What Not To Do

By Gail Carolyn Sirna
This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 2003.

A local writer in the Detroit Free Press said in her column recently that she considers only two professions to be noble: farming and teaching. Since she seems to regard the world at large with a jaundiced eye I was gratified that she thought my adopted metier to be one of the noble ones. Of course, she was probably thinking of the public schools, but we needlework instructors are teachers, too; i.e. we pass along knowledge to others; we share our skills and abilities. Today, there is trendy nomenclature for this activity: knowledge transfer. The first time I heard that term (from my son) I asked: “What does that mean? Do you mean teaching?” And he thought for a minute, and said: “Well, actually, yes.” What it usually refers to is one business person giving the “how to’s” of doing his job to another–usually his successor.

We all, no matter what our occupation, do teach. If you are a parent then you have spent countless hours teaching your little ones (and your big ones, too) the skills of life. No matter who you are, you always share skills, transfer knowledge, edify your acquaintances. Every time you share a recipe with someone you are, in effect, teaching them–or at least transferring knowledge. If you hold an office in an organization and then pass it on to another, with information on how you have done the job, that’s knowledge transfer. We offer information to one another on a casual basis all the time (who has the best tomatoes in town, what restaurant is new and wonderful, how to deal with a bladder infection). So, in some forms, we all teach.

Some people do it better than others.. We all know that, having spent a significant portion of lives as students. Everyone has had lots of role models for teachers. Some teachers gave you a love of learning, inspired you to pursue the subject further. Some, no doubt, turned you off to that subject forever,.

To me the essence of teaching is to break the information or technique down into small easily digestible segments, so that the student may learn things in an orderly fashion, in easily grasped parts, with one building on the previous one, if at all possible.

What Not To Do: Do not tell the student everything at once! In our enthusiasm for the topic we may deluge the student with information, while she is still struggling with the basic concept. My husband is like this; he makes a terrible teacher. When you ask him one thing (for instance, how do I put that photo on my web site?) he shows me how to enlarge the photo, how to enhance it, how to take out elements, how to move things around, how to change the colors, and somewhere in this monologue, how to move it to the web site. My mind is reeling from this influx of details, and I can scarcely ferret out the one that I need. In old time computer lingo they used to call this “core dump.”

Beware of doing this with your students, at least at the beginning. If you are going to teach a three hour hardanger class you do not begin by enumerating all the different techniques that can be used, giving the pros and cons of various fabrics and threads, the history of Hardangerfjord in Norway and its political significance. You begin by teaching them kloster blocks. As in anything else, one must learn to crawl before one can learn to walk, and finally to run. Maybe only a few of your students will ever be able to run hurdles.

This is difficult for us, who are pretty expert in the field of embroidery (or else you would not want to teach it.) Most NAN candidates find it very difficult to step back to the mindset of the beginner, to understand that the student is coming to us as a blank slate. Partly this is because the NAN candidate was most likely a beginner a long time ago and secondly, most needlework teachers (and sometimes students, too) are intuitive stitchers; we automatically know the right thing to do, often without having been shown. So to go back and think of something from square 1 is not easy.

The time for enrichment is AFTER the students are comfortable with the technique, when all are happily and tranquilly stitching away. That’s when you throw in the history of hardanger. That’s when you show them your grandmother’s 12 foot hardanger table cloth, hand carried on the ship through Ellis Island. That’s when they’ll appreciate it.

What Not To Do: Do not belittle your students, just because they lack certain basic knowledge that you think is so obvious. Now this is a problem, because we have all had students in class who are totally out of their depth. They are in your running class, when they should be in the crawling class across the hall. I have been exceedingly exasperated to have a student in a class of 30 people at a national seminar who cannot do basketweave, even though the description says clearly that this is an advanced class. And I will confess to not having always kept my cool.

In calmer moments I know that everyone does not have the learning opportunities that we mostly take for granted . And not everyone is an intuitive stitcher. Not everyone catches onto something the first (or second or third) time we show them how. Indeed , some of them never catch on. I have a dear student at home who must have some kind of short term memory loss because she never remembers how to do anything, even though I have had her as a student for 20 years and she has many completed projects to show for it.

Think of something that you have not learned easily–for me it was sailing. I am not a “natural”; I have to think through every move. It is not intuitive for me. Probably we all have activities that do not come easily for us. Think of how you feel when confronted with that challenge, and then transfer those feelings to your struggling student. Try one more time to explain how to do it. Or, as a last resort, give her some easier technique that will do the job almost as well.

Teaching is not easy. It requires much advance preparation. It requires a scholarly knowledge of one’s subject matter. It requires a sensitivity to the needs of the students, and to their different learning styles. It certainly requires patience. It requires the ability to break down the body of knowledge into small digestible parts. Are you up to this challenge? And be aware that it remains a challenge to all teachers, even those with many years of experience.