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So, you want to teach embroidery?

I spend a lot of time in front of my television because that is where I do my embroidery. After we’ve caught up with what’s going on in the world by watching the 6.30 news, my husband settles down in front of his computer to prepare for the next day in court, or to catch up on what he hasn’t done because he’s been in court for too many days in a row, and I turf in a disc to indulge in escapism while I stitch away happily. I’m fairly choosy about what I watch and spend an enormous amount of time, effort, and not a little money, finding good drama series, movies and so on, usually British and Australian – good stories, deep mysteries, and human beings that don’t look like they’ve had too much plastic surgery.

Something that I notice, all too often, is that if a drama is set in a country town during the years of the Second World War or the couple of decades thereafter, there is a minor villain that turns up in every episode. The gossip and the scandalmonger, the one who is in charge of every cake sale in the village hall, the lady who turns up at every event, every party and every drama, big or small. She knows about every unmarried girl who shouldn’t be pregnant, but is. She’s got the low down on every married person who is sleeping with someone other than their spouse. Want to know who is having money troubles? Ask her. Which marriages are going through a rough patch? She’ll tell you, and add her opinion at the same time. She’s usually a portly lady, terribly well groomed, awfully self-righteous and always a very active member of the Woman’s Institute or the Country Woman’s Association. If she isn’t the chair person, then she wants to be and that forms part of the story. A stereotype? Yes. But stereotypes develop because those people exist and are in everyone’s face.

These strident and buxom matrons influenced the lives of women in villages, town, suburbs and even cities. I grew up in the sixties and seventies and, although it wasn’t their heyday, they existed and still exerted their particular brand of poison. An adult woman could not bake a cake, make a pot of jam, pickle a cucumber or thread a needle without their input and, usually, their disapproval. And she certainly couldn’t teach anyone else how to do any of those things without their accreditation, their approval and their rules. There were rules and they had to be followed, whether they were logical and practical. Or not.

In my lifetime women have become independent and, having got themselves educated for something other than nursing, teaching or secretarial work, are out there telling people what to do. They are not prepared to listen to petty rules, don’t care a less about gossip, have learnt that provided their conscience is clear, that’s all that matters. These gossipy ladies and their organisations still exist of course but their influence, happily, has waned. You can now pick up a needle on your own and, if you want to, you can teach what you do without their accreditation, their disapproval and their scandal.

There are many of you out there who would either like, or have been asked, to become tutors of embroidery. And you can do that, particularly if you have something really great to offer. I’ve taught embroidery for more than twenty five years and, whilst I certainly don’t have all the answers (who ever does), I’m posting this edited version of an article I wrote for a local stitching magazine a few years ago.

I am going to pose a bundle of questions and in so doing try to help you decide whether teaching is for you. If you are a tutor, read this anyway. It may cover some things you haven’t thought of before. And if you think I’ve left something out, email me.

Do you have an expert knowledge of embroidery?

It goes without saying that you should not even consider tutoring if you don’t know what you are talking about. It is important to have an in-depth knowledge because not only are you likely to be tutoring ladies who know a lot already, but you are going to be asked questions that you may not be able to answer. No person should ever be expected to know absolutely everything there is to know. That’s unrealistic. If, however, you don’t know very much at all, find something else to do. Too many people set themselves up as tutors after one lesson and three weeks of practice. That gives all tutors a bad name and it’s not fair to the good ones. Besides, if someone is going to pay you to teach them, it is fraudulent to know less than you claim. It is not enough that you enjoy what you are doing.

Are you a natural teacher?

This might sound like a rather stupid question, but it is an important one. It is not sufficient to have a good knowledge of your craft, to be fabulously creative or even alarmingly adept at what you do. When a person sets out to learn something she will want to have a teacher who is understanding and endlessly patient. She will be looking for someone who is kind and prepared to show her something over and over again, if she cannot grasp it the first time. She is also looking for a person who is a good communicator and can demonstrate in a way that she can understand. If you are not this sort of person you can stop reading now.

Are you a people person?

