Teaching from Experience: How to Get Started

It’s been 18 years since I first began teaching adults and I still find it an invigorating and profitable experience. Teaching adults has taken me all over the country and abroad, given me visibility in my community, brought interesting new people into my life, and led to the publication of my first book. Every class I’ve taught came about as a result of my own experiences.

Once you recognize that the things you know how to do could be valuable to others, how can you turn that expertise into a profitable teaching experience? Here are some things to keep in mind before you pick up the chalk.

Some adult programs are experience-oriented, others demand credentials. You need to determine which are which. Even community colleges offer non-credit courses taught by non-academics, so don’t rule out any possibilities until you’ve done your homework. Ask for catalogs from as many programs as you can locate in your area. Besides the obvious, don’t overlook places such as the YMCA and similar non-school organizations that offer classes.

In many areas, independent adult ed programs are being started. These programs are especially open to creative, even offbeat, program ideas. You may have a class that would be appropriate to several venues, each with its own audience. Research every local possibility.

Solicit wish lists from local programs. Independent programs and community colleges are often tuned in to similar programs in other cities and try to duplicate successful topics not offered in their area. In addition to your own class ideas, you might find a topic on the wish list that’s perfect for you to teach.

Call the program director to discuss your ideas. If they like your class topics, they may ask for a written proposal. A savvy program director will be knowledgeable about the students whom they serve and can suggest changes that may make your class more attractive to their audience. Take advantage of their expertise.

If you haven’t already done so, write a class proposal. Different schools have different ideas about what needs to be included in a proposal. Some will want a description that’s the length and format of the class descriptions published in their catalogs; others will want a more detailed description that includes your course objectives, a step-by-step outline of your class, and a copy of the handouts you’ll be using. The best class descriptions have a catchy title, a clear description of the content, and a short teacher bio. Make every word count.

While it may be good for your other business or your community visibility to align yourself with an adult ed program, make creating and delivering a good class your top priority. No program wants teachers who view this as an opportunity to do a long commercial for themselves. Check, also, on the school’s policy about marketing other products and/or services through your class. In some places it’s strictly prohibited, while more entrepreneurial programs encourage marketing as long as it’s handled tastefully and is appropriate to the class.

Realize that teaching adults is quite different from teaching children. Adults show up with varied backgrounds and more expectations. While most adult learners are wonderful, once in a while you’ll have a student you wish had stayed home. Don’t let the occasional thorn keep you from sharing your great information and thoughts with the kinder students.

Teacher payment plans vary, so ask about your options. Some programs offer an hourly teaching rate while others pay a percentage of each student’s enrollment. If your class needs to be limited in size, you’ll probably earn more if you take the hourly fee. On the other hand, if you expect to attract a large group, you’ll want to take advantage of being paid a percentage. Don’t be afraid to negotiate as generous a deal as you can.

Don’t be dismayed if your first classes are small. This can actually be an advantage if you’re inexperienced at teaching. Keep improving your material and build your confidence through repeated practice. If you really believe in your subject and give it your best shot every time, your enrollments are bound to grow. In the event that you miscalculated interest in your subject, go back to the drawing board and see if a new subject or angle might be a bigger success.

If you discover that you enjoy working with adult learners as much as I do, you’ll find continuing opportunities to expand your teaching. You can enlarge your repertoire to include other topics or you can offer your classes in other geographic areas.

Teaching can be a wonderfully portable occupation that can contribute to your growth as well as to the growth of your students. Once you’ve taken a class idea, smoothed out all the bumps, and proven it’s a winner, you’ll find new ways and places with eager new students waiting for you to show up.

There’s more where this came from.
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