If you know anything about woodworking, I think you are qualified to teach it to others.
In my earliest days of woodworking as an adult, my friend Chris and I taught each other what we knew about woodworking, even though we each knew enough to fill up a thimble. In the early 1990s, I taught my neighbors how to make basic casework, even though I barely knew how to make basic casework.
I don’t think you need to be certified. I don’t think you need formal training. All you have to have is a little bit of knowledge and the willingness to share it with others.
During the last 15 years I’ve taught lots of people about woodworking in exchange for money. And I’ve observed a lot of woodworking teachers both good and bad. And I have picked the brains of people who are extraordinary teachers (thanks, Trevor). All in an effort to become a better teacher.
Recently I made a list of the principles I actively follow as I teach. You might find them useful if your neighbor Ed ever asks if you could show him how to build a radiator cover.
- Small bites of information. When explaining a technique, every lecture is as short as possible. Usually 5-10 minutes. Never ever longer than 20 minutes. My pattern is this: Present small amounts of information. Have the students act on it. Repeat.
- Teach without talking. Many of the lessons are embedded in the material and are not explicit. I might put cabinetmaker’s triangles on everyone’s stock. There will be no lecture about the triangles, but students will be required to use them. Later in the class I will reference them offhand while we are working. The students then understand them through use, and they are much less likely to resist or object to the material.
- Never do their work for them. I strive to never touch the tools or work of my students. If they make a near-fatal error I will ask them if they want help, but I will never insist or step in. If I have to I will (with their permission) take their hands and show them how to perform an operation or repair.
- Avoid having lines at machines or specialty tools. There is nothing worse than the line at the abattoir. When we have one tool for the class (say, a tenon cutter) that everyone has to use, I give the rest of the class two or three things they can be doing at the bench as they wait their turn.
- Draw the lesson. Demonstrate the lesson. Let them do the lesson. Sometimes information isn’t sticky enough. Or it takes a few attempts to get it in your head. To help this, I try to draw out every lesson on the board before a lecture. Then I demonstrate the lesson. Then I immediately ask them to do the operation. I also encourage them to photograph the lesson on the board to help them remember it.
- On praise and criticism. Praise and criticism is specific to the student’s work and always genuine. Point out what is right and wrong. Explain why. Some students will deflect both praise and criticism verbally. But they do hear it.
- Stop at every bench, every day of the class. Spend time looking at their work and listening to them talk about it.
- Warm up before every demo. Demonstrating when you are cold is difficult. If you have to tenon four legs, tenon one before the lecture. This ensures you will have all the tools you need at the bench and get your head in the right place.
- Understand the goal of each student. Some students want a trophy and no more. Others want skills and don’t care about the thing they are building. Both are valid approaches.
Finally, I try to learn from my students. Even a first-day woodworker can teach me something because they are coming at it with fresh eyes. Or without preconceived notions.
Oh, and tell stupid jokes. Make fun of your own failings. Show your flaws and shortcomings – even revel in them.
But most of all, teach.
— Christopher Schwarz
41 thoughts on “Teach Woodworking – or Else”
I would add: If you can’t teach then support those that do.
Its been years since I taught. I miss it. I look at the digital stack of seminars and classes I taught (40 odd different seminars and classes) and I keep thinking “maybe I should start again”
blog articles like this are a nice hint.
And, BTW Chris: I am so appreciative, even now, years later, for the time you spent at Rosewood ages ago.
Please keep writing.
When I worked at Michigan Bell, I had a supervisor who formerly was an instructor at the plant school. He said there were four steps to teaching a class – “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, Tell them, Tell them again, then Tell them what you told them”.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Outstanding points that I will pass on to my fellow colleagues who teach classes at the new Rockler store in Brandon FL.
Recently had a class with Roy Underhill on dovetails and mortises. A great instructor and a fun class. He instructs as you mentioned. Only 8 in the class, so we have a lot of one-on-one. Can’t wait till next year’s classes are posted. Every class is full for the rest of this year.
Love this approach and your honesty and skill.
I have passed along what I learned from you, at Kelly Mehler’s school, several times. Most are looking to make a solid workbench. We also use several of these methods in our Basic and Intermediate Woodworking classes at the Kansas City Woodworkers’Guild. Chris, you’re a great teacher teacher.
Forgot one: an answer draw out of a student is better than one provided. Sometimes a careful question will connect dots in a students head. This builds confidence and a pattern of behavior to trust and expand upon what they already know. This is hard because it requires a broader knowledge foundation from an instructor. Answer regurgitation is always easier.
I have experimented with this technique and I do not use it in group classes. Some students do not think on their feet that way, they become stressed out and embarrassed and think they look stupid.
Ya, only works in the one on one interactions because every student has different knowledge base and personality to reference.
One more thought.
If we don’t teach: we don’t help bring the next generation along.
Whether its woodworking, helping at the school that the family kids attend, whether its in one’s day job. It is essential.
Right now, in my ‘day job’ I’ve got a student intern for the summer: she’s still in high school: trying to decide if she wants to do high tech as a career. She’s getting mentorship, I’m getting a chance to try new things.
