Portfolio 2 – Teaching and Workshopping

The thing about teaching and workshopping is that you get the chance to work with people and share your skills. If you’ve got the inkling that you’d like to do that, it can be a marvellous experience. There’s nothing quite like being in the flow when you are running a workshop. Apart from anything else, you learn a tremendous amount from the people you’re working with. This can be a great source of inspiration.

You may be starting from scratch. You may have been thinking about adult education classes or teaching at a local college, or maybe you’re already doing those things and thinking about how you can extend them. Either way, the first step to starting or extending your work in this area is to make sure you have documented everything that you have done thus far brilliantly well, and have written an outline of the way your activity works. You can then use this to get a conversation going with the people you’d like to work for.

Where can you do this?

The truth is – anywhere you can imagine getting a group of interested people together. The opportunities are astonishing in scope. I have personally worked in schools, colleges, universities, youth and community centres, hospitals, prisons, young offenders and probation services, day care centres, residential homes for the elderly, Women’s Institute groups, arts and craft studio groups, galleries, Air Force bases, church groups, Scout groups, upstairs rooms in pubs, in the back of a transit van, in tents, at festivals, in fields and on playschemes. All have their own unique challenges.

Do stuff for free (but just the once)

If you are starting out, a great way to build a track record, test ideas and gather feedback is to do something for free. For example, if you imagine you’d like to run workshops, find someone who wants something similar and offer to run a session for them – but on the strict understanding that they will help you document the session and allow you to evaluate what happens as a way of gathering feedback, comments and testimonials. This is also an opportunity to have someone take some photos. Then you can use everything you gather to put together a publicity pack that shows clearly that you can deliver a great experience that everyone will enjoy.

If you haven’t yet run a workshop, then there are some really simple ways to approach that and test it out, and get some cracking documentation and feedback at the same time. This could be as simple as gathering a small group around your kitchen table, and sharing what you do. Friends and family are not bad guinea pigs when it comes to this.

I can remember running a session round my kitchen table doing some fused glass, years ago, and it was just such a fun way of finding out what did and didn’t work. People brought cameras and took really nice images that they were prepared to share because they’d had fun. They wrote some brilliant comments to support my new idea because they liked what they had done and what they took away at the end of the session.

It’s not that hard to make a start and it’s only a small leap from there to finding a friendly face at a local school or community venue that might be prepared for you to come and do a more professionalised version of the same thing. When you’ve hit that stage you should then have all the material and the confidence you need to market it more widely.

Testing ideas in more depth

All the planning in the world won’t save you if something is wrong with the basic premise of your idea – so what do you do?

It pays to test out your ideas in a relatively safe environment – you may not be sure how long certain things might take, or how a group of a certain age or ability range might react to the basic idea.

If you search around, you ought to be able to find an environment similar to the one you want to use the finished idea in, and someone in charge who is happy to let you experiment. You needn’t try and run the whole thing through – maybe just arrange to do a couple of short sessions where you can gauge reactions, whilst still giving the group a decent experience. If you don’t give the group something tangible, the test won’t work and you won’t get invited back.

You can use this set-up to test out different styles of personal presentation, ways of working with groups, arranging your equipment, experimenting with ways of working with different age ranges, etc. Let the host know what it is you are trying to resolve, and they will probably be happy to talk it through with you, especially if they feel it will ensure that the group enjoys the session and gets something worthwhile out of it.

On another level, what you are involved in here is a subtle PR exercise, and a way of getting free publicity material. Sit down at the end of the session and do some evaluation with them.

If you are dealing with younger children, get them to do a drawing and write a few words about what they have done. With teens and adults, a question and answer session and a ‘comments’ sheet will do the trick. Be prepared to get both positive and negative feedback, and treat it like the Holy Grail. Feedback is power – it lets you know what you are getting right, and what to discard or amend. Use this feedback process properly, and it will help you develop both the content and your own presentation skills. Ask any other adult observers to write some comments down for you. Or, as I did, get into the habit of carrying a digital memo recorder with you, and do mini interviews. This will then provide you with photos and comments to build into future publicity.

Depending on how eager you are to promote yourself, you might like to repeat this process in other venues around your patch. You might feel you are running short workshops for no material return, but you will be building a reputation for caring about the quality of your work, and involving hosts and organisers etc., in the process. This will count for a lot later on.

Once you feel you are ready, you can start marketing the idea with confidence, knowing it’s a good, well researched and tested product.

Assessing your group

Every group you work with will throw unique challenges your way, so you need to be prepared for all sorts of contingencies and happy accidents. It is possible to reduce the chance of disaster striking if you gather information about your group in advance from whoever is normally responsible for the group, or by going and meeting the group yourself.

Talk to the group leader well in advance of the session – try to glean as much information from them about the group as you can.

Don’t be afraid of asking very direct questions. The answers you get will be coloured by the host’s perception of the group, and may not be totally objective, so dig around a bit.

These are the sorts of things you might need to ask about:

  • Have the group done anything like this before – are they used to working with creative people?
  • Prior knowledge and experience – do they know anything about the activity? At what level are they likely to engage with it?
  • What level of curiosity/desire to be involved are they likely to display – are they there by choice?
  • What sort of presentations are they used to – formal assemblies, informal group presentations, large or small groups?
  • Age range and cognitive development.
  • Concentration span.
  • General behaviour – quiet and receptive, or noisy and chaotic?
  • Level of familiarity with tools and materials – how much time will you have to spend on familiarisation and practice?
  • Level of manual and mental dexterity.
  • Are there any restrictions on things they can use, e.g. will they try  to eat it? Use it as a weapon? Steal it? Scissors, sharp knives, staple guns etc., are barred in some institutions.
  • Where are they used to working – in classrooms at desks, or in the hall, on the floor?
  • Cultural or religious considerations – do you need to exercise sensitivity in terms of language, appropriateness of activity, photographic documentation etc.?

Even after thorough checking, it’s often wise to build in an appropriate introductory activity that will give you the chance to gauge the group for yourself – something that will let you judge level of maturity, attentiveness, the sort of language they will accept – all the things that tell you how to ‘pitch’ your presentation.

Remember this:  every single person that comes to one of your events becomes an advocate for you and your work. If you can give them a little pack or a card or a goodie bag to take away at the end of the day then every session has a multiplier effect.  Most sessions will provide you with some recommendations or referrals.

There are two strands to this. The first is the session itself and the income you earn from it, the second is the power of it to extend people’s understanding of you and your story. There’s a really good marketing opportunity built into every event you run.

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