Sunday, October 15, 2006

To Teach
Not To Teach

That Is The Question

Reading through many of my favorite blogs in the past few days, I’ve noticed a similar thread ~ concerns about teaching. Whether your field is beading, doll making, quilting, collage art or painting, if you’re good at it, sooner or later you’ll face the question of teaching. Someone will ask you to teach, or someone will tell you that you should teach.

Here are some questions to consider:

1. Would teaching be fun? Would you enjoy teaching students how to do what you do?

2. Would you be a competent teacher? Do you have the ability to explain and demonstrate what you do in such a way that your students could get it?

3. Do you have time to write proposals and handouts, prepare samples, make up kits, pack it all up and travel? Will your earnings justify this amount of time away from your studio work?

4. Do you want to share your creative process, techniques and designs? What if some of your students become your competition ~ copying your designs, selling items they make based on your designs, or teaching your class?

Robin Atkins, bead artist, teaching at the Chicago Quilt Festival
I’ve been teaching beading for 19 years, and I’ll tell you one thing from experience, it’s hard to say “no, thanks” to a teaching offer. But it is OK to say no. Your reputation will not take a dive to the bottom of the muck. You will still be admired and loved for what you do.

In my experience, teaching takes much more time than you might expect. Preparation and travel time before teaching, plus travel time and time to put everything away after I return generally adds 5 to 10 days to the actual teaching time. To teach a couple of classes will take me out of my studio and away from my own work for about two weeks. If it’s a new class, there’s an additional time commitment to write handouts and make an adequate number of class samples.

In 1986, when I quit my “regular job” and began doing beading as a business, I took a long hard look at just what my new career might be. In the ‘70s, I had been a part-time metalsmith for five years. I made gold and silver jewelry to sell. The making part was way, way fun. The trying to design what people might buy, trying to second guess the market, and the actual selling of it was a drag. So, I decided not to go that route with beads. I made a conscious decision to do beadwork for fun, and to make my living by selling beads (and beading supplies) and teaching.

For the first few years, I taught workshops in my studio. I decided that I didn’t want to teach specific projects so much as to teach technique and design process. So my classes tended to be at least one full day, many of them two days or more.

At the time there was no competition, no web, no bead magazines, no beading books in print. My classes filled (or didn’t fill) by word of mouth and a little newsletter I sent to my growing list of students and customers. The bead shop craze of offering 2 and 3 hour make-it-and-run classes with good cash to be made from selling the supplies was not yet known. So I got to teach exactly what I wanted in the way I wanted to do it. Those were the most fun and rewarding years of teaching!

Out-of-state Bead Societies (and various guilds) began to get word of it, and soon I was being asked to travel to teach my workshops. This was a little more stressful than teaching in my own studio, but still lots of fun and very personal. I loved the travel aspect of it. Often I would have two long-weekend classes, with days off in the middle – time to see a little of Hawaii, Anchorage, Santa Fe, etc., under the gracious guidance of whoever was hosting me.

As bead shops sprouted everywhere in the mid 90’s, they began to fill the need for local classes. Yet, they seemed to gravitate toward offering shorter, more project-oriented classes. Many of the more experienced students seemed to crave longer, more intense, more design-oriented workshops. And, I set about to fill that niche as much as I could.

I call the period from 1998 to the present “The Proposal Era,” the years when I was always writing proposals to teach at national conferences, art schools and regional events. Often these venues do not pay the expenses of the teachers, only a small per-student stipend. To make any money, one has to have large classes, teach as many classes as possible, sell kits and stuff (beads, supplies, patterns, books, etc.) I tell you it’s exhausting to the max. And to prepare for teaching at an event, such as the Quilt Festival or the Puget Sound Bead Festival, takes a tight schedule, careful planning, and several weeks of steady work.

In the beginning, I felt special. I got to know my students and to be somewhat of a mentor to them. I felt important. It fed my ego to be asked to teach in a state where I knew nobody. It fed my passion to think I was contributing to the spread of beading as an art form. It fed my art, as I strove to make more and better examples of the techniques I was teaching, unhampered by the need to sell my work. It fed my creativity, as I was inspired by my students and learned from them in countless ways. And, it fed my pocketbook by providing a reasonable living. Eventually it led to writing my first book, One Bead at a Time, which practically wrote itself because I’d already learned how best to teach what I know, how best to inspire and give confidence to my students.

But, here’s the bitter pill about what’s happened with me. In recent years, I’ve found that teaching has gotten less and less personal, less rewarding, and takes much more time in proportion to the amount earned. It exhausts me, drains my creative force. The truth is, I can stand apart from myself as I’m teaching, and notice that I’m not giving it every ounce of my energy as I once did. This, I fear, is the time for me to wind down the teaching part of my career.