Outside of tech I’m mentoring a couple of younger folks in the joys of woodworking.
Doesn’t have to be a formal thing to still help out.
Yup. Which is the point of the headline – apologies that it wasn’t explicit.
Sorry: no doubt in your headline skills: I interpreted it slightly differently: but now I grasp the direction you were going for.
More, more, …
And this is why you are an excellent teacher, Chris. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to learn from you over the years. Thank you for your patience and kindness!
My least favorite teacher gave vague feedback. His favorite phrase was “you might want to . . . ”
My fovorite teacher gave feedback in the simplest terms. My favorite advice from him was “Why in hell would you do a goddamn stupid thing like that?”
Fantastic insights Chris. I’ve been teaching music full time for over 15 years and will be adding your ideas to my bag of teacher tricks. Here are a few principles I’ve learned over the years:
1) Help your students keep their focus on the end result. It’s easy to get stuck when all you see are the 30 corners worth of dovetails to cut. But, if you keep your focus on the chest of drawers, cutting all those dovetails will fly by.
2) Help them find heros. Again, keep your eye on the destination and you will figure out how to get there. If Chris Shwarz can do it, so can I!
3) When it comes time for evaluation, ask them, “What’s 1 thing you did well? What’s 1 thing you would like to do better?” Then, you answer the same questions.
4) Students are always more receptive to learning something they identitified in #3
5) Habits are king. Give your students a trigger, routine, and clue them into the resulting reward. For example, trigger: every time you step to the band saw…. routine: put your hearing protection on…. reward: keep your hearing.
6) Habits, good or bad, don’t care. They will quickly become automatic and ingrained. The sooner you get it right, the sooner you make a good habit. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.
7) Go so slowly, that you can not get it wrong.
8) Identify and pass on fundimental techniques, especially physical actions like how to properly hold a saw or position/use your body when doing an operation. Poor technique will keep you from getting better.
9) Have the right equipment. The right equipment doesn’t need to be expensive. It needs to be properly tuned to operate at peak performance.
10) Practice with the stage in mind. (Music) You’re on stage at Carnegie Hall, show me how you would play this. (Woodworking) _________ has comissioned you for this project to be displayed/used at ________, show me how you would make it.
Excellent (from a lifelong active teacher, who runs a large clinic program.) A couple of factoids.
One of the most developed parts of the brain is our visual cortex. We can process more complex information than almost any other part of the brain – very often, more than any words can say.
It’s OK to draw something on a whiteboard, and lay out specific information. But if you don’t follow up with some hands-on stuff, students’ brains can’t create their own usable autobiographical narrative. They’ll forget it when they walk out the door.
Students in a classroom setting will often enthusiastically jump up and down listening to you. But when you leave, it’s like the magic genie vanishes. Mirroring is super-powerful when you’re there. When you’re gone, well, there’s no mirror.
For me, teaching progresses from a.) the front of the room, to b.) the back of the room. But your real goal should always be that you teach when c.) you’re not in the room at all!
If you want some brain candy on how all this works, you can read this semi-popular piece on how humans learn.
A great list, especially the last item, Oh and a “British” accent helps…
I teach sailing, navigation and other boats things. What was said is best practice.
If I may add one more – repeat, repeat, repeat. Students often need to hear suffering more then once, twice or thrice. I can’t count how often I say “skew and slice makes things nice” when teaching drawknife work in a chair class. But eventually it sinks in. We learn live in repetitions, at least according to Kundera.
Good one. Ear worms like that improve results too.
Both Roy Underhill and my high school shop teacher taught me to cut myself at some point during a demonstration. That way you have a blood connection with the students.
This looks like a sitcom cast photo in which Megan is the troublesome nosy neighbor. Chair’s a Company, 7:30 pm on Tuesdays, right after Newhart!
Awsome informationon teaching woodworking skills. Have been a student of yours and remember all the skills you imparted on those classes. The best of times in woodworking for me. Thank you Chris and I hope to take a class or two in the future.
I received some great advice on giving feedback early in my career from a great trainer, KB.
First, note that I said feedback instead of praise and criticism. Nobody wants to be criticized. And everyone wants feedback.
KB’s rules were very simple. When you see something done correctly, you give affirming feedback; “What. Why.” Tell the student what they did well and why it is important. When you see something done incorrectly, you give formative feedback; “What. What. Why.” Tell the student what you observed, what you would prefer to see, and why it is important to do the process in that way.
After 30 years of following KB’s advice (most of the time) I can confirm that this works with students, stubborn offspring, and infuriating spouses. It doesn’t work so well with dogs or cats.
Thanks KB and thanks Chris.
Thank you, Chris for this! I currently have seven students: all women! Friends ask how this happened and I say “I dunno, maybe because I charge $10 per hour less for women and if men have a problem with that, I don’t want to teach them. Maybe because I give them confidence and bragging rights. Maybe because I respect them and make an effort to meet their Husbands/Wives. It’s a big mystery!