If you are going to be tutoring often, you have to like people. You have to enjoy their company and they should enjoy yours. You might start off teaching a few specific workshops but as time goes on you are likely to end up with regulars. These are the people that come to you once a week, every week, for years on end. Many of them don’t necessarily want to learn something at every class. For them, it is the time they set aside to do their embroidery, away from their daily grind. They want to enjoy not only what they are doing, but also the social side of the class. For these people you are less of a teacher and more of a hostess. So, if you don’t like entertaining people, it’s not going to work for you.

Are you confident?

You can also stop reading if you are a shy and nervous little doormat. Whilst being patient, kind and understanding, you cannot be submissive. Inevitably, somewhere along the line, Mrs Bossy with an overbearing personality will turn up and she will want to dominate the class. You cannot let her do that. Or, you might find that Mrs Pampered walks through your door. This person is used to having people run around her, acquiescing to her every demand. She will expect you to similarly fall in line, in the sweetest way. She will smile, say please and thank you, and always play helpless. If you are too polite to take control of her you are going to end up with a huge problem. The first part of the problem is that you will begin to dislike her and the second part is that your other students will begin to dislike you, because you are allowing her to take up all your time, leaving none for them. If you are going to teach a class, particularly if it is a big one, you must have the confidence to control that class without becoming Mrs Bossy yourself.

Are you thick-skinned?

There are a lot of bad-mannered people out there. I’m not talking about the person who may not like an aspect of the work that you have created and are tutoring. That person usually asks if she can put something else in its place and that’s hardly something to get offended about. Each person has her own taste. I’m talking about the person who comes onto your property for a class and sees fit to criticize your garden or the way you have decorated your home. That same person will comment on your parenting style, how you dress and the way you have trained your dogs. She has awful manners and she is always offensive. And just when you thought you’d seen everything, she will pick a flower in your garden. Without asking. If you can’t put up with offensive people, don’t teach, especially from a home studio.

Are you perceptive?

You are going to end up with students of all types. You are going to have demanding ladies who want to get all your attention. You need to be perceptive enough to realize what they are doing and stop them. That’s the one side of the coin. The other is Mrs Mouse who doesn’t like to make a fuss, so she won’t let you know that she didn’t understand something, or that she is finished what she is doing and needs to be taught the next thing. She’s not going to tell you her needs, you need to perceive them. The best way to pick up this student is to keep an eagle eye and ALWAYS circulate during the class. (By doing this you will also pick up if someone is doing something wrong, or badly. This will save you time later when you would otherwise have to undo a terrible mistake that has gone too far.)

Are you quick to judge?

You might get the impression that one of your students is a nasty person. Don’t be too quick to judge because as time goes on you may well discover that she has marital problems, an abusive husband, a delinquent child or a difficult parent. She might suffer from a medical problem or depression. Many ladies take up craft classes to escape into a better world than the one they are living in. By encouraging what they do and providing a happy environment for them to do it in, you are helping them to have a few pleasant hours a week. In time, and with understanding, they usually turn into nice people. Interestingly you will often find that the other ladies in the class will pick up on the problem and will inadvertently help you by making her feel welcome, special and part of the group. Once again, though, that is the one side of the coin. The other side is Mrs Terminally-Enraged who is so angry with life that she spends the entire class bitching. That lady pulls everyone down and you need to be brave enough to ask her to leave. If you don’t, the other ladies in the class will be the ones to go.

Are you ethical?

My first point talks about having an in-depth knowledge of your art. It would not be ethical to teach it if you didn’t. Ethics, however, go deeper than that. They are linked to professionalism, they require that you are honest and they require that you continue educating yourself in order to offer a high standard. It goes further still. It requires that you don’t teach other artists’ designs without their knowledge and permission. It requires that you don’t infringe copyright or, as important, allow your students to infringe copyright in your studio. I think that it requires that your classes do not become a hotbed of gossip and scandal. It certainly requires that you don’t denigrate shops and other tutors, or poach their students. And if your students or staff bad-mouth absent class members, other tutors or shops, put a stop to the conversation or, at the very least, don’t participate. It requires that you are kind. If you think that something a student has done is awful, keep it to yourself. Find a tactful way of getting her to change it. And don’t get into religious discussions. Just don’t.

