The recent NADOI Meeting in New Mexico was all about instructing skills, developing a curriculum for beginners, managing our classes effectively, and solving commonplace class problems. One of the best things I came away with were the questions asked by our newer instructors. There just wasn’t enough time to cover them all, so I am hoping we can use NADOI Notes to address some of the rest of them.
One very good question posed was, “If you are a new instructor, how do you project self-confidence to your first few classes?” We have all been there: that first class that is truly “ours,” the night when we are front and center and expected to handle everything on our own, and do it right. I think that no matter how long we are in the business of teaching obedience classes, we will always remember that first experience! Maybe it came in a call literally a few minutes before class time when we were told that the head instructor was ill or caught in traffic and couldn’t make the class. Maybe we prepared for the opportunity for weeks. Either way, that first real class can be a dream come true – terrifying, exhilarating, and nerve-wracking, all at the same time.
So what is the best way to build self-confidence in the new instructor? There may be as many answers as there are instructor personalities. I suspect that most of us “in the biz” are pretty alpha and outgoing types. We love to talk, love people and dogs, and enjoy being in charge! But we may not have started out that way, so recalling some of the things that gave us just enough moxie to get out there on our own may be helpful to our new instructors.
• Preparation. Nothing will ever take the place of excellent preparation as a good confidence builder. Most of us will need to put in time as assistants to good class instructors. An outstanding mentor is worth his or her weight in gold! You will always learn more, and learn faster, with a good example to follow than you will with a mediocre one. Have a good curriculum and follow it. When you are more seasoned, you will be able to be creative, but your first few classes may be less so. Carry notes or a lesson plan for every class session so you won’t forget what to do. Wear a watch so that you stay in your time frame for each part of the lesson plan. Work to keep students on task and be wary of those folks who will way-lay you with questions, stories, or problems. Have help if you can. A good assistant will make everything go more smoothly. Get your class site prepared ahead of time, and pay special attention to outdoor sites. Think of every possible thing that you will need as a tool or prop, and have it readily accessible. Likewise, try to look ahead to any “potholes” that you might fall into during the class. These could include: problem dogs or students, crowd control, barking, weather issues if outside, and many more. You might go for years and not need the first aid kit, but it’s better to have it anyway! Rehearse your “performance.” Even if all you do is a pretend class for your family or in front of the bathroom mirror, repetition will help you just as it does our students and their dogs.
• Be a student or a teacher in other venues. This might sound silly, but it really can build your confidence if you teach a Sunday school class, give a talk to the PTA or Lion’s Club, or enroll in a community college class. As an instructor for subjects other than dog obedience, you will not only practice “instructing skills,” but you will gain the confidence that repeating a successful behavior brings. If you are a student, you will have an opportunity to observe and critique professional teachers. Watching and learning from an excellent teacher is valuable, no matter what or who you end up teaching yourself. Find out, by watching and learning, what system works best for you. I tend to run a very “tight ship” in my classes, but I have friends who are excellent instructors who are much more laid back. Usually, we won’t be successful in the long term if we force ourselves to be something we are not.
• Practice public speaking. Classes are available from organizations like Toastmasters where you can learn this art. Talk to your pastor about borrowing books on “Preaching 101,” or similar curricula. Even the most talented speaker can learn from others and perfect communication skills. Find out what tips and techniques best fit your personal style and how to use them. Humor and joke telling might work for some, but may not be your forte´ if you are more serious.
• Succeed with your own dogs. Nothing builds our confidence faster than being out with our well-trained and well-mannered companions! I have had to go to class before without my dog and it is amazing how nervous I feel. I have a new puppy now and naturally he is not as trained as I hope he will be in the future. He comes to class with me, but I do yearn for the days when I could take my “old” dog! Nothing will impress your students faster than seeing your dog!
• Look good. OK, maybe you can’t lose those last 20 lbs. or pretend there’s no gray in your hair, but you can present yourself professionally. Being well-groomed counts for a lot, whether it’s for the men or the ladies. This is true in any business, and with competition around the corner for all of us, it’s more important today than ever. This is one area where an unbiased opinion can really help, so ask a trusted friend how you can improve. If you are able to do it, having someone video you as you teach a class can be a hugely effective tool in helping you “see yourself.” It will take some courage and you can’t be thin-skinned, but this can be a great way to spot problem areas, both in appearance and delivery.
As an instructor and teacher of instructors, I would be interested in hearing your ideas, so please post me. This is a big subject and it might be fun to go a little deeper with it. And if you know a new instructor, give him/her a compliment today. It might go a long way toward building someone’s self-confidence!