What will be ahead to produce income, I really don’t know. It’s “new beginnings" for me, a time to be open to possibilities, to be conscious of the passions and yearnings from within.

To those of you considering teaching, I hope my experiences may help in some little way. To those of you who have already been teaching, if you’d like to add questions to the list at the start of this essay or tell about your experiences teaching beading or other art forms, please feel free to make comments below or link your blog to this post.


  1. Anonymous12:33 PM

    I did quite a bit of beginning quilting teaching in the 1990s and I found that I was not making anything past the beginner's project. I had to get samples made and then samples of each step. I ended up with lots of easy projects and no time to explore my own skill level. I found that teaching didn't pay enough to stay stuck in the beginner skill level so I eventually let it go.

  2. I am one who teaches myself. I am an "I see" person and I seldom even refer to books. I decide to do something and I just do it. I am an artist (5 different styles to date), jewelry maker, photographer, poet, bead weaver, ATC maker, needlepoint, quilts, crochet, and that is all stuff I have taught to myself. It is really cool that people do teach these things though. I think about classes, and I just opt to stay home and create. Blog and art is the first time I've ever gone social with creating. It is a different thing totally.

  3. Anonymous6:29 PM

    Hi Robin.

    Interesting timing on this post. Last week, I was offered to teach a class at Beaucoup Beads. On the outside, I am interested in doing so, but on the inside, I know that it takes a lot of time and preparation - just like you said. And, as a person who never took an art class outside of middle school, I decided that if I don't want to take any classes, what makes me think that I would want to teach?? (Of course, I DO keep telling myself that I'm going to take one of Laura McCabe's classes, but never do. LOL)

    Like Mary Ellen, I'd rather explain my process through my blog, as well as other online presentations. That way, I can still stay at home and focus on creating:)

  4. I've never taken anything other than a beginning knitting class. I can usually teach myself if I have good books or see good examples of something.

    I don't think there's anything I know enough about to be a teacher.

  5. I thought I wanted to teach, but my last experience was a bad one. I did not get a contract and the classes were cancelled. The shop owner handled it very badly. Frankly, it turned me off teaching and, for a while, it even turned me of stitching.

    I have a lot to share, but I am not sure about the best way to go about it. I am not looking to earn a living from teaching, but I was hoping that I could find a way to make it work. :-/

  6. After many years of beading I started teaching a couple of years ago and found I really love it...however, I teach at our local bead shop so I don't have to do any set up or kits and I can be there in 5 minutes and I charge little enough that I don't feel the need to add value by writing out complicated instruction sheets, plus most of my classes so far have been for beginners and instructions for the basic stitches is in every bead magazine, so again, I don't write out anything myself.
    I do have a few advanced 2-day workshops I teach and I've written out a materials list and instructions for them but once they're done, you can use them over and over.
    I've looked into doing some of the larger venues and although they certainly charge the students a lot, they don't seem to pay the teachers all that well...for now, I've decided to pass on what sounds like a less than rewarding effort.

  7. Anonymous7:15 AM

    oI've taught for some years and in beading actually took some classes at beginner level after I'd learned the process myself. I found I was disappointed in most of the classes, except my first one, where the lady was a gifted teacher. In general, I found the time invested--writing hand outs, application, kits with more writing, and my least favortie, sorting beads for those kits, made my classes expensive and complicated. It was a relief to hit 65 and have that as the time I could 'retire.' I've since taught for fun and that is much easier.
    When teaching for cash I found rewards in feed back, finding ways to teach those who are totally audio in their learning, those who are totally visual and those who use a combination. It is great to have students who clammor for you to come back. It is painful to have someone teach your technique in exactly the same way you've presented it for half the money and not 'explaining' it well or shoddily in your estimation, or to see a technique you've painsakingly taught for a full day and the student is doing a totally awful job and making you look like a 'bad or poor' teacher. It was also difficlut for me to find time to take them aside and gently say it would have been even better the time when you see old students is usually when you are teaching in a class or at a short break and you have to find the bathroom and, well you know the rest. So, I found teaching to be a mixed bag. I enjoyed the good parts tremendously and really dislike the bad parts. I'm glad any teaching I do is gratis and fun.

    Coming from a back ground of zilch artistic encouragement--"how would you ever make a living, dear?"--and crayons (a new box of 8) were a once a year purchase, I didn't think I would ever be able to do artistic stuff. That was what I wanted to encourage students to do, let their creativity loose. I've taught myself to quilt, make teddy bears at the artist level and sell them, write, and weave, and along the way learned about 100 different ways to embroider, knit, sew clothing, etc. It never occurred to me to make a project type of thing for beads, but rather it was about the techniques. That isn't always easy to sell and yet I think it is an important distinction.

