Trainers and Teachers: Walking the Walk

Does your expression match your words? (Picture courtesy )

There's been some great discussion going on around the blogs and tango forums about teaching - when to teach, best practices etc. And it's provided a lot of thoughtful material. I have strong opinions on the subject, but since I'm not a tango teacher, I wanted to wait and think on it for awhile before jumping in with my two cents as a student/consumer and as a trainer.

I've mentioned in previous posts that in my former life as a makeup artist, I was a trainer for many cosmetic lines. I was also a trainer who trained trainers. I use that knowledge absolutely every day, and when I forget the lessons I learned in that environment, I'm almost always sorry for it.

What I Learned Training Trainers: Everyone is Listening

The last cosmetic retailer I worked and trained for had no commission structure. We were a team of 22 people selling every line (theoretically) without favor. I learned to maintain a very fine line when I started training on the different lines, and then training to train incoming staff. No favoritism meant that one week I would be teaching team members the amazing benefits of "Company A" skin care, the next week I would be training the competing "Company B" line. Often these training sessions would go on during store hours to build excitement from customers coming in to browse. How could I promote every line in the store without sounding like a hypocrite? It was, at first, very awkward and stressful. I was more enthusiastic in my training on some products than others. We all did the best we could, and we admitted our biases pretty openly to each other, and to customers when it came up. But we all had to keep our biases in check to meet the overall goal of the store - and to make people feel comfortable shopping with us.

Essentially, we could (and were encouraged to) promote every line equally. It's a great goal, and I tried very hard to do just that. I focused on the strengths of each company's products, "Line bashing" or criticizing particular lines or products, especially in generalities, was very much discouraged. Not only because it's distracting from the goal of actually learning the material (and selling the product), but you never knew who was listening. You never knew if someone's background, customer or student, put them in a far more knowledgeable position than your own. The message was simple, don't assume what they know, or don't know. This of course leads to one of the most important bits of advice - know your audience. If you don't know - learn, and learn fast, because training and selling are about what they need from you - not about what you want to give them.

Respect your students/customers. One of my trainers reminded us frequently that when you dismiss or belittle someone's preference for a competing product/style/service - you're also belittling their judgment, their taste, even, depending on what you're trying to teach or sell, their sense of worth. It was perfectly acceptable to tell students and customers our personal preferences, as long as they were framed as exactly that - personal preferences.

Lesson: Be impeccable with your word.(1) Understand your own biases because they will show in your tone of voice, in your facial expressions, in your posture. Stick with what you know. Admit what you don't know. Acknowledge openly that it's okay for your students and customers to like what they like. But here's the trick: you have to mean it. Walk the walk you're talking.

Saying you're just trying to provide options, in a tone of voice that says, "but the other options suck" - is pretty much belittling under the guise of educating. It's not professional and it will bite you in the ass later. Smirking, rolling eyes, deep sighing - all of those things let your students know that you may be saying that it's okay to have your own preferences - but really it's only okay if they agree with yours.

The same goes for outside your classes. Derogatory comments made in social settings aren't any more acceptable. It's not fair, I realize. It would be nice to be able to say what we like when we're "off-duty" but as teachers surrounded by potential students (for me students and customers) there is no off-duty. Same goes, unfortunately, for teachers/trainers with blogs. You're running a business. Think carefully about what you write. And remember the deep and meaningful wisdom of this age-old business adage: Be careful whose toes you step on today, they might be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.

The point of all this . . .

By now, very patient readers, you're probably getting where I'm going with this. Just as much as it is a culture, a lifestyle, a heritage - tango is also a product for sale in cities all over the world. Every instructor has their own strengths and preferences. No teacher can be, or really should try to be, all things to all people. I don't have words to express how much I admire teachers that stay out of the in-fighting and "trash-talking" and instead build communities - often from the ground up. All while walking that very fine line of promoting themselves and growing the community. It's a hard job and I'm grateful for the teachers that take up the task.

(1) - While I'm not big on self-help books, there was one book whose premise I've tried very hard to remember in every interaction of my life, and that's the Four Agreements. In teaching anything, training anything - the four agreements have served me very well.


Norbert said...

Your post offers an interesting series of reflections. Especially semantic. In Italian blend teaching and training in different words. Each word indicates a particular quality of what one person can teach. It would be nice to have someone who helps you to each of these terms. Good tango lesson.

[In italian: Il tuo post offre una serie interessante di riflessioni. Soprattutto semantiche. In italiano training e teaching sfumano in diverse parole. Ogni parola indica una qualità specifica di quello che una persona può insegnare. Sarebbe bello avere una persona che ti aiuta per ognuno di questi termini. Buona lezione di tango.]

Joy in Motion said...

“One of my trainers reminded us frequently that when you dismiss or belittle someone's preference for a competing product/style/service - you're also belittling their judgment, their taste, even, depending on what you're trying to teach or sell, their sense of worth.” – Amen. It’s amazing how we get competitive with everything, even our ideas. We see them as a way to get more power instead of as a way to understand and learn from each other better. Nice article!

Tango Therapist said...

Mari... another excellent post, and very needed. Community building and the Austin community in particular leads the way. Having your blog helps an already wonderful community maintain its reputation. Your concept in this post both builds me up but also help me keep in line -- I get overly passionate and evangelical about my ideas; so this helps with you wisdom, which I know that you embody and practice. ¡Te estimo mucho!