Fitness teachers talk. Fitness teachers complain. And often, I hear those complaints and can relate more to the students' side. The thing is, I haven't been teaching movement that long, by industry standards. I've been at it for about 2.5 years. And before that, I was just like most of the adults that are now in my classes: working all day, and taking classes as recreation at night. So while many fitness instructors have never worked outside of fitness, I know both sides. Addressing the real challenges that adult students face: here are my Top 9 Things teachers should consider when teaching grown men and women.
Training for me is a metaphor for life, period. The dedication, the determination, the desire, the work ethic, the great successes and the great failures - I take that into life.
1. This is not the center of most people's lives.
When 95% of adults show up to a fitness class, it is not actually the most important part of their life. This can be really hard for those of us who love fitness enough that we have made it our lives to understand. To most students, being in class is not actually that serious. In fact, that's the whole point; the reason why they're there. They have spent all day doing things that are serious, whether that means being in meetings, writing endless emails, or taking care of their children. When they come to class, they are finally walking away from all that. It is quite possibly the only part of their day where they completely walk away - put the phone away, change clothes, and enjoy moving their body.
2. Most people are not in class to become Masters.
Again, hard to wrap our brain around, when we teachers are people who seek to be The Best. But step away from your own personal goals, and let your students be recreational students. This means that the experience is more important than the end result. Teach so that everyone in the room walks away having enjoyed their time with you, and let them walk away feeling successful, empowered, and a little stronger -- strong enough to return to the challenges that await in the rest of their lives.
If you are teaching a particularly advanced class, or a class full of professionals, or a class where everyone knows they should be a masochist before attending, then go ahead and go full Drill Sergeant on them. Correct every single mistake. Point out every single flaw. Make them sweat to the brink of collapsing. But don't expect this to be the norm, and don't look down on a student who doesn't want to go that hard.
3. For the recreational student, encouragement beats criticism.
I was talking this weekend with some friends about an Improv class I once signed up for. It was something like a 10-week intensive, with class every week. I dropped out after about 3 weeks. Looking back on it, why did I quit? It was a beginner class, and I was just there to do something new and different, expand my mind, and challenge myself. As I told my friends, "It was a goddamn miracle that I got up in class and did some form of live improv comedy, no matter how terrible I was."
The thing was, our teacher acted as though he was teaching professionals. He interrupted scenes and criticized often. If I was an expert, or someone who was more than casually committed to the craft, his feedback would have been incredibly useful. But as a recreational beginner, I really just needed encouragement and practice. Eventually, that may have led me to love it enough and care enough to improve the nuances of technique. In the beginning, though, it wasn't fun, and it just made me want to do something else with my precious time. Which leads to my next point...
4. Their time is precious.
Adults have options. Kids get signed up for class, brought to it, and have no choice but to do it. This is not the case in your 7:30pm aerobics class at the local gym, or your Saturday afternoon trapeze class. These people have 100 other things they could be doing. They have made the choice to put those things on hold and spend this time with you. Please honor that, and realize that it is your job to make the experience worth it to them. Teach them new skills, improve their health, and boost their energy. Make it fun. Make your class THE place that they want to be, more than all the other things they should be doing, and better than all the other places they could be working out.
5. Connect what you teach to the rest of their lives.
Here's perhaps the biggest secret of all: if you can explain HOW what you're teaching will improve the rest of their lives, outside of their time in class with you, then you will win their hearts, minds, and precious time.
Do not assume that they are already as committed to what you love to do as you are. I am an enormous pole dancing nerd. I can watch pole videos for hours on end. I can talk about pole forever. I can wrap myself in 100 ways around the pole, no matter how much it hurts my skin and exhausts my muscles, and consider that an absolutely awesome time. But I started as an awkward, awkward baby poler that really didn't think Pole Dancing was something that fit with who I was. And my student who's hiding in the back and it's only her second time in class? I see that same readiness to bolt in her eyes. And it's not her fault. It's my job to change her perspective and teach her why this is awesome.
She's worried about what it will look like if she shows up to work tomorrow and has bruises all over her legs. She's worried about getting "manly" arms and calloused hands. She doesn't know yet that the feeling of flying through the air will empower her to take risks confidently in all aspects of her life. That she will go home and be ready to smash any challenge. That she is transforming not just her body, but her mind and self-image. Teach these things: the benefits that last after class ends. Say them over and over again. This is your special sauce. And this eventually creates dedicated students that are more invested in the craft.
6. Connect your students to each other.
The other thing that keeps people coming back? Getting to see their friends. One of the most magical things you can do as an instructor is not actually to get your students better abs or glutes - it's to give your students a community they can be a part of. People make friends in class! And sometimes this happens because they're outgoing and started talking to the person next to them. But usually not. Usually your students are in their own world, thinking about the 100 other things they should be doing right now, and the last thing they want to do is talk to a stranger.
But as the teacher, you are in a very unique position to break that barrier. You can discuss how we are all here to support each other. You can create partner exercises or group exercises to get people interacting. And these bonds may end up extending way beyond the classroom, making your students happier people, and making your class a central part of their social life that can't be missed.
7. Everyone's body has a history.
By the time someone is an adult, they've hurt something. They've broken a bone, or pulled a muscle, or sprained an ankle. Or possibly had major surgery, or chemotherapy, or are on medications with side effects. You don't know what your students have been through. Sometimes they'll tell you, and sometimes they won't. But unless you've worked with someone for a very long time, do not assume you know what it's like to inhabit their body. The way that it feels for them to do your class is not going to be the way it feels for you to teach it. Don't judge those who are struggling. Help them. Give modifications so that all skill levels can participate and feel successful.
8. Everyone learns differently.
Often, the reason someone is struggling isn't because they aren't physically capable of doing the thing. It's because they don't mentally understand exactly what you're asking. Describe and break down the movement or action in several different ways. Use tools for different styles of learning: describe with your voice, demonstrate with your body, and correct and cue with your touch. I've been surprised many times by how a student can assume they're not strong enough to do a movement, but with hearing it described a different way, suddenly do it perfectly.
9. You are not going to be the best teacher for everyone.
The fact of the matter is, even with putting in your all, no one can be everything to everyone. Some students will love you and some won't, and that's OK. Following these guidelines will give you a great shot at connecting with more and more people. But part of teaching adults, as I said before, is that they have choices to do other things. And they have priorities that come first, like having to work late, or suddenly needing to pick up the kids during your class' time slot. Keep doing you, and doing what you love, and your people will find you.