Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Teaching -- my dilemma

I wrote yesterday about how I've been wrestling with the question of teaching.  I love to teach, and I think I'm pretty good at it.  But finding the appropriate venue is complicated.  If you want to teach in the fiber arts, you have several choices other than a fulltime job as an art teacher in high school or college.

You can teach at a public venue such as Quilting By the Lake, Quilt Surface Design Symposium, Arrowmont, or similar institutions; these places generally have one- or two-week workshops but may also offer shorter courses.  Big quilt shows like Paducah and Houston also offer shorter workshops, some full-day and others only a few hours.  Art stores and museums often offer workshops, either one- or multiple-day.

You can teach at a conference, where a group such as the Surface Design Association combines classroom/workshop activities with lectures and plenary sessions.

You can teach at a guild or fiber group, following whatever format they like.  Most common seems to be a full-day workshop, but I've also been asked to teach two days, or do the same full-day workshop twice for different groups, or attend a retreat in which there will be multiple two-hour sessions.  Often they want you to give a lecture too, as long as you're there.  It usually isn't economical for a guild to pay travel expenses for less than a day's work, but groups close to home may want you to do a three- or four-hour class.

You can offer workshops in your home, which can be as elaborate as Nancy Crow's barn setup or as informal as your kitchen table.  Many teachers have established small studios where they can accommodate a half-dozen or so people (some art techniques take up less space than others).

And finally you can work one-on-one with a student; often you're serving more as a mentor than a teacher, but not necessarily.

I've done every one of these formats.  Often I have been paid to do it; other times I do it for free.

Why would you work for free, you ask.  My local fiber and textile group, for instance, offers frequent workshops -- the deal is members don't get paid to teach, nor do they have to pay to learn.  I've worked as a mentor with three different people under the SAQA program, and with three or four who are just friends.

But the getting-paid part is more complicated.  I didn't know, until I started teaching in such venues, and perhaps you don't know either, that when you're invited to give a workshop at QBL or one of the other public series that you're not really being "hired" in the traditional sense.  Instead, you're being given the chance to teach IF enough people sign up.  And these venues expect you, the teacher, to do a lot of your own marketing.  Which is why I'm being forced to flog my own workshops in the blog and through other methods, a process that I find uncomfortable.

If people don't sign up, your workshop can be canceled, or perhaps you can renegotiate your pay so you work for less.  Like so many other instances of the gig economy, this arrangement transfers the risk from the sponsor to the individual contractor -- the teacher.  In past years there was much discussion on quilting email lists about the very low pay for teaching at the huge Houston quilt show.  Some people said they usually couldn't even cover their travel and lodging costs, and did it as a loss-leader for marketing purposes.  Just like in the larger economy, where employers want newbies to work at unpaid internships or provide their own workspace and equipment with no guarantee of long-term work.

This kind of arrangement pays off for people who have established a following.  Many teachers have groupies who return year after year to study with their guru (I know, I was one of those groupies once upon a time).  But it's difficult for teachers who have just started on the national circuit, especially if their workshops get cancelled the first time.  Venues seem unwilling to make an investment in new teachers who might very well build a following if they ever got their foot in the door.

I don't think this business model of offering public workshops on spec is particularly good business for either the sponsor or the teacher.  It's not good for the reputation of either one if a workshop gets cancelled.  The customers who have signed up are disappointed when their chosen class gets killed; perhaps their second-choice class is already full, or perhaps they've already made travel arrangements that would be costly to cancel.  But that's the way most of the big public venues have chosen to operate.

In a way, this business model has been very kind to the quilting public, enabling us to learn many, many things from many, many different teachers.  I can't testify to this, but I get the feeling that quilters have lots more learning opportunities than painters or collage artists or woodworkers, because of the proliferation of public workshop series.  The situation has become more precarious in recent years, as some of the big venues are having a harder time attracting students (perhaps there are too many workshops out there??).  It's understandable that sponsors are looking to spread their financial risk, since they're the ones with the hotel contracts and other big-ticket obligations.

But I've about decided that I'm not going to teach under this kind of arrangement any more.  I teach for gratification, not to earn a living, and I have neither the inclination nor the time to invest years of marketing into a potential future on the teaching circuit.  (If I were 35 I might think otherwise.)  I will continue to accept invitations from any guild or group who asks me, because that business model is different: you discuss the details of the workshop, agree on a price, and it's up to the guild to make the finances work.  I find that kind of arrangement a lot more respectful of the teacher.

Enough on the soapbox.  If you'd like to spend a week, or three days, or two days, having fun with me at Quilting by the Lake in July, now's your chance; get it while it lasts.  Here's the link to QBL; #17 and #18 are my workshops.


  1. You are putting into words what I am feeling. It's also hard to take a class such as yours when you are committed to teaching somewhere else--I'm very disappointed. But I agree with your assessment of the economic model and haven't, and won't, pursue those venues. I'm too old to work that hard anymore!!

  2. Thanks for the post. I'm trying to get a toehold in the teaching/presenting market. I had a recent invitation from a newish but solid workshop venue. It is, as you say, conditional on booking enough students. Am I a big enough name? Do I have the appropriate "accolades" to attract students? I don't know, but I am an expert and one of the very few. Do you want to learn about my topic? Then I'm your best bet! I'll be pleased if this works out, as it would help pave the way for more opportunities (whether or not I choose to pursue them.)

    But it also reminds me of book contracts -- can't get a contract unless you have FANS!!! It really doesn't matter how much you know about the topic, or if you can't write and explain clearly, or if you have the project skills to complete a complex task on schedule. Nope. Gotta have the followers, and if the product is shitty, it doesn't much matter, I guess.

    THanks again.

  3. It does take over your life. Feeding the FANS so you can make more money, publish more books and become.......famous? One friend asked me to submit work for her contract book. I got the list of specific requirements (from her book outline) and then decided I didn't want to make one. Quilting is something fun that I do. Didn't want it to become "work".

  4. Quilting by the Lake sounds fun. From the student's perspective, taking classes is like russian roulette. Will the 'famous' person whose work I like be any good at teaching? Will the other students be people who want to learn or Needy Nellies that take over the class with their whining about how they caaaaan't do it? Am I going to learn anything really new, or is this really just a sales pitch for a new ruler/book/notion/fabric /pattern line?

    I agree with you on the teaching gigs. Waiting until 2 days before class to see if you're even teaching at all is nuts. My friend teaches knitting, and she is forever finding out from the shop on Wednesday that Friday's class will be cancelled. Seems disrespectful to the teacher and also to the two people who signed up when they needed 3.

  5. Interesting. I read similar thoughts on a knitting blog a couple of years ago on similar issues. IIRC, she didn't get much support from other knitting instructors to try and get changes made. I *think* she's decided not to even try getting teaching gigs at bigger yarn/wool gatherings.