5 Takeaways From Teaching My First Workshop
In the spring of 2017, just about a year after I started painting, I knew it was time to share what I learned with the DC maker scene.
A few weeks earlier, I was grabbing coffee with one of my friends when she asked if I’d ever thought about teaching a workshop at one of the local creative spaces in the city. She knew I dabbled in calligraphy and watercolor and thought I would make a good fit. I brushed her off with claims of “I’m not that good” or “I wouldn’t even know how to put together something like that,” but the thought kept nagging at me until, finally, I put in some research.
First stop: artists on Instagram who ran workshops. It was tricky because not every artist advertises their local workshops, but I managed to find a few. I looked at their venues, their pricing, what they offered in the class -- everything. It seemed a little daunting to place myself in their shoes (who was I to position myself as an expert?), but after poring over testimonials, demo videos, and event pages, it didn’t seem so out of reach.
Ok, I thought to myself. I think you can actually do this.
Next, I emailed the owner of the creative space my friend told me about (see also: spent an hour crafting the perfectly-worded 5-sentence pitch #englishmajor) and asked about hosting a class. She was interested, sent me back the terms of the collaboration, and we scheduled a date. Boom.
Holy crap holy crap holy crap I silently screamed for a few minutes while clouds of doubt were slowly drowning that initial zeal to put myself out there. My workshop was about a month out, and suddenly, it seemed like e v e r y t h i n g could go wrong.
What if I mixed up the addresses on the day of? What if no one signed up? What if too many people signed up? What if I froze? What if everyone demanded a refund as soon as they clearly recognized me for a talentless amateur?
Those thoughts never really left as I spent the next five weeks crafting an outline for a three-hour workshop, crunching numbers to see what supplies I could afford, and working out the logistics of getting to the space after work on a Tuesday.
Before I knew it, I was stuffing my work bag full of art supplies so I could teach 10 paying strangers how to paint a watercolor night sky.
It wasn’t perfect (what is?), but I came away from that workshop with a lot of great lessons. Honestly, I think I learned more about teaching than my students did about watercolor (haha). After some time ruminating on that first 3-hour class, here’s what I think you should know:
1. The only way to learn how to be a great teacher is to teach.
After a few weeks’ preparation, I was pretty secure in what I was teaching. But when the time came to get started and GO, it was like I suddenly lost the ability to think or process clearly and efficiently. The word “um” came out A LOT, and I could tell I had a kind of scrambling aura about me. It wasn’t a good look.
But the funniest part? I didn’t realize how awkward it was until after I taught my second workshop -- that’s because my second workshop was so much better than the first. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Your first workshop will always be a bit of a mess (especially if you have zero experience teaching). No amount of preparation can make that go away because there’s no substitute for experience when it comes to teaching in person. But you have to do the first one if you’re going to get to the second, and the more you embrace the flaws and learn from them, the better your classes are going to be!
2. Have faith in the value you’re giving.
I’m a pretty fast learner, and I’ve always enjoyed giving presentations or speeches in front of audiences, large or small, so talking in front of a group of people didn’t really scare me. What scared me was the fact that I didn’t have years of experience to back up my expertise. How did I convince these people to pay me actual money for this class? I mean, at least according to my own budget, the fee for workshops like mine isn’t a last-minute-impulse-buy-because-you’re-bored-on-a-Saturday kind of purchase. It’s definitely saving-up-for status. And man, that kind of responsibility was... a lot to digest.
For weeks, I had visions of refund requests and terrible reviews, and it was all I could do to keep my mind afloat with the weight from my imposter syndrome. Ultimately, the thing that brought me back was remembering that I didn’t lie about anything. I do know how to paint watercolor night skies really well, and that’s what they were there to learn. Believe it or not, your event-writing skills aren’t so good that you’re duping people into paying for your class.
As long as you’re honest about what content you’re offering, and then you give it to them, you have nothing to worry about.
It’s also important to remember that your workshop is an investment, and you should price it that way. It’s easy to throw away $20 on a class you’ll never care about again. But you want your students hooked for life, right? If you love your creative thing so much that you want to teach it, that means you’re in the business of converting people to the joy it brings -- and you have personal experience to back up how powerful that is. The responsibility that comes with the price tag means that both you and your students will take it seriously and bring your best selves to the table.
3. Keep it simple.
By the time I taught my first watercolor workshop, I’d painted so many watercolor night skies that it seemed more like a warm-up than a final project. I was worried that just one night sky painting wouldn’t be enough to keep my students busy for three whole hours, so I planned for two projects instead of one. And I bet you can guess what happened...
