Teaching a Group

As a dance instructor, I regularly teach in two different ways: one on one in private instruction, or one with many for a group. In a lot of ways, the one on one instruction is much easier. It’s not hard to keep your focus, you get constant feedback from your audience, and it’s very easy to adjust the material, as you go, to make it work. The timeline is also quite flexible – if you get something started, and aren’t able to finish it, there’s always next time. With sufficient disclaimers and communication with the student, you can leave off in the middle of a concept and just pick it up again later.

On the other hand, teaching in front of a group brings up certain challenges. You have to have a plan that can address a group of people with varying interests and skill levels. Your plan has to be flexible enough to adjust to the struggles and questions that arise during the process. You have to address yourself clearly enough to be understood by people with a variety of interest levels, abilities to focus, delusions of grandeur and even different native languages or hearing difficulties. You have to be able to handle problems, questions and even challenges from students without sacrificing the quality of the instruction being given. You have to keep your focus on the group without getting distracted or getting sucked in to the issues of a particular student. And you have to be able to do it all in a finite period of time.

There’s no question it’s a challenge. It’s also one of my favorite parts of my job. I get to share my information not with one or two people at a time, but with dozens. I get to break things down in the way that I think makes the most sense, and share with them the tips and tricks I’ve acquired over the years. It’s fun and energizing to work with so many people at once, and to see them learn something new, or to learn something new about something they already thought they’d mastered.

I think I’m a great group class teacher. As with most teachers, I’m still always trying to learn how to improve, but I wanted to share some of my successful techniques for teaching in a group. Teaching a group isn’t that fundamentally different than speaking in front of a group – giving a presentation or a speech. I’ve found that these ideas work well with teaching dance, as well as horseback riding (as well as blogging, which is effectively teaching a group class to a group of remotely located students) so I imagine it will translate well, with modifications, to a lot of different forums. It’s at least a place to start.

Prior to the class

  • Think about your audience. Who is the target audience for your material? Does your class have official pre-requisites? If it doesn’t officially have pre-requisites, are there things it is reasonable to assume your students will know coming in to class? Are there things you might assume they would know, but it actually isn’t a reasonable assumption? One of the fastest ways to lose your audience is to alienate them in the beginning by assuming they know something they don’t. Avoid using phrases like “of course you’ve heard”, “you’ve seen before” or even “you probably already know” if it isn’t reasonable to assume they know it. This makes students feel like they’re in the wrong place, or that they’re in over their heads.
  • Have a plan (and if possible, more than one). This seems like a given, but it is so often overlooked by people who teach in front of groups all the time. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve taught, thinking over a lesson plan, in detail, before trying to teach it will help. Actually practicing it in front of people (or even alone!) is even better. Some phrases roll off the tongue better than others. Some inconsistent ideas, or ways of speaking, don’t become apparent until you’ve actually said them. Make your plan modular, so that it can be cut off at regular intervals if you’re running out of time. With experience, you’ll learn to gauge how long it takes to teach something in particular, and how much material will fit your given time. In the beginning, have a variety of options prepared, so you can fit the time comfortably. Keep the scope of your plan very specific. If you’re going to teach one way of doing a step, and you don’t want to get into the other possibilities, say so. Most people can handle getting information that is different from what they already know, as long as they understand why. Students get uncomfortable when they feel like information they get in a group setting conflicts with information they’ve gotten elsewhere. If they understand why, they’ll be more receptive to the information you’re giving.

