Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Finding the right teacher -- a user's guide

Much discussion this week on the SAQA email list about teaching and how the marketplace for workshops and classes is changing.  As I read the many posts, two words kept flashing in front of my eyes -- caveat emptor.

If you're trying to find a teacher for yourself or for your guild, I suggest you do your research.  Start with the potential teacher's website.  Read the bio and see how experienced she is.  There are apparently a lot of "teachers" out there who just started making art last year.  See if you can tell whether she has studied at a reputable institution or with reputable teachers.

Then look at the galleries.  How much work is posted?  Is it good work?  Is the whole body of work substantive and impressive?  Avoid teachers who have only a handful of pieces posted, especially if the pieces are small and disparate.  People who have made a bit of this and a bit of that probably don't have the experience or work ethic or mindset that you want in a teacher.  Especially look for work that demonstrates the subject or technique in the workshop you're checking out.  If somebody is teaching A, you probably want her to have made enough A to have mastered it.

Read the workshop descriptions.  Do they have detail about what is covered and what kind of product students will produce?  Especially if you're contemplating a workshop at a big quilt show, the brochure may have only vague information or meaningless drivel -- "Come fly to tropical climes in this exciting workshop!"  If you're looking at the teacher's own site, does it show actual student work?  Does it include testimonials from former students?

Check out the teacher's blog, if one exists.  I know it's fashionable today to say that blogging is so last decade, that facebook and twitter and instagram and pinterest have supplanted that dull, boring practice of writing entire paragraphs about a single idea.  But if you're trying to see if you would benefit from spending hours or days with somebody, you probably should make that judgment on more than 140 characters.

You can tell a lot about a person's character from reading a blog.  Does she write with confidence and expertise or is she forever apologizing or complaining?  Does it sound as though she knows more than you do about the subject you're thinking of studying?  Does she organize her thoughts and explain clearly, or is her writing disjointed and careless?  Is she generous about sharing tips and advice or is every photo prominently watermarked, every post studded with warnings about how you dare not copy?  Does every blog post end with the same long commercial for her book, her services, her workshops?  Most important, does this sound like the kind of person you would like to hang out with?

Get some other opinions.  Ask for references.  Although this doesn't seem to be standard practice in the quilt/art world, I wouldn't hesitate to ask a potential teacher for the names of three or four individuals or program chairs who have taken workshops.  A teacher who refuses or gets offended at such a request might not be the kind of teacher you want to learn from.  Then write or call and ask how it went.  Even if the reference won't say anything bad, you can probably detect the difference in tone between the dutiful nicey-nice compliment and the sincerely positive endorsement.

Finally, write the teacher and ask questions.  If you get a perfunctory or dismissive response, that's a pretty good hint that you might want to keep looking.  If the response is eager, see if you can gauge whether the eagerness is for you to have a valuable learning experience or for her to get a paying gig.

Doing your homework won't guarantee the perfect learning experience, but it should greatly decrease the likelihood that you will be disappointed.


  1. These are great suggestions, Kathy. Lots to think about, both as a teacher and a someone who occasionally takes workshops. Thanks!

  2. Excellent overview of this subject. Additionally, just because someone has won big competiton awards, doesn't mean they are cabable of teaching or wish to share their 'secrets'.
    After 25+ years on the quilting highway....I just retired...it's not the glamour life everyone thinks....however for me it was incredibly rewarding. I thought I'd travel teach forever but I CAN NOT deal with airline travel anymore....esp. living in rural America......

  3. Kathy, this is so important. People are cry babying about classes being not up to snuff - then don't patronize those folks. There are many good, experienced and talented teachers out there. If you want to learn, you'll find the right teacher. I suspect that quite a few people join classes for the social aspect and while I think that's fine for them, a more serious student needs to put more effort into researching teachers for themselves. Starting with their blog is good advice. If they share info freely, they aren't likely to hoard their secrets in the classroom.