Lately, I’ve started train-the-trainer workshops with the following question:
“Has anyone ever attended a bad class, a bad workshop, or had a bad learning experience?”
When everybody stops laughing – because who hasn’t? – I ask them to gather in small groups and list “the benchmarks of bad.” It’s always a lively conversation, because we are all experts on bad teaching.
Here are three of the most common (and frustrating) bad teaching behaviors people report.
1. Bad Trainers Talk Too Much
You’ve probably had the experience of sitting in a conference or workshop, lights down low, while the presenter drones on – or even worse, reads PowerPoint slides.
This is a lousy way to teach, because it’s NOT how people learn.
You learn by doing things: solving problems, trying new skills, and testing your limits. The more the trainer talks, the less you’re likely to learn.
The best trainers present an idea – for example, how to structure an “ask” conversation with donors – then give the group an exercise or activity to learn more about that idea and build practical skills – in this case, a practice session. When practice is over, the trainer leads a conversation about what people learned and how they plan to apply it.
My colleague Andrea sums this up with a simple motto. “Stop talking … start training!”
2. Bad Trainers Talk Down to the Group
Have you been taught to believe in the “cult of expertise?” This is the principle that someone experienced or credentialed can tell you how to solve your problems.
To be fair, expertise is helpful. Given the choice of a certified financial advisor or your brother-in-law’s investment tips, talk to the professional.
But the idea that a fundraising expert can give you a magic formula is silly. It’s even worse when the trainer confuses expertise with power. A trainer who thinks, “I am the smartest person in the room, so my opinion trumps every other” isn’t wise, just arrogant.
As an icebreaker, I sometimes ask people to line up from low to high, based on their years of fundraising experience. Then I tally the collective experience in the room. In some groups, I’ve counted more than 500 years of experience.
I point this out to the group, saying, “Let’s not assume that all the fundraising knowledge belongs to me. My job is to create the opportunity for you to learn from each other.”
The best trainers appreciate the collective wisdom of the group and look for ways to engage participants, in addition to dispensing their own expertise.
3. Bad Trainers are Poorly Prepared
This illness has many symptoms. Shuffling through papers, jumping around the agenda (or no agenda at all), repeatedly checking the time, rushing through the last twenty slides with three minutes to go, answering every question with, “I’ll get to that later…”
The best trainers do their homework and plan ahead. They understand their audience and customize their content. In creating the agenda, they allow sufficient time for each section. They make difficult design choices, dumping useful material in advance because they know there won’t be enough time to cover everything.
Good trainers even allocate a little unscheduled time for questions and digressions, giving the group space to go where it needs to go.
To Be a Good Trainer, Focus on the Needs of the Group
If you want to avoid the trainer hall of shame, focus on the needs of the group, even when these don’t coincide with your needs. Plan your program, but then respect what’s actually going on in the room and adapt accordingly.
For example, you might end the workshop early if you sense that people are overflowing with information and are ready to apply what they’ve learned.
Yes, it feels good to get to the end of your agenda, to use everything you prepared. But in those moments, the better choice sounds like this:
“I believe you learned a lot today, and I am grateful for your energy and attention. I’m going to let you leave a little early so you have time to digest what you’ve learned. But before you go, one request. Turn to the person next to you and take five minutes to share with each other how you plan to implement the things you learned today.”
Then you stand back and let them decide what’s most important and relevant. Your work is done.