...I ended up speeding through the last half of the class and leaving my students with unfinished second projects because there wasn’t enough time to finish. So what happened? Something I didn’t really understand beforehand was the fact that my students were (for the most part) complete beginners. Sure, painting night skies was simple for me -- but I’d been practicing every single day for over a year. I spent a lot of time going over the basics, and you know what? “The basics” were exactly what they wanted to learn!
Trying to cram in a bunch of advanced techniques only led to confusion and frustration for both of us. Stick to the basics, and your students are sure to walk away with key foundational knowledge to keep them creating for years to come.
4. Make it easy to learn and keep learning.
For my first workshop, I brought a bunch of my paintings and small visual aids to pass around the table while I was explaining techniques. I thought about preparing some kind of workbook, but I was a little overwhelmed in the weeks leading up to the class, and I was suffering from major imposter syndrome (see also: I didn’t know where to start, so I didn’t start). Because I knew I didn’t have a workbook (and other teachers often do), I priced that class a bit lower than I was initially planning.
As the students were taking turns snapping pictures of the visual aids with their phones, I realized this method was not going to work for future workshops. My students were investing a lot to learn from me, and I needed to make sure they had something to keep them engaged and learning long after my workshop was over.
So, I spent every night after work for two weeks writing and illustrating a 30-page workbook, complete with step-by-step guides for all of the techniques we practiced, the final project, and even more projects and techniques that were a little too much to fit into our class.
It was a lot of time up front, but man, did it pay off. I used the workbook in the second class (and every class since then), and I could immediately feel the difference. Having that workbook in front of each student allowed them to learn in multiple ways (listening, reading, and watching), and it empowered them to focus on the painting rather than trying to take notes or remember everything I said. As a bonus, I decided to list the workbook as an e-book in my Etsy shop, and it’s currently my best-selling product.
Your job as a teacher is teaching the techniques, yes.
But it’s also doing your best to anticipate your students’ needs and eliminate any barriers to learning that you can see. You won’t be perfect at it, but the more workshops you teach, the better you’ll be able to gauge what those barriers are and find a way to work around them.
For the record, I charged $110 for my first 3-hour watercolor workshop. The attendees took home two paintings and all of their supplies, which included two paint brushes, a palette full of artist-grade paint, and plenty of paper. After I added the workbook, I bumped up the price to $150.
5. You can’t please everyone, but everyone deserves to be seen.
I still remember that one student in my first class who left the workshop completely disengaged and possibly disappointed. Because she was having difficulty with some of the techniques, I spent a good chunk of time at her side, trying to find the magic words that would give her the all-important “aha!” moment. It never happened, and I couldn’t help but feel like it was my fault for not finding the right words.
Since then, I’ve had a few more students whom I’ve had a hard time reaching, for a variety of reasons: The student who didn’t listen to anything I was saying to the group and kept asking questions I’d already answered; the student who didn’t believe in herself and seemed to find my encouragements insincere or cheesy; the student who was there with a friend and wasn’t really invested in the class; the student who spent most of the class texting and taking photos instead of painting...just to name a few.
It’s never easy to leave a workshop knowing there may be some people who didn’t feel like your class was “worth it.” It also sucks feeling like you’ve failed someone who yearns to tap into their creativity. But can I tell you a secret? Even superheroes don’t solve every problem, and you’re not a superhero. You’re a human who’s doing their best to teach something that’s quite personal. Everyone learns differently, especially when it comes to creativity.
Your job isn’t to wave a magic wand and turn them into an artist, and it’s definitely not to pander to irritable people who are going to find a way to complain no matter what (yep, I’ve had those, too). Your job is to share your experiences and knowledge with them in the best way you know how. It means giving your all to as many students as you can (including the tough ones), learning from your imperfections, shaking off the inevitable feelings of failure and insecurity, and moving forward with the confidence that you’ll do better next time.
And after teaching dozens of workshops over the years, the glowing reviews from grateful students far outnumber the disgruntled few. It’s a pretty amazing thing to give someone a little piece of your creative joy, and at the end of the day, that miracle is always worth it.
The “first” of anything you do in life is always memorable, especially if it’s something you really want. After my first watercolor workshop, I walked away feeling a little frazzled but ultimately high on life because I actually DID THE THING. I learned a lot about people, art, and myself, and I keep learning more with every class.
It’s the best job ever, basically. Terrifying and awesome.
If hearing about my experiences helped you in some way, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below! Or if you have any suggestions for future posts, please feel free to drop me a line here or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. If you're interested in more of my thoughts about teaching as a way to make money as an artist, make sure to check out my free YouTube Series on exactly that topic.