Are you passionate and can you pass that on?

The best tutors are those that are teaching not for the money they earn, but because they are passionate about what they are doing. They exude joy and enthusiasm and in so doing pass that on to their students. Tutors should not regard what they are doing as ‘just a job’ because that attitude won’t enthuse and inspire their students. And don’t think that you can demonstrate your enthusiasm by working on your own projects during a class. That’s not on. Your students have paid you for your time. Give it to them without distraction.

Do you know enough to be flexible?

Students come in all shapes and sizes, levels of ability and levels of aptitude. There are some students who don’t have, for example, the same spatial ability that others might have. Most students are right handed, but there are a few who are left handed. You need to have enough knowledge of your art to suggest a viable and good alternative to something that they cannot cope with. You need to be dexterous enough to teach a left-handed student if you are right-handed. If someone doesn’t like a technique that you have used in a particular part of a design, you must have the knowledge to pull out all the alternatives so that she can choose what to do instead. Students work at the pace they are capable of. Very soon into any workshop you will have students working at different stages. You need to be able to cope with this.

Are you an organized person?

This is an extremely important question. There can be nothing worse than for a student to pay for a class only to find that the tutor fusses around not knowing what she’s going to teach and not knowing what comes next, that there are no notes or that she doesn’t have everything at hand to complete the project.

  • Before offering a class you must have worked out a lesson plan, even if it’s only in your head. You need to have divided up the hours in such a way that you make sure you can get through everything that needs to be covered, without rushing at the end. Be realistic when you work this out and don’t try to cover too much in one lesson. You must allow for the pace of the students, even if you, yourself, can do it faster.
  • In advertising your workshop you must describe it clearly and fully and if it is not suitable for beginners, state that in bold letters. In that way you will cover yourself when the shop or convention you are teaching at has booked students who have never threaded a needle. These incapable ones will of course say that they didn’t know it wasn’t for beginners, but it isn’t your fault that they didn’t read what the advert said in the brochure, or that the staff who took the booking didn’t tell them. You need to refund them their money and suggest they leave because it won’t be fair to the others if they are held back by ladies who shouldn’t be there.
  • You need to work out a list of what students need to bring to the class and get it to them well in advance.
  • Any tools that they may need to use must be available to them. They can be tools that you provide or tools for them to buy – but they must be available. The same applies to materials.
  • You need to provide well written and properly illustrated notes or instructions. And you must do them yourself. It is illegal to photocopy someone else’s instructions, or to photocopy from books. In order to do this you need to have a computer, scanner and printer as well as the skills required to operate them.
  • The only person who is not allowed to be a latecomer is the tutor. You need to be ready and waiting, with everything set out long before a class begins.

Do you have the right teaching venue?

Whether you are teaching from a home studio or teaching at a shop or community hall, the teaching area should be suitable.

  • You must have sufficient space for students to spread themselves out, the chairs should be comfortable and there should be enough light. Natural light may not be sufficient, so additional lighting is often necessary.
  • Consider the noise levels in the general area of where you are going to teach. It is not only difficult to teach above outside noise, it is un-relaxing for students if a teaching area is too noisy.
  • Don’t forget that your students will require parking.
  • Consider whether you need to provide heating or air conditioning and make sure there is an available toilet and wash basin, with a cake of soap and a towel.
  • Consider how you are going to provide refreshments during breaks in teaching. A mid-morning or mid-afternoon break is vital. It enables students to rest their eyes and stop concentrating for a while. Remember, you know what you are doing and your students don’t. They have to concentrate harder than you do.
  • You are also allowed to make your own rules if you are teaching from your own home studio. One of my rules is that if you don’t like, or are scared of, dogs don’t come to my classes because the dogs come too. Now who would have thought that I would have made that rule?
  • You are also allowed to tell people that they can’t bring their children/grandchildren/visiting nieces and nephews. An adult class is not the right place for them. They distract everyone and must be left at home. With a babysitter.

