Learning to teach outside of the classroom.
So you just went through a Pilates certification and your head is jammed with new information. How should you apply it to your teaching? Here are the things I wish someone would have told me when I first started out.
1. A class is not like a private
Students in a class setting are not all that excited to listen to a lengthy explanation of neutral spine, as interesting as that may be for you. It's better to save the nitty-gritty for a private lesson or after class. Speak to the individuals in the class and apply corrections where necessary, but remember this is a group class. It’s a hard reality, especially for newer teachers who have been corrected continually during the certification process. You naturally want the exercises done right, but the class wants to move. Limit your corrections and cues in favor of rhythm and flow. Have faith that your students will get better with time and repetition. If your class isn’t “getting it” then by all means, slow down and explain. But limit this type of interaction to one or two times per class. Some teachers gravitate more toward teaching privates than classes, but you’ll develop the best skills doing both because each requires a unique skill set.
2. Silence is golden
Eliminate some of the “blah blah” (aka the stream of meaningless talking that fills the silence). This is so much harder than it seems, even for a non –talker like me. A psychologist, with whom I sought help for stress management, opened my eyes to my true role as the teacher. She coached me to view myself as a witness to their learning process. She challenged me to take frequent breaks from talking to simply step back and watch as the student processes my instructions. Nowadays, I do this intentionally with a new client. Once they are proficient (and safe) in the exercise, I tell them to complete 10 leg circles in each direction as I step away and get a drink of water. I’m setting the tone that this is their workout (not mine) and they should take ownership of it. Hovering over your students does little to foster independence.
3. Be direct
Eliminate vague cues that don’t mean anything such as “lengthen long”. I recently took a class at a new studio, and I received exactly two cues the entire class—“pelvic floor” and “lengthen”. I wasn’t instructed what to do with my pelvic floor or what exactly I should be lengthening, but she repeated these phrases a hilarious number of times. It’s hard as a new teacher after learning the eloquent language of pilates to say something as simple as “straighten your leg” but that is a far more useful bit of info. Clients can understand and assimilate little snippets of info, spoken clearly and directly.
Here’s an example:
Teacher: “Okay then. and now what I would like you to do next please is to raise your arms overhead and gently place your hands on the footbar……”
Try this instead: “Hands on the bar”. (enough said)
Remember that clients are paying you to give the orders, so phrase your cues as directives rather than suggestions.
Teacher: “If you would like to do 3 more than please continue with….and when you are ready…and if you prefer X over Y…”
Try this instead: “Get ready, now 3 more. Go!”
4. Teaching vs Telling.
Here’s an example. A pilates instructor gives clear cues and “tells” the a class what to do from start to finish. That is our primary task. The real essence of teaching, however, is to ask questions that will encourage learning and test their knowledge. For example:
· What exercise usually comes next?
· What muscles do you feel working?
· How would you adjust your springs if this feels too easy?
The goal is for the student to take charge of their own practice, not to rely on your cues forever.
5. Let them fail (a little)
If everyone can do everything you are teaching, the class is too easy! The trick is to identify the second most advanced student in the class and teach to her/his level. Whether it’s a class or private, allow students to struggle (safely) in order to provide a challenge. Don’t shy away from an exercise like teaser because it isn’t being performed perfectly. Make peace with the reality that students will not grasp everything you say TODAY; instead, give them something to shoot for. Having a goal is highly motivating. Congratulate the small victories along the way. Arms in the right position but legs are a mess? Applaud the student on what she did right and then move forward. The beauty of Pilates is that it is a lifelong process.
6. Over-creativity kills the vibe.
Have a plan and stick to the choreography because learning absolutely requires repetition. Think of it this way: do children learn all new material every time they go to school? Of course not, they wouldn’t retain a thing! Your pilates students are the same. Allow students to start with something familiar (ex: the footwork) to find their breath and prepare for the workout ahead. Use your creativity wisely and in small doses. Before you are tempted add in the fun new exercise sequence you saw on Pilates Anytime, try challenging students with the same exercise by changing resistance, or pace. Or add a new prop. There are limitless variations on the classics. That is skillful teaching. Don’t put yourself in a position to have to make up a new workout on the fly every time you teach. You’ll experience career "burnout" out in no time. More importantly, repetition allows your students to feel successful with the material and to assess their own progress.
7. It’s not perfection, it’s a practice.
I know some well-respected teachers who will make a student repeat the footwork until it is perfect before moving on, even if this is for the entire lesson. But my personal strategy with a new student is to teach “gross to fine”. Get their body moving in the general right direction before refining it to a “T”. I believe that over-correction kills the joy, especially in the first few lessons. It is far more important that the new student enjoys the activity and is therefore excited to come back for more, rather than to demand too much straightaway. I recently sat down with a respected 2nd gen teacher and PMA board member, and I asked this question to both of them. “Do your students get a workout?” Their answer was a resounding “NO”! They see their role as teaching movement patterns, not providing a sweat session. I respect that viewpoint, but my humble opinion differs (and so do my clients' goals). I strongly believe that a client’s first experience will shape how they view pilates for a lifetime.
8. Practice on yourself first
This is especially important when you plan to teach something new. The new sequence won’t typically work as well in a class as it did in your head. There’s nothing worse than to lose the class and to realize that you should have been more prepared. Make sure you practice doing the same number of repetitions you will be teaching, memorize the springs, and consider the flow from the exercise before it to whatever follows. Does the new exercise require a prop or a spot? Plan this from the beginning of class and have your tools ready.
9. Difficult students?
Keep your cool. Don’t internalize their bad behavior or make it any more emotional than it has to be. Do you have an incessant talker? Put them face down and make them do backbends (aka swan, pull straps, breaststroke). Yes, I’m completely serious. It works like a charm. With all behavioral challenges, state your expectations directly. This is tough for people-pleasers, but YOU ARE NOT TRYING TO WIN THE NICE GIRL AWARD. Repeat after me:
· Please silence your cell phone now.
· Quiet please so that we can begin.
· I will need you to be on time from now on; it is the studio’s policy that you cannot join class more than 10min late.
· Save your questions until the end of class
· It is the studio’s policy to charge for no shows and late cancels; I will charge you next time.
I have read in blogs and articles on teaching that it is okay to decline taking clients who are not “your cup of tea”, or in other words, clients who do not fit your personality or preference. There is some truth to that philosophy, but I believe that a real pro goes by this credo: WE TEACH PEOPLE HOW TO TREAT US. You will encounter a great many difficulties because it is your job to ask your clients for the hard stuff--namely their time, money, and their energy as well as behavioral change. Before you back away from someone who is “difficult”, please examine your own ability to set boundaries and state your expectations. You may be able to reframe these experiences as opportunity for professional growth.
10. Draw professional boundaries
We ultimately develop strong personal relationships with our clients, so it’s important to draw clear boundaries from the beginning to avoid awkwardness later. Commit to charging for late cancels and no shows. If you don’t, you are teaching your client that your time is flexible and not valuable. You will resent them for it eventually (which is unfair because the fault will be yours). Charge family members. Especially family members! No one values what you are willing to fork over for free (namely your time and expertise). Avoid giving out your cell phone number to help keep your private life your own. And when a true friendship develops, enjoy it over a cup of coffee instead of during their workout. Client may be friends, but we still owe them an hour of focused attention.