Top Tips for Teaching Woodworking (1 of 12)

2017 is going to be a milestone for 'wortheffort'. First off we are hoping we can shift our retail business to the 'net so as to spend more time creating content. Working approximately 80 shows a year is murder.

Secondly is a renewed focus on educational content in print and online. I've decided to reformat the teen woodworking series I was teaching in the old brick and mortar school into a book accompanied by a video series. I started the "classroom video series" on YouTube before deciding a printed book would bea more in depth medium and writing the books outline. We'll continue on with that video series this month but will skip Ch.2 and jump to Ch.3 since it'll fit with the outline of the book better. There'll be 12 chapters in all with multiple sections in each and I'll go back and redo Ch.1 & 2 with my NEW AV EQUIPMENT! (Yipppee!).

But to get the ball rolling I've written 12 "Top Tips for Teaching Woodworking" series of blog posts and will be posting a couple a week for the next month or so.

So here we go!

Teaching is a milestone in every woodworker’s career. Be it helping a boy/girl scout troop assemble derby cars, helping a neighbor repair a fence using your tools, or showing your local club a technique you just learned, that marker can come fairly quickly in your career too. Passing what you know to those that don’t is the human way. What’s cool about this transition is the dirty little secret every teacher knows. Teaching best benefit is a selfish one as your own learning curve will turn sharply up with a greater understanding of the subject taught and a stronger foundation to leap and grasp more knowledge for yourself.

Now I’m of the opinion that someone does not need to be a PhD., Master, or Expert to teach. History and life experience has taught us we generally learn best from those that know just a little more than us likely because they can better relate to us. We strive to reach the next step, not the summit, and it’s the person right above us not the wizard shouting from up high that has a hand out we can reach. Kindergarteners model the 1st graders. 1st graders learn from 3rd and so forth. (Everyone knows 2nd graders are nuts.) A “teacher” just needs to know information a “student” wants to learn and have the ability to pass it along thru modeling /explanation. It’s that second part where real risk presents itself.

We’ve all known incredibly knowledgeable individuals who couldn’t translate that knowledge to others or well-meaning individuals who’ve been more a hindrance than help to growth. So it seems logical that learning some teaching skills at the start will make you more effective teacher and recognizing a teachers faults might help yourself learn from someone more skilled.

So let’s open a discussion that can be continued within your woodworking clubs, fellow parents, families, and classrooms. In no particular order here are some Top Tips for Teaching Woodworking.


  1. Safety

Teaching woodworking is quite a bit different than a subject like Algebra. It’s an activity with physical risk. Unfortunately there are few hard rules here. It’s just one big grey area. How you teach your kids versus other kids or those adult kids who paid for a class will differ. But safety concerns has to be top of mind when teaching a subject that involves so many blades.

We’ve all seen overprotective parents who put helmets, pads, and mouthpieces on their 4 year olds to go play at the park and rush to the hospital when a kid skins their knee. Then others who depend upon the catch phrases, “They’ll learn.”, “That’ll teach ‘em.” when those skinned knees occur. The thing is, both extremes are right. It’s their kids so their rules. And adults in protecting themselves are of the same extreme and both attitudes are right, for them.

That is why it is important to begin a course with the standard speech, “Woodworking can be dangerous if you are stupid about it.”, or a variation thereof. These usually include a “Hell and Brimstone, Your safety, your responsibility” diatribe along with rules and reasons. (Personally if it’s going to be a long class I’ll also take a few minutes to tell students the teaching tricks I’ll be pulling on them at this time. More on why later.)

But it can’t end with those speeches because there’s two more things you’ll need to do. Make sure students know where your comfort level is and manipulate attitudes.

Those who have a little more loose set of safety morale need to understand you’ll be reining them in and those more strict… that you encourage them to trust their gut and have the teacher figure out a another way. That’s part of your job after all.

