I’m off to the Bead and Button show for six days. It’s always wonderful to leave the Phoenix heat and land in Milwaukee where I have to make a conscious effort to remember to pack my umbrella and I can still wear closed-toe shoes. (grin)
Since I get questions almost every show from folks wanting to learn more about the nitty gritty of teaching, I thought maybe this is a good time for a little history and a glimpse into the process. Hang on, folks, this is a long post!
First, history. I’ve been teaching a while now. This important piece of my career began when I was doing mixed-media paper arts. Even though nobody called it “mixed-media” then, I was fortunate that what I loved to do was popular with the “chunky book, mini book” trend in scrapbooking. I took blank canvases — mostly chipboard or acrylic albums — and then loaded them up with family photos, paint, inks, stamps and just about anything I could glue on to a substrate. By 2001, I was teaching chunky book techniques at paper arts stores in Arizona and California. This was a hobby, since I was still working as a part-time magazine editor.
Teaching took a back seat to learning when I decided I wanted to make jewelry. I continued to write, but spent my free time taking metalsmithing classes at my community collage and obsessively adsorbing what I could from books and also through osmosis when Susan let me assist in her workshops. By 2009, I felt the calling again and returned to teaching, only this time at national retreats. Oh my goodness, I had so much to learn in the beginning! Fortunately, I’m a believer in lifelong learning so that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I truly believe that to be a good instructor, one must continue to tweak, adjust and attempt to innovate.
Ok, with all that said, here’s a little peek into the process in case you’re interested in teaching at national shows. Believe me, there’s definitely a process and know that it can be time consuming!
Every event organizer has a mailing list of potential instructors. If you want to teach for their event, you ask the person in charge to add you to their call for proposals list. The organizers work hard behind the scenes doing what it takes to host an event. This includes every event-planing skill imaginable, from finding a good hotel or place to hold the event on the dates and times they want to negotiating contracts (not easy!) to figuring out food, lodging, transportation, budgets, contingency plans, refund policies and more. Fortunately, as an instructor none of this is your job. Your job is to answer the call professionally and before deadline. A little note here. Some retreats are by personal invite. How do you know which ones? If you ask to be added to a call for proposal list and the organizers say they don’t have one, then it’s invite-only.
Once the call for proposals comes in, I start making brand new work and art samples. A lot of the time, I’ve already built work that I know I’d like to teach. I use these pieces as inspiration or a starting point to still create work exploring a new idea or technique or a new twist.
After building the art, comes photographing the work, sizing and scaling it in Photoshop to the organizer’s specifications (each one is slightly different). I always save my images in high resolution and then also in low resolution 72 dpi so that I have them print-quality ready and also web ready. This little tip took me a while to learn. Now it’s just part of my process, and that makes it much easier throughout the year to quickly respond to emails I get from people requesting images for various opportunities. Here is another tip: Photos are key! The most well-written description will not make up for a low light, out of focus photo. When it comes to photographing your work: practice, practice, practice (or hire a professional).
The next step is to write concise and (hopefully) exciting descriptions. As I’m doing this, I’m thinking about every single detail of my workshop. This is important because in addition to the descriptions, the instructor has to decide what’s included in the kit and what students must bring to class. With airlines making it expensive for luggage, the tools and materials list has become an even more important detail. Students often tell me they don’t like to bring too many supplies. If you, as the instructor, supply them then its an added expense to your personal budget. Shipping costs are expensive. Many of my fellow instructors drive to every event they teach in order to make their workshops as seamless as possible for their people. This is a time vs cost factor. Shipping is expensive and you’re in hot water if your stuff gets waylaid, but driving across country is not always a viable option.
Writing descriptions is definitely a learn-by-doing process. It can take some a long time to get this down, while for others it’s a breeze. I put a lot of time and editing into it, always trying to find the balance of being inspiring, yet detailed enough that my students know what they’re getting when they sign up.
Next it’s time to send your proposals off to the organizer/decision maker. Then comes the fun part, waiting to see how your proposals are received. Nothing is guaranteed for the national retreats. You turn in your best work and hope that your ideas are interesting enough and that your classes fit the organizer’s vision for the retreat.
Here’s another important teaching tip: You may get rejected. It stings. It puts you in a bad mood for a day or two, but it happens. Dust yourself off and try again. You have no idea why your work wasn’t accepted. Maybe someone else turned in something similar. Maybe that year too many people decided to follow a trend and that left the organizer top heavy with those techniques. Very rarely is is because someone doesn’t like you. I’ve been turned down for teaching gigs and have never known why. Other times, I’ve been told its because I used butterflies or that the retreat had too much jewelry or that they want to follow the trend of soldering and I did wireworking. No worries. You know the saying, “There’s always next time.” When it comes to national art retreats there’s always next year.
Wait, it doesn’t end once you’re accepted. You need to do you part to tell people about your classes and the retreat. These days this means social media. Hopefully you have some really good friends and they will help share the word for you. Also it helps if these people have taken your classes and have had positive experiences and they tell others. Nothing builds your reputation like authentic word-of-mouth advertising. It’s invaluable, and also why I’m grateful when people share my info.
The last little tidbit is this: There are great artists and great teachers. The two do not always go hand in hand, so if you’ve had a less-than-stellar experience as a student remember it could be just as simple as this. Fortunately for most of the well-known people teaching the retreats today I can tell you they are in sync. I have truly met an amazing tribe of artists who’re called to share their knowledge.
I realize that sometimes I can seem daunting to break into the industry. But remember this as well; There is always room for new talent and expertise to enter any field. Your voice, your skills, your passion is needed in this world. So is your commitment and hard work. Teaching is wonderful, exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, sometimes drudgery (prep work and clean up), sometimes hard but always humbling.
Thanks to all of you who read to the end. This is a long post, and if you’re interested enough to read this much on a blog when photo stories and 140 character Tweets are the norm, then I believe you might just have all the patience inside of you to be a great instructor.