Are you teaching, or sharing?

A lot of artists teach these days – it’s a good way to boost income, and if you’re good at it, it’s very satisfying. Especially if you take absolute beginners and set them off on a life-changing path towards artistic endeavour.

But it occurs to me there are some points to be aware of when considering going into teaching (as we know many of our artist friends are).

Firstly, being good at something doesn’t make you good at teaching it. Being able to show students how you paint ain’t the same as helping them do it. Teaching is a skill.

We find when teaching our stained glass beginner’s class that it’s vital to step out of the comfortable zone of competency that we enjoy: to imagine holding a glass cutter for the first time, feeling the glass score. And students often are frightened of breaking the glass – will it shatter into a million shards?
Will it break, but not according to the design?

After a couple of successful breaks most students begin to trust the cutters and their growing confidence in applying enough pressure along the score. And that moment is a pleasure for us too – it means we’ve got through to the nervous learner. And that’s the point where the sharing takes over from the teaching.

Our hope is that we’ve shared our passion for the subject, and provided the technical skills for students to set off on the journey, like we did 5 or 6 years ago.

Secondly – a good class needs structure and clear objectives.
Where do you start, what’s the end point?
What can you expect your students to realistically achieve in the time?
What can you do to instill the fundamentals and inspire an interest in continuing to develop?

We started out be building a class plan, and it still works. We’ve found ways to improve it, but we sat down and worked out what needed to be covered, and when, and what could be left out in the interests of time, or avoiding complexity. This lesson plan is now so ingrained that we rarely refer to it. But the effort of working it out was vital.

Thirdly – what is a realistic price to charge?
In our case, on top of renting a venue, we had to consider our investment in 6 sets of tools (about £275 per student to begin with, plus ongoing updating and replacements). Over what period do you expect or need to repay this investment?
We also use quite a lot of glass for each session as our students go home with a nice piece to show their family and friends. We have to carefully account for the costs here too.

And how do you value your time? Our rule of thumb is if we could make a piece each in the same time that we’d charge, say, £500 for, we’d expect to make more than the profit on those pieces as the ‘personal time’ element of the class costs.

Are your students coming to you to learn something as a hobby, or as the start of a potential business? The owner of Hertfordshire School of Jewellery (one of our teaching venues) offers intensive sessions for prospective jewellery makers who expect to go into the craft as a business. The structure and costs associated with classes like these is different to ones held for hobbyists.

Next, how do you identify where students are having difficulty and divert attention to help? For me this was the hardest aspect of learning how to teach stained glass.
We now know most of the signs – slow progress is the most obvious.
We look out for this, and step in. Not to do the work ourselves, but to isolate the aspect that’s holding the student up, and work on it. Is it a problem coordinating the meeting of the soldering iron and the solder on the join, for example?

In your environment there will be challenges that some students will struggle to overcome. The more you can prepare for these, the easier it will be to get students back on track.

Finally – creating a stimulating and fun environment.
Most of our students are looking for a fun day, learning something new, away from job, family, or other responsibilities. More and more people are discovering an interest in making things instead of just buying them, and these make up the majority of our students.

How do you ensure they have a good time, learn something, and go home happy?
We aim to create an informal atmosphere; all the students can see what the others are doing, and pick up tips often. We maintain a level of jolly banter, with support and encouragement, but honest appraisal too. We point out where a little more work, or a slightly different approach will yield a better result. We encourage students to critique their own work. We keep the level light at all times.

Above all, we share – our passion, our glasswork experience, and lessons learned about life and business. Many of our students are curious about what it’s like being an artist and we tell them. We also give them an insight into the other skills artists need – business, marketing, publicity, cost-management, how to photograph your own work and so on. This is all part of the sharing package – students go home feeling like they’ve discovered insights beyond the simple mechanical ones related to making stained glass.

What can you offer your students beyond helping them to develop their eye, and gaining technical skills and knowledge?

I’d like to hear how you teach, or what your concerns are if you’re getting in to it.
Do leave me a comment!

You can see details of the stained glass classes we run as Vitreus Art here.

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