Do you want to make your first million teaching your art?

I only have bad news here, I’m afraid. You won’t make lots of money. You won’t even be able to support yourself. You need to find out what the going rate is, either country-wide or in your area. You can’t charge that, or even close to that, if you are just starting out. So, don’t give up your day-job unless you have a rich husband or an inheritance. Because you will starve, and so will your children.

What are your aims?

This may sound like a silly question, but bear with me here. Ask yourself: ‘is my intention to merely host a stitching morning or do I want to seriously teach, promote and keep embroidery alive and flourishing?’ There’s a big difference between the two. If you want to call yourself a tutor you must choose the latter and you should communicate that to your students. If you don’t, you will not be allowed to moan and feel bitter if you end up with a class full of ladies who are just looking for a coffee morning, albeit one that they pay for.

How are you going to cope with problems?

There are the obvious problems like electricity blackouts, water-cuts, tools breaking, a greater response than you expected which could cause you to run out of stock, possibly weather and the possibility of you coming down with a nasty bug on the day you have a class. You need to make contingency plans for these things. However, if you are a tutor you will be teaching human beings and you will encounter human quirks. I could write a book on the many quirks that I have encountered but that would take a very long time, so I’m going to list just a few of the problems that I haven’t touched on yet and suggest ways of dealing with them.