During the class 

  • Outline of a class
    * Introduction: Introduce yourself (as well as any assistants), welcome the students, explain what the class is and who it’s for (as well as any pre-requisites or assumed pre-requisites for the class).
    * Warm up: For any physical activity, it’s good to invite the students to warm up prior to actually instructing them to do anything. Make sure your choice of warm up activity is appropriate for the skill levels in attendance and is consistent with the assumed pre-requisites.
    * Give disclaimers: Explain to the students what they can expect to learn in the course of the class, so they understand the intended scope. As I mentioned above, also address any potential inconsistencies with what they have learned elsewhere. If you don’t point these things out, someone else certainly will.
    *New information: Provide the first piece of information for the class. Break it down clearly, in parts. Introduce separate parts separately.
    * Allow practice time: Give the students a chance to work on what you’ve taught them. Give them a little time to work out any problems on their own, but provide help before it gets too frustrating. Give assistance during this time, but it’s important that you don’t stop people too often. They need a chance to experience what they’ve just learned.
    * Keep an eye on the students: Help them with the material they’ve been given, but also watch to see what’s going well and what isn’t. If the pointers you give are not related to what’s actually happening, they’ll lose interest in what you’re teaching, because you won’t be making it better.
    * Tips & hints: Give them some additional information to make it work better. No one gets it right the first time, it’s an iterative process. Prior to the class, you’ll probably have some idea of what might go wrong, but you’ll never be totally prepared for what will actually be the challenge of the day. Give one or two hints at a time, and try to help as many people as possible. You might give several sets of hints on a piece of information, so don’t worry that you have to do it all at once. In the course of a 40 minute class, I might give 3 tips, or I might give 10, depending on whether or not they’re complex, and depending on how successful the first ones are.
    * If time permits, cycle through again, beginning with introducing new information: Try to only introduce new information if you actually have time to introduce, practice, and help with the new stuff.
    *Summarize: At the end of the class, thank everyone for being there. Tell them what they learned, and tell them where they can go for more information. Make sure they know the name of what they learned so they can use it again in the future.
  • Use analogies and pictures stories. Comparing new skills to those the students already have is very helpful. This can be something in the same context as the instruction, or it can be something they know how to do in everyday life. Don’t be afraid to be funny – sometimes if you can get a silly picture stuck in someone’s head, it’s the best way to ensure that it won’t be forgotten.
  • Don’t teach too much. This is the most common mistake made by new teachers. It’s a common misconception that weak teaching or lack of detail can be covered up by throwing more new information at the students. Not so! Teaching too much is likely to get you a room full of frustrated, disgruntled students who aren’t impressed with you or the material. Teaching too much simply means moving on before most of the people have the last concept. That doesn’t mean you have to wait until every single person in the room is getting the new idea, but it does mean you shouldn’t move on to a new concept until most of the people are successful with the previous concept, and until the issues with the previous idea have at least been addressed to the class.
  • Speak clearly & slowly. That doesn’t mean you need to talk to a class full of adults as though they are kindergarten students. But don’t assume everyone will be able to keep up with rapid speech or slang. Along with this same idea, when a simple explanation will do, don’t use a complicated one. If you can address an issue in 10 words, don’t use 50. Try to be as succinct as possible while being clear. Practicing your explanations and your teaching will help make this possible.
  • Involve the students. If it’s appropriate for your situation, ask for questions, and answer them. If a question is asked that is outside the intended scope of the class, feel free to say so, but direct the student to the appropriate resource to get an answer for their question. Also, keep them physically and intellectually involved as much as possible – a straight lecture is likely to disengage your students more quickly than anything else.
  • Be consistent in your explanations. If you’ve found yourself saying something that is contradictory to something you said previously, address it. If you think it might *sound* contradictory, address it. If you’ve said something incorrect, make sure you own up to it quickly and explain your mistake. Students will be understanding if the explanation comes from you, but less so if they have to push you to explain.
  • Handle questions and challenges smoothly. No matter how well prepared you are, it is inevitable that you’ll get some difficult or strange questions, or some downright challenges from students. Sometimes this comes from people who just want to sound smart in front of the class, sometimes they’re from a frustrated student who wants to shift their embarrassment from themselves to you, and sometimes, they’re just people who like to cause trouble and make the teacher uncomfortable. Whatever the motivation, it will happen to everyone who teaches a group. Try to answer questions sincerely and directly. Don’t treat them as a joke (even if you think they are) because it’s better to mistake a joke question for a sincere one (which makes the student look childish) than to mistake a serious questions for a joke (which makes the student feel stupid). If the question is outside the scope of the class, direct the student to the appropriate resource. If the student is making trouble, tell them you’ll answer their question one on one in a moment and try to get the class moving again. When the opportunity arises, address the student individually and try to answer their question or challenge, but try to not let the entire class get bogged down by someone with negative energy. If the student is just a distracting joker, address them individually and ask them sincerely to knock it off. They may or may not listen, but at least the other students will know you’ve addressed the problem. The overall goal is to answer sincere questions while keeping the class from getting off track.

After the Class

  • Follow up. When the opportunity arises, ask students for feedback, and ask if you can answer any remaining questions they might have. You’ll learn a lot about how you’re doing, and let the students know you actually care about their progress. Keep in mind that some people just like to be critical, so take any criticism, as well as praise, with a grain of salt.

Overall, I hope this helps you have a plan about how to teach a group. It’s a challenging undertaking, but one I enjoy. I love the challenge and reward of teaching in a group, and I hope this can make your experience a bit better.

2 Responses to “Teaching a Group”

  1. Amanda says:

    am i going to be quizzed on this later??