The hardest thing to do as a teacher is to judge and manipulate attitude and attention. It’s a never ending task that you’ll not nail every time. This skill also affects your effectiveness as a teacher. While most people who sign up for a woodworking class are eager and excited to be there you as the teacher don’t know what happened to them the 5 minutes or 5 months before the class. You don’t know where their minds are or what their current frustration level is. And unless you’ve had months of relationship building it’s incredibly hard to uncover every persons perfect motivational hot button. Now if you are leading a classroom, club, or meeting where not everyone there has bought in 100% at the start, your work is even harder. (Have you thanked your kids school teacher lately?)

Be it a formal classroom, symposium hall, woodworking club, or single car garage it’s a good idea that before anybody shows up and enters your ‘classroom’ to greet them at the door like a Baptist Preacher. Look ‘em in the eye, shake their hand, get their name, offer some 5 second small talk, then thank them by name for coming with some kind of team statement (“We’re gonna have some fun”). This guarantees you have some kind of positive personal contact with the students at the start, sets the relationship as a team effort, reduce apprehension among both parties (it really does get rid of your nervous heebie jeebies of teaching), and is your first chance at reading your students that day so you can make note of those who are anxious, nervous, and agitated.

Plus you’ll find that the audience will pay much greater attention when they’ve had personal contact with you. Something about knowing that the prof knows who you are makes you not want to snore during their lecture.

If you are teaching a class involving student participation then these anxious, nervous, and agitated people are the ones you want to focus your attention on at the start of the class. Do it in some way that attention isn’t drawn to them. Perhaps when the class breaks to do the exercises offer your assistance to them first. If their agitation or anxiety makes you even slightly nervous then you have no choice to separate them and discuss before things escalate.

This kind of confrontation can be incredibly uncomfortable for a teacher. We aren’t trained for this and it isn’t why you become a teacher. But, ya gotta do it because ignoring it will makes things worse, possibly derail the whole class, and will definitely make your day unpleasant.. So the trick is to not make it a confrontation in the first place.

One of the easiest tricks I’ve come up with to do this is sharpening.

Every woodworking class is going to involve sharpening of some kind. So I start most classes with a quick discussion/demonstration of this and a mandate that I’ll work with everyone at some point during the day. Now if all you do is run your hand over a persons chisel and comment “nice job sharpening” you’ve fulfilled that mandate. But if you need to separate a student for a semi private conversation then, “Hey, let me quickly show you some tricks at the sharpening station.” or if it’s a long term class then “Hey, it’s your turn to help me sharpen up some…”. I’m sure there are many other stand-alone quick lessons that can be used in a similar fashion.

Now incredibly most times a short conversation is all it takes to turn these kinds of things into a non-issue. Many times will also be a turning point for a student in your class for no other reason than they have personal experience showing that you are paying attention to them.

To avoid making things adversarial  always start with a general, second nature, tame open ended question (“How’r things going?”). You’ll get one of two responses here. Either “Fine” or a diatribe about all that’s happened to them that’s top of mind. If any of the gushing gives you an opening to recognize the behavior that concerned you note it and then continue listening sympathetically. “Oh, that’s why you appeared anxious/agitated/nervous/…”

If they clam up then just proceed to your sharpening lesson. If you see the behavior when the student tries sharpening then make a note of it in terms of motion. “Oh, when you’re doing that it looks kinda aggressive…” If you don’t observe the behavior then move on, you might have misinterpreted.

Wrap it up by asking for a favor. “Hey, you know from earlier where I was talking about my personal safety morale. Well at the bench/lathe/module would you watch appearing [behavior modification] so I don’t get nervous. I’m not as effective when distracted and want everyone to get their full value and you to be able to finish the class.” This identifies what you want changed  and why without being accusatory along with a hint of consequences.

Rarely will behavior modifications in this type of classroom involve much more than that if you do it sincerely and without accusations. But if you just ignore behavior that concerns you then it will get worse. You have no choice but to jump in early as the leader in the class.

For a second warning of the behavior many times I’ll just offer a knock on desk/computer/workbench with a hand motion to tone it down.

Third is a straight up this is not acceptable behavior and if it continues… If you go that route you have no choice but to follow thru but at this point generally the classroom will be behind you and will respect you more for taking action. It's their safety to after all.

Sometimes being a good teacher means being a jerk when people’s safety is as risk.