  • Mrs ADHD: More often than not a student who is battling with a concept, or one who is demanding, is not concentrating and not listening. This could be because she keeps answering her phone or because she spends her time chatting to the person next to her, or it could be that she genuinely battles to concentrate. You need to sit next to this person and make sure that she is listening and every time her eyes get that glazed look, stop and ask her to listen. Pull her back from her daydream. It will be time worth spending.
  • The Late Mrs Crafter: Whether it is because of traffic or a car problem, or because she is a bad mannered person who is always late, the latecomer should not be allowed to disturb a class that has already started. She should be encouraged to sit down quietly and wait until you are able to get to her.
  • Mrs Value-For-Money: This is the student who comes to class now and then, maybe once a month. In the class that she attends she wants to get enough out of you to keep her going for the next month and will constantly be demanding your attention to the detriment of the other ladies in the class. You need to be strict with Mrs Value-For-Money. Only give her attention when her turn comes, otherwise you will run yourself ragged and that’s not fair to you. You also have to make sure that she has grasped what you have shown her, because very often she hasn’t. She wants to quickly move onto the next thing and suck you dry so she has decided that she’ll work it out properly at home. If you stick to your guns she will eventually accept it, or leave and that’s okay too.
  • Mrs Blame-Game: This person is seldom one of your regular students. You encounter her at Conventions and similar events. She is the person that always arrives early and then immediately criticises the article you are going to teach. She will say she doesn’t like the colour, or the fabric you have used. I used to wonder why a person would book to do a workshop if she didn’t like the article and then I realized that had nothing to do with it. She is sure that she is going to fail and is setting things up, from the start, to blame you. Nip that in the bud by offering to refund her money and allowing her to leave before the workshop even starts. If she chooses to stay you need, somehow, to make it clear that the deal is that she can’t blame you, particularly if everyone else in the class manages. Mrs Blame Game is also the person who didn’t enjoy her workshop, either because she should never have booked to do it in the first place or for whatever reason, she didn’t cope. She will blame you. If everyone else coped and enjoyed the class, let it slide over you. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.
  • Mrs I-Have-My-Own-Ideas: Like Mrs Blame-Game, this person is someone you usually encounter away from your home studio. She doesn’t want to do it your way, use the materials in the kit (wanting to use inappropriate materials instead) or to follow your instructions. You need to nip this in the bud immediately by telling her that she has paid you to teach her because you are the expert. That she is welcome to do what she wants with the techniques when she gets home but that while she is at your workshop she needs to follow your instructions and use your materials. Because, if you don’t do that she will blame you at the end of the day when she’s made a mess because her colours are wrong, or her materials were of inferior quality.
  • Mrs BYOB: On a party invitation that means Bring Your Own Bottle. In my studio it means (Don’t) Bring Your Own Beads. I stock all the embroidery and beading requisites with which I teach in my studio, or I provide a full kit. I don’t mind if somebody brings threads that they already own – provided they are of acceptable quality, which they usually are. The problem arises with beads. I only stock good quality beads because they produce good quality items and I place a huge emphasis on using quality materials. Why put in all the hours it takes to make something if you are going to use inferior materials. Mrs BYOB doesn’t agree. She wants to go down to the wholesalers and buy rubbish. Seed beads that are all sorts of shapes with sharp edges, where the sizing is irregular, the holes are off-centre and the colours fade. She will then want me to teach her with these beads and will be disappointed when her necklace either breaks or doesn’t look like mine. Do not let her do this. Make strict rules for Mrs BYOB and don’t deviate.
  • Mrs Inferiority-Complex: If you bide your time you will eventually find out that this poor soul has no confidence because she is dominated at home, comes from a culture where women are lesser beings, or has a medical problem. She is convinced that she won’t get it right and it is up to you to applaud every step that she does correctly. Show it off to the rest of the class, tell her how fabulous it is and watch her grow. It’s very rewarding when she blossoms.
  • The Duchess: We all know this person. She has travelled more widely, has more wisdom, has cleverer children or children with bigger problems, she is pompous, has huge pretensions and an inflated idea of her status in life, usually because she is married to someone who she perceives to be at the top somewhere. (My news for her is that it is 2015 and a woman is only allowed to claim status if the achievements are hers, not her husband’s.) She has an opinion on every subject that is discussed around the table and she always knows better. She is a pain. Don’t let her overwhelm the class. Change the subject. Every time.
  • Mrs Nothing’s-Good-Enough: This is the person who has unreasonable expectations. It’s not because your standards are lower than they should be but because she has those same unreasonable expectations at the supermarket, at the hairdresser, when she’s buying a car or even filling up with petrol. Nothing will ever be good enough for her or happen quickly enough. She is also the one who will complain about the price of everything. She will always try to get the rest of the class to agree with her, on everything. Get rid of her. She’s trouble and she’s not going to change.
  • Mrs Full-Ownership: For whatever reason, there are people in this world who think that because they have been to one lesson or they have bought one of your designs, they own you. They think that this gives them the right to phone you at 10 o’clock at night, on a Sunday afternoon or at 6.30 in the morning. If you then ask them to phone back during business hours, they are offended. First of all, decide what your business hours are and stick to them. Only give your mobile phone number out because that way you can identify the caller and decide whether or not you want to answer the phone. Phones in recent years now give you the option of sending a text instead of answering the call. Mine gives my business hours and invites the caller to phone then. There’s always the chance, then, that they will look up your land line number and phone you on that, so your family needs to know that they have to tell after hours callers that you are in the shower. We don’t have that problem at the moment. The cordless phone is lost. Buried under something, probably, and its battery has gone flat, so we can’t even ring it to see where it is. So then, don’t put it past Mrs Full-Ownership to then arrive at your gate. I have a sign on my gate stating what times I’m available, even if my car is parked in the driveway. And I stick to it. There is no such thing as an embroidery emergency so I ignore Mrs Full-Ownership and she eventually learns that I am entitled to my own leisure and family time. My daughter and her friends call that passive-aggressive!
  • Mrs Grand-Coffee-Morning: This is the lady that’s bored. She hasn’t got enough to do in her life and regards the classes she attends as grand social occasions. She will spend the time chatting to everyone around her, not allowing them to get on with what they want to learn, emitting huge woops of laughter and generally disrupting everything. She might even decide that your eats aren’t up to scratch and start arriving with boot-loads of cake, which will then keep you running around all morning fetching sharp knives, cake plates, cake forks and napkins. And before you know it, she’s got everyone’s birthdays recorded and is demanding that they bring the eats during the week of their birthday. If she’s just a once-off event student, you need to tactfully ask her to leave the others alone and if she’s one of your regular students, like Mrs Terminally-Enraged, you may need to ask her to leave if you can’t bring her under control.
  • Mrs WI: These ladies are a problem when you first start teaching. They know that you are still finding your feet and are waiting, ready to dispute much of what you say. You sometimes wonder if they have come there, not to learn, but to put you in your place. My standard reply to that is along of the lines of creativity, by its very nature, cannot have rules. You may have to repeat that often and they might eventually get the message. That you don’t care about petty rules, that the proof of what you are teaching is in the finished result. Fortunately, as you get better and gain a reputation, they tend to either stay away of keep their opinions to themselves.
  • The most difficult thing to deal with, and one that you need to make decisions on before you set up any studio, is the special-needs person. Very often a mother has a mentally-handicapped daughter and she will have decided that it would be nice if she joined a group of stitchers. My experience is that it doesn’t work. You will need to spend a disproportionate amount of time with her. More troubling, and depending on the extent of her handicap, aspects of her behaviour can cause discomfort to others. This is not fair to your other students and it turns you into a glorified babysitter. As harsh as I might sound here, my advice is to avoid the situation altogether.