…and for the students… When the teacher approaches your bench immediately put down any edge tools. (edited out the “sharp” adjective)
Thanks Chris, one point about evaluating teaching. I used to ask my students four questions after the class, what was our objective, what worked well, what didn’t work so well and what should we do differently next time.
The first helps clarify what our objectives were(they aren’t always the same) and helped me as a teacher ensure I am clear about the objectives of the class.
The second reinforces the learning.
The third provides feedback to me for re-design of that segment and for them to get clarification on the part that didn’t work for them .
The last question has proven time and again that we get the best ideas by just asking.
Thanks for the pointers, much appreciated.
That was a really good post. As someone who aspires to do more teaching in spoon and someday maybe chair making as well I found it inspiring. I have only done a little spoon making teaching but I really want to do more.
Yes, Great Coaches were not necessarily great players, but they were in, and around the game enough to fully understand it, and then had the communication ability to teach it. Also, a good teacher can probably teach anything, (except maybe third semester calculus), but again they must have a grasp of the subject to successfully educate their students. I guess what I am trying to say is that the most important thing is to have a good communication ability, and then really understand the subject one is teaching. I don’t know that a good dovetail maker would be a good turning instructor.
I’m a career teacher, all of the advice rings true, not just for woodworking but for practically every subject that can be taught. Whether you’re teaching someone to cut a dovetail, analyze a poem, or dribble a soccer ball, the approach is very similar. The only thing I’d add is to encourage the students to go slowly, especially at first. Don’t rush. Get the fundamental movements right, and speed will come on its own. I’ve just begun to teach some one-on-one woodworking lessons locally in my own shop, and so far it has been very rewarding. Thanks for the encouragement to teach woodworking!
Teaching is like everything else in life practice. Thanks for the tips. Participants love stories. I always use the dog ate the finger of the guy using a table saw, with his buddies in the basement, tipping back a couple of beers, just for kicks. We all know what happens next. The bunch line being, “got the finger back and motion is ok, but I lost a good dog.”
Been thinking about this since I read it yesterday. My good friend cuts (really more like grinds) gemstones because his grandma did. My dad and grandpa did some simple woodworking and when it came to find a hobby to replace working with my hands in a lab (curse of middle management), I picked up woodworking. Another friend it was painting as his parents painted. My brother restores old cars as he liked turning wrenches with my dad.
What I see is that when we are exposed to something, even if those that teach us don’t have tremendous knowledge, it can give us the confidence to pursue if further if we like it. As such, you never know how or who you might impact. Most of these skills are simple enough on the surface so that if new folks learn a bit, they might actually follow through on it. Just about any hobby is better than sitting on the couch surfing a smart phone.
When I quite my day job, I plan to teach college chemistry a bit more (I’ve been doing so one night a week for a decade). I’m hoping I can convince the administration to allow me to teach a Hand tool woodworking 1 & 2 as well. Given the current place I’m at has a robust “PE” department with things such as ball room dancing and rock climbing, I think I stand a good chance of making that happen. For sure, my 10 year old knows more about woodworking than I did at her age.
Respectfully: Nope. (Mostly.)
First, thank you for your incredible teaching and inspiring. You are an excellent teacher.
There are too few folk teaching woodworking in the world, and so yes, those who know how can (and possibly should) spread the word and open the eyes of more to work with their hands (and eyes, and brain, etc.). So many communities lack venues (and good teachers?) to provide entry into our craft; this is both a shame, and crises. So what each of us can do to bridge this period to one when it is easier and more valued to learn woodworking is valuable.
BUT, teaching, like making a dovetail is a skill. Showing how is only one aspect of teaching. Many reading this may be predisposed to learning by doing (kinesthetic learners); above someone mentioned the preponderance of visual learners; others learning best auditorily; some by reading; for others the social component is vital. Being able to help a student access woodworking not matter their preferred way of learning should be a vital skill for anyone who presents themselves as a a woodworking TEACHER. Memories of a teacher who ruined a subject for a student are all too common; bad teachers are bad for any number of reasons, but an inability to help a student find success for themselves is certainly a major flaw.
Understanding the various modes that students learn is not necessary to provide instruction for all, but it may be necessary to provide good instruction for some. Is the (potential) teacher versed in the diverse populations we hope to include in our craft? They should be. Can a potential teacher use metaphor AND analytics to explain the next step?
There are many doing excellent instruction who are not trained educators, but I believe that there are a great many who’s teaching can and should be improved.
I asked my grandfather one-time to build me a box .He said no .but I will show you how. He said that if I built it you will not no how to if I show how to build it then you will know how to do it. over the many years that I have been making sawdust I have shown people how it’s done .some people could not tell you the difference between a screwdriver or a chisel. One woman that I taught is now a very fine woodpecker .Her shop would put Norm to shame.
Great comments Meghan
Thanks Chris! We all learn more from teaching than being taught.
I received the same advice, practically verbatim from my father, a flight instructor for United Airlines nearly 40 years ago. It was great advice on how to teach effectively then and still is now. Thank you for sharing this Chris.
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