THE BEST NEEDLEARTS CLASS… EVER!!! (Part 1)

By Diane Herrmann, NAN-Certified Teacher and Assistant Director of Teachers’ Certification

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 2018.

Isn’t it great to attend a seminar or workshop and come away feeling that your class was the best one you’ve ever been to? Wait…are you a teacher or a student in that class? At NAN, we are all about excellence in needlearts:

NAN’s goal is to uphold the highest standards in the needlearts by providing excellence in education to all those interested in furthering their embroidery skills as teachers, judges, artists, designers, authors, or technically proficient embroiderers.

Most of the time, we hear good things about needlearts classes. Teachers marvel at how creative and skilled their students are; students are enthusiastic about how much they learned from a talented teacher in a particular class. However, at a recent seminar, I was a first-time teacher. So rather than having my lunches and dinners with teachers, I found myself at meals with stitchers taking classes. And I got an earful of teacher and student behavior in classes that almost set my hair on fire. It reminded me of times when I was a university teacher, being a guest for dinner in a student dorm, and listening to the students give me harsh feedback about their math teachers. Some of the stories were downright embarrassing, and I wondered how a teacher could do some of the things I was hearing about. Then, as now, I was in the position of “training” teachers, and listened carefully to help me think about what my responsibility was regarding teacher preparation so that these kinds of complaints would become less common.

I also attended a teacher meeting at the same seminar, where issues of teacher conduct were very much on everyone’s mind. The topic under discussion was the consequences when students complain about teacher behavior. Some teachers were quick to point out examples of student conduct in their classes that was at best challenging, and at worse, rude or demeaning to the teacher or fellow students.

None of us wants to be in a class, either as a teacher or student, where the potential for temper tantrums runs high, or where the behavior of someone is so cringe-worthy that you just want to flee the classroom. I believe there are concrete things we can do as teachers and as students to help classes be excellent learning opportunities for teachers and students. In this article and one that follows, I’ll share some thoughts about what teachers (first) and students (next) can have in mind when they approach that next class at seminar or even a local shop or chapter meeting. I think it’s a good idea for our students to realize that teachers are actively thinking about this issue and working to improve, and for teachers to share with students some of the things that they might do to help make classes better for everyone. So first, let’s talk about teachers!

Those of us who have been teaching for a long time, as well as those of us just beginning our craft, might find it useful to reconsider some of our practices so that we are using best methods to deliver our instruction. Here are some questions to consider as you walk in front of your next group of students. These questions go beyond what students are responding to on any course evaluations which they return after they take our classes. Those forms often have questions that scratch the surface of our teaching without getting to some of the deeper, professional issues that form the foundation of what kind of teacher each of us is and strives to be. Whether you’re teaching calculus or pulled thread techniques, these are things that can make a big difference in how your students perceive you and your classes.

In academic circles, there’s a website called “ratemyprofessor.com”. The site advertises itself as having the “best college professor reviews and ratings source based on student feedback.” Reviewers here are self-selected and are free to write (almost) anything they want. When my academic department was hiring, one of my colleagues suggested we look at the site to see how our applicants fared, and I strenuously objected. This is not a serious way to review someone’s teaching, and if you look at the site in general, you’ll see specific complaints, and students with axes to grind, and you will have no way of knowing whether these reviews are legitimate or not. So how do we review and evaluate our needlearts teachers? What is there, besides the one-page, quick, check-off-a-box feedback that our students give on seminar evaluation forms, that could really help us refine and improve our teaching?

Am I ready to teach the students in front of me, or am I only ready to teach the students I wish I had?

  • Here, the question encompasses the disappointment and frustration one has when faced with students not really ready for your class. Of course, you set a “level” for the class in the brochure or website description. But someone has found your class so irresistible that they want to take it even though they’re not quite ready. Before students take your class, they often receive a letter from you listing what to bring to class. This letter might be a good place to include your expectations of them in relation to the proficiency level of your class.
  • I believe your responsibility as a teacher is to have enough experience and flexibility to work with the students in your class, no matter their preparation. Have a spare canvas or doodle cloth for someone to practice an unfamiliar stitch. Maybe have a printed “tutorial” sheet for a standard technique that you don’t expect to cover in class; in my case, that means having copies of a “Basketweave Tutorial” with me for all my classes. Try not to label something as “easy” when it is for you and those who’ve done the stitch before; instead, call it “straightforward” and give an assist to some-one who is struggling. Yes, they should have paid attention to the level of the class when they registered. But your attitude toward a struggling student will be apparent to everyone in your class. Showing your impatience will keep others from asking questions that might help all the students in the class. Some students will interpret impatience as “meanness” and contempt for all but your favorite students.

Have I prepared well for this class, even though I’ve taught this class many times or have been teaching for many years?

  • As a new NAN graduate a few years ago, I was on my toes and exhibited my best behavior so that I would be accepted as a teacher of quality in the needlearts world. Am I still that careful and attentive? It’s a good question to ask after years of teaching.

Here are some things that I heard about at my recent lunches:

  • Teachers haven’t updated thread lists in the printed instructions, even though the change of threads was made long ago.
  • Canvases are drawn poorly or inconsistently, maybe because they were not drawn by the instructor; this difficult start undermined the confidence that students had in the quality of the over-all class.
  • Classes that are not piloted before seminars have instructions full of errors, diagrams drawn incorrectly, and often have sequencing of instruction that doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t the teacher have the courtesy to try this class out before bringing it to a seminar?

Each of these are things that are easily remedied by a teacher who wants her current students to have as good an experience as all her previous students had.

Am I still excited to be in the classroom with my students, or is there somewhere else I’d rather be?

I remember saying to my (reluctant) math students when I began a course that I knew it was a privilege to be with them in the journey we were taking together. At this recent needlework seminar, I heard about teachers who:

  • were on the phone in class;
  • had brought a glass of wine to the afternoon sessions of class;
  • sat at the front table all day without making an effort to walk around and see how students were doing and answer the questions of those too intimidated to come up and interrupt the teacher.

If it’s not fun for you, it’s not going to be fun for your students. Being present for the entire time of the class is important, and your enthusiasm for students taking your class will have an impact for good or ill.

Am I treating my students’ work with respect, even if it’s not perfect or up to my standards?

How tempting it was in a math class or in my office to take someone’s pencil and write in an answer or a hint on their paper so they would get to the solution more quickly. How much harder to let them struggle on their own and work through difficulty toward success? I heard about:

  • teachers stitching, without permission, on student canvases;
  • a teacher using someone’s canvas to demonstrate a technique, and actually cutting through a canvas thread, and then saying it would be easy for the student to fix that later.

A simple, “May I touch your canvas/hold your needle/write on your instructions?” helps here. When you know you are doing something that produces anxiety and might lead to physically harming a ground fabric, why not have your own sample to demonstrate?

We have a NAN “ancestor”, Peg Laflam, who was certified as a NAN teacher in 1982. She designed and taught for many years and served as NAN’s Director of Teachers’ Certification and Director of Education. Peg had lots of advice and tips for being a successful needlework teacher, and we will share some of these at our Teachers’ Certification Workshop this year. For now, here’s her summation for what makes one a successful teacher: “Most of all the successful teacher must be a student who learns and grows as new ideas and new materials emerge. The teacher must constantly be changing with the times.”

If you’re a teacher, ask yourself what can you do to further the mission of NAN and provide excellence in your designs, your materials, and your classroom presence in every single class you teach. If you’re an embroiderer, ask yourself how do you comport yourself in classes so that you and those around you can become better at what you do with your stitching?