Have you changed your mind?

So, there you have it. All the gory details. You need to know the logistics. And you must know the pitfalls, be prepared for them and stand firm. If you don’t, you will give up something that you would otherwise have enjoyed doing. And that would be a pity. If you are the right kind of person to be a tutor, have something worthwhile to offer to the community and being forewarned, you can put up with the downside (which doesn’t happen most of the time), it is so rewarding. It is wonderful to watch a shy, insecure women blossom as she creates something that she is proud of and it is even strangely satisfying when you realize that Mrs Full Ownership has got the message and is no longer phoning you at midnight. It will drive you to improve your skills and to invent new concepts. You will learn from, and often be inspired by, your students. You will get a special kind of thrill when someone who started with you as a beginner is suddenly designing her own pieces and they are being published. Many of your students will become good friends and, if you persevere you can even turn bad-mannered ladies into polite and pleasant citizens. Takes patience though.

Depending on the time that you have available and the type of commitment you are prepared to give to tutoring, you can end up traveling the country and even to other parts of the world, meeting like-minded people. There is no doubt in my mind that it is the best way to travel and make friends. I have made so many that I could get myself into trouble just about anywhere and find someone that I know to tell me where to find the best motor mechanic, hospital or doctor. Don’t be fooled, it is hard, hard work but…………… the harder you work the luckier you get! And I feel very lucky.

7 thoughts on “So, you want to teach embroidery?

  1. Hi Hazel, brilliant article, thank you for sharing your expert advice. I do enjoy reading your blog and your needlework and books have been an inspiration to me. Needlework gives hours of pleasure and stress relief. Happy Stitching. Kind regards Mandy Currie

  2. Outstanding article and you've covered all the bases extremely well.

  3. A fabulous summation! Great reading. Thanks!

  4. A great article for any of us who ever attend classes or groups of any kind to read, and read again. Perhaps we are one of the Mrs Someones and could take a hint (and hopefully remember it).Thank you.

  5. Goodness! What a lot of trialsome people there are around! I've never taught embroidery, but I've taught Mandarin Chinese language and can see some of the traits you describe in some of my former students. The one that got me most was the young man who thought that, as he (most likely his parents, actually) paid a meagre £1000 a year towards his tuition, he had the right to tell me what to do!! I wasn't quick enough to remind him that he was probably only contributing towards the university's utilities bills….

    I love the bit about 'only teach if you really know what you're talking about'. Having been elbowed aside in volunteer language teaching last year by someone who, frankly, desperately needed intensive tuition themselves, I can see how vital this is. If you don't know what you're doing fully yet, not only are you being very arrogant by presuming yourself to be expert enough to lead others' development, but you're also very likely to be spreading bad habits among those who don't know better.

    I wish you many more years of successful teaching and a complete absence of difficult students. The latter mayn't be realistic, but I hope it for you anyway. =)

    Best wishes from Britain. xx

  6. Dear Hazel, wise words indeed and applicable to most social situations and societies. With warm greetings from Australia. Catherine Kyngdon

  7. A must read for all students – to know what not to do!

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