    Teaching has a lot of rewards, and you need to look at it carefully before you do it. It is a wonderful feeling to explain something 3 different ways and see the light go on behind the students eyes. You've opened a new world of possibility for them. Is there anything better? It is also incredibly painful to see what you've taught done at kindergarten level and know that person is taking great pride in showing you her/his accomplishment. Heavy, to figure out how to handle that personality and gently push for improvement while not ripping apart self-esteem in their 'accomplishment' and do it on the spot in ten seconds or less. To teach or not to teach? A question only the individual can answer. Robin is a gifted teacher, in my opinion, and I learned a lot from her. She is a great model to aspire for. And no, she didn't pay me. If you read "One Bead at a Time" you know it is true.

  8. Anonymous9:37 AM

    Teaching can be great fun when you have a class full of students who take to beading with great enthusiasm. They are a joy!

    Not all students are cut out for the art of seed beading. I've taught classes at the Adult Education Enrichment at the local high school where I would generally have one student per class who would get easily frustrated, ready to seriously go "postal" trying to thread a needle or pick up beads.

    one student, I recall, loudly huffed: "If I wanted to get stressed out I would have stayed at work. I could be home watching ER right now."

    This would bring a huge tension on the whole class and finding myself repeating: Remember, we're here to have fun. There aren't many mistakes you can do in beadwork. You don't have to be perfect" ... etc.

    what is someone's relaxation can be someone else's trigger-point.

    Teaching beading can be very rewarding, but it can also be genuinely demanding, and a trail in patience and the sacrificing of creativity, especially when having to break it down step by step.

  9. Robin, you not only have a gift for teaching artistic beadwork, but an equal ability to cut to the heart of an issue, explore it honestly and articulately, and then encourage others to examine the issue themselves.
    This was an extemely thoughtful post and I do appreciate your taking the time to share these thoughts with us.

    Perhaps the paradigm for passing on skills to artists/craftspeople is in the midst of a giant shift. The big conferences are and were great....but now that shops, blogs and websites, forums, and message lists are out there, learning is much more accessable and grass-roots disseminated than ever before.
    So it would be natural for you to start thinking about a new era in your own career...

    The question of course is income. I would love to see you make what you need from selling your creations as the art they are...also, I have noticed that some of the really well-established teachers like Nancy Crow and Judith Montano have created facilities where they live, so that students can come to them. That might be full circle for you...

    Anyway, thanks so much, again, for addressing this for us and getting the discussion rolling...

    (ps I'm on my laptop in the airport...can't stay away from all your blogs even when I'm on vacation!)

  10. Anonymous5:44 PM

    very interesting post. I really like hearing your view from the "trenches"- especially because I get a lot of -you should teach a class- but I find very stressful.

  11. Robin.....I am at the stage, after teaching art for 20 yrs.) of retiring. Like you, I do not feel I am giving 120% like I always did. I still enjoy it but have the craving to make my own art, something I haven't done in 30 yrs. are more. It is my time. The only draw back is the loss of revenue. That scares me because buying supplies and items to use in my work is what keeps me going. I am always on the hunt and to think of having to decide between groceries or cabinet cards scares the hell out of me. With all this said, I do agree with you about having to go with your feelings. I will retire at the end of this school year and can only hope to generate enough money to supply my habit (and love)! Good luck on your journey. Linda

  12. Ditto to Allison's post, well-said praise and gratitude.

    I've found teaching has just worn me out. I hate hauling all that stuff around and never seem to get it all put away when I get home.

    I'm slowly accepting that teaching is just not something I enjoy, that is I don't gain energy and stimulation in comparison to that which I put into it. That helps me appreciate those great teachers I've had, one of whom is you, Robin.

    Thanks for teaching also through your books and blog.

  13. Robin, Thank you for taking the time to share this info. I have taught small groups, always with friends included. Now I am asked to teach for quilting guilds to introduce them to crazy quilting, or at least give them a taste. After the classes I have already agreed to do next year, I don't think I will do it anymore. I agree that it is draining, and I don't get the pleasure from being grilled from "students" as much as I do from creating alone in my studio, being free is much too blissful to me.I will teach/share on a one on one level, but not classes anymore.I am honored people think I have something to offer, but I think I will leave it at that in the future. I was curious if well known artists, like yourself, had these issues. I appreciate your views. Thank you.

  14. Excellent post. This is yet another one I will want to save for future use.

    So on with the ramble...

    I've enthusastically "taught" friends various techniques and had to remind myself not to be saddened when they just didn't get as thrilled as I was with the process. "Make and Take" is definitely an overlying theme in this day and age.

    To your questions:

    #1 YES!

