always a little taken aback when people fail at some of these simple things that can make the difference between a hostile learning environment and a nurturing one. For instance, when you’re teaching you always have enough time. I repeat: you are never in too big of a hurry to answer a question, look more closely at a problem or listen to a student. You might need to tap dance— say, move ahead a bit with the rest of the class while asking that student to hold tight, give everyone else the next step and get them working, and then sit down one-on-one with the question-asker, but you ALWAYS have the time. You’d be shocked at how tremendous a difference that makes. By extension, no question is ever ridiculous. Even if it has already been asked in that very class not two minutes previously by the person sitting right next to the individual asking the question. Nothing is ever ridiculous, because behaving as if it is makes that person feel ridiculous, and they’re so worked up about feeling ridiculous that they forgot to listen, and now they’re behind again. Every question matters, and you have the patience of a saint. And your students will remember that. As a final example, I might suggest examining your classroom vocabulary, and editing out phrases like “this is so easy!” Try replacing that with, “I know you can do this!” Sounds semantic? Well, maybe it is, but the first can make students feel like failures if it isn’t easy for them, and the second is a cheer encouraging them to shoot for the moon. Tiny differences like that can revolutionize your effectiveness in the classroom, and catapult your students to the goals you’ve set for them.

Completion of Projects
Did your students finish? That’s a nice, quantifiable means of determining your effectiveness in the classroom. I once shared a room with a teacher who would show her students films as part of their curriculum. When they ran out of time to finish, the students would ask when they’d see the end; the teacher invariably told them, “Oh, I think you get it. You can always watch it on your own.” What she was really telling them was that the film wasn’t all that necessary to what they were learning, and that she didn’t really care whether they saw it or not. So students left feeling as if they’d wasted their time and that they’d been disrespected in the process. Whether or not your students finish their projects in the time allotted is a major factor in how well they feel they performed in the class, and evaluating that portion of your course can help you to plan better.

Now, I know as well as anyone that not all students will complete their projects every single time. In a garment construction class, for example, some folks just plain won’t do the homework between sessions and they’ll use class time to catch up. Others will make a simple mistake, but they’ll need to un-pick those stitches, correct it, and sew again— all of which costs valuable time and can prevent them from finishing. I totally get that. While the former is out of your control, the latter is not, however, and as you evaluate your class, you can consider those unfinished projects and how to get students across that finish line.

Perhaps your class has too much content. I know we all want to make our classes competitive and give our students everything; but if they can’t finish all the work, then we haven’t given them much of anything, have we? Perhaps your class has too little margin. If you are consistently seeing folks not finish sewing a garment, maybe you need more sessions to meet or maybe you need a simpler pattern to sew. Review your planning and your limits, and look for ways you can adjust the delivery and still meet the objectives. You’ll be happier, and your students will feel vastly more accomplished.

Frustration Level
Students who spend a large portion of their class time at their frustration level will usually let you know, in one way or another. As you look back over your instruction, look for ways you can eliminate or reduce the time that your students feel that way, and instead spend class time at their challenge level. Again, maybe you need to swap out your sewing pattern for a simpler one, or maybe you just need to add more sessions to spread the work out a little bit more so students don’t feel rushed and can learn challenging skills without pressure. Perhaps you’ve asked children to complete tasks that are better suited for adults, and you want to consider offering your class to a different age group next time— just as you would if you were teaching literature and realized that your class just didn’t understand what was happening in the book. A class that doesn’t have the foundational knowledge to really appreciate the skills you’re teaching is going to be frustrated more often than not, and then no one’s happy— not even you.

It’s a Big Circle, Y’all
At the core, evaluating your effectiveness is about looking back at your stated goals. You wrote out very specific objectives; did you meet them? Make a checklist, if need be, and work your way down the list, considering each goal in turn. Were your students able to achieve that objective? How do you know? Now that you’ve been through the entire process of planning a class, you can flesh out those objectives into a chart: a column for the objective, a column for how you’ll know when the students have met that objective and a column for a smiley face or a nice sparkly sticker when you nail it. Describe very specifically what your students will be able to do or show you that will indicate that they “got” what you were working so hard to communicate to them. If you don’t earn a sticker, then the next time you teach the class, drill down on that particular objective and look for ways you can meet it; change the pattern you use, or how you arrange the classroom space, or how much time you allow or the ages you’re teaching. Your overarching mission is to ensure that each of your students leaves your class feeling confident and inspired. The planning process should always lead you back to the beginning, in a virtuous circle, where your evaluation of your effectiveness causes you to re-consider the various parts of your planning again and again, until you have a class that shines like the noonday sun.

You can do it. I know you can.