    #2 I believe the answer to this one is yes but I need to practice on some more people before I can answer that. I've written technical documentation and done trade shows but that doesn't exactly translate to teaching in the same fashion.

    #3 If we're talking about going full time, then yes. While I still have a day job, this can still be accomplished, just limited.

    #4 I would love to share my creative process and such. Yes, I know that those same students could one day become not only competition but steal my work for their own. Sadly, that is how life is. But I also feel that without passing on knowledge, it will be lost, and we've lost too much in the arts and crafts world due to "progress".

    I've considered approaching a local bead shop, a retirement center, or some other place of business that may have interest in my beading skills; I just haven't done it yet. I do have some possible options next year so we'll see how that goes.

    I've taken many classes in all sorts of arts and crafts running from several months long/once or twice a week, week long, several days long, day long, to only a few hours long. I've had amazing teachers and teachers who I'd never recommend (and just shy of wanted my money back from). Do I have stories to tell!

    I think a prospective teacher should also ask themselves:

    #1 Are you teaching for the right reasons? Do you want to teach others because you want to share your knowledge and enthusiasm or just make a buck?

    #2 Are you willing to let each student express their own creativity? Or do you want everyone's work look EXACTLY like yours?

    #3 Are you patient and can you be upbeat regardless of the situation at hand or the day you had before class? Can you roll with the punches?

    #4 Do you have the ability to create something that is truly your own to teach? If it's a technique, can you show it in a way that represents you? If it's a project, is it of your own design or did you just get it out of a book or from class you take? Can you be original?

  15. I admire everyone who does teach.

    I have taught in the past, at a store and through the local community college. I didn't enjoy it at all. I have resisted with all my strength (I have a person in Ohio asking me to come down for bead embroidery classes) any recent attempts to book more.

    I have learned that I don't enjoy teaching, I don't feel that I can communicate with my students in an appropriate fashion. Also, being left handed, it's hard to show people how to do it right handed.

    I have chosen to not teach any more. I will take classes, will continue to take classes.

    After all, who would have thought that over 3 years after taking a Robin Atkins class, that I would actually learn to love what I am doing with bead embroidery? Robin - you are the inspiration for my embroidery. After learning, my little spirit doll (who is still unfinished, but the Tylenol 3 that I put inside it is still there keeping the pain away from me), but I have gone gangbusters in other directions!

  16. To All ~ Thanks for your careful consideration of this topic. While these comments take a bit of time to read, you've mentioned several new and interesting points about teaching. I'm struck, particularly, by how individual a thing it is, how nobody can say "yes" or "no" for you, and nobody can predict exactly what the rewards and stresses of it might be. How we ourselves learn things is another interesting topic that some of you touched upon...

    To the First Time Commenters ~ Welcome and thanks!!!

    To Those who mentioned taking workshops from me ~ Your praise is very special... thanks! It's gratifying to know that in some small way I contributed to your development as an artist.

    To Diana and Mimi ~ You are both such talented artists with your own unique and compelling style. Of course you would have people saying "You SHOULD teach!" It's a way of complimenting your art, and perhaps you can just take it that way... as a compliment... period. Have no guilt in saying "No thanks!"

    To Janet ~ Big hugs, woman... your talents and knowlege are huge!

    To Linda ~ You'll find a way... we both will.

    To All ~ THANK YOU for sharing and for your honesty.

  17. I expect you're moving on to your next post, but I have to say how helpful this has been. Hearing how others would rather stay in their studio and create helps me feel like I have a tribe, rather than being an oddball who doesn't like teaching. Also the comment about not feeling guilty or obligated, but taking it as a compliment to one's artistic abiltiy or one's kindness that others ask me to teach is very liberating. Thanks again for your post. Sign me happily enjoying my studio!!

  18. I have enjoyed reading all the thoughts expressed re: your teaching post. I have taught some and still do at times here in Canada. I have always wished I could afford to take some classes from the wonderful teachers I have "met" through websites and blogs...find out what I am doing right and wrong with respect to both teaching and quilting/beading.
    I am always reevaluating if the negatives outweigh the positives of teaching. As others have mentioned, I too have had my share of negative/destructive store owner (and customers) experiences.
    Right now I try to clump any teaching engagements into a specific time frame - be exhausted, and then not teach again for many months while I refuel. This is working at the moment, but who knows in the future. There are many positives that keep me coming back to it, mostly the amazing women I have met along the way.
    Again...thank you for your comments and for generating discussion on this topic! Sure would love to come to Wisconsin!

  19. Anonymous11:29 PM

    I actucally really want to start teaching but don't really know the in's and out's of how to arrange the payment/contracts with shop owners or other venues. Any tips/advice on that would be great!


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!