Chris Schwarz's Blog

Like Your Woodworking Teacher? Maybe You Shouldn’t

Last month I taught two short classes in Germany – a rare exception to my vow to avoid teaching and instead focus on new furniture designs. The reason I taught those two classes is quite personal, so I won’t discuss it here. But during the classes I was struck by an odd question I’ve struggled with for 30 years:

Is it a good idea for students to personally like their instructors?

It might sound like a ridiculous question, but hear me out. First, know that I am nice to my students. They pay a lot of money to attend a course, we share many of the same interests (woodworking being only one of them) and woodworkers are generally friendly and affable (for a band of introverts).

What plunged my head into this question was my own training, both as a journalist and a woodworker.

My undergraduate journalism training was a trade-school education wrapped in soft, gooey layer of a liberal arts education. My 12 journalism classes were all nuts and bolts. No theory. We covered grammar, sentence structure, Associated Press style, law, ethics and not much else.

And I can honestly say that I did not personally like any of my journalism professors. Looking back now, I suspect it was intentional on their part. Students were weeded out (more the half my class was thrown out or left the program during my four years). We were regularly tricked into making mistakes to feel humiliation (basic aversion therapy). We were given mountains of work that had to be memorized. (“Here’s the newspaper stylebook. Memorize every word.”)

The students who survived the program did so (in part) to prove our professors were wrong about us. For me, obtaining an A in the Copy Editing class – arguably the hardest classes of the four years – was more important to me than any personal goal I’d had to that date (I earned an A-, boo).

The result of all that education was it was easy to land a newspaper job when I graduated (even in a recession), and my training allowed me jump in with little assistance from my superiors.

When I arrived at Popular Woodworking Magazine in 1996, I had a similar experience. I’d had woodworking classes where I’d learned a little bit, I had some training from my dad and my grandfather, and I had worked at a door factory for a summer – assembling and finishing doors.

When I started working in the magazine’s shop, one of the other editors agreed to train me on hand tools. And almost every day, he would yell “You’re fired” when I did something wrong or poorly. Even though I outranked him on the editorial masthead, he seemed to enjoy torturing me.

Of course, I had played this game before at journalism school. Plus as a newspaper reporter I had been screamed at, shot at and even interrogated by the state police. So having someone tell me my chisel edge looked like s&%t only made me work harder to become as good a sharpener as he was.

I know that people learn differently. And many people wouldn’t respond well to direct, cutting and correct criticism – especially if they had paid $1,000 or more for the privilege.

But I wonder if many woodworking students would advance faster in the craft if they had more of the whip and less of the carrot.

Maybe next time I agree to teach a class I should bring my leather pants and bullwhip.

— Christopher Schwarz

38 thoughts on “Like Your Woodworking Teacher? Maybe You Shouldn’t

  1. Sage Blackthorn

    I’ve had 2 Wood Shop teachers in my life…. my first was in 7th grade. Mr. MacLaughlin. He was an amicable fellow whom I got along with, who would tear you a new one if you were screwing around. I distinctly remember working on the belt sander one day when another student threw a handful of sawdust into it, which sent a cloud of it flying into my face… thank goodness for safety goggles or I might’ve panicked and been hurt. As it was, I just froze, covered in saw dust, and slowly pressed the big red OFF button, then dusted myself off…. while I was doing that, the other student was getting chewed out up, down, and sideways. Same thing happened with the kid who thought it was funny to spray people with the shops fire extinguisher. 7th Grade Wood Shop is not terribly advance, we ended up making wooden sanding blocks, boxes, and other simple projects meant to teach us different techniques. We didn’t use the table saw, but if we needed it, we had to explain what we were doing and why. For my end of the year project, I wanted to build a curio cabinet for my collection of pewter figurines. I have design it, submit my plans, and Mr. MacLaughlin would okay it or not. I’d grown up watching “The Woodwright’s Shop” and I wanted to do dovetail joints on the corners. 3/4-inch pine sides and back, dado grooves on 3 sides to hold the shelves. I wanted to do a glass door with brass hinges and latches. I started off wanting to chisel the rabbets on the inside of the door…. and he let me try with a knowing look. Then I came back and said “I think this might work better of we cut these on the table saw.” He agreed, smiling. He always let us figure things like that out, never gave us the answers straight out. I liked Mr. MacLaughlin a lot, respected him, and learned a lot from him. He would sometimes bring his old Model T Ford to school to use the shop tools to make parts for it’s wooden frame…. which was how we got a lesson on making wooden screws when he was making a seat adjustment screw for the driver’s seat.

    Then there was my Junior year Wood Shop teacher in high school…. I don’t remember his name. What I do remember is that he wasn’t a “Shop Teacher”…. he was the Girl’s Volleyball Coach. My High School was starting to phase out all the Trades classes. I’d signed up for Small Engine Repair as a Freshman, and it was cut over the summer, so I ended up taking 2 years of Metal Shop with Mr. Morse. I remember Mr. Morse, again because he was amicable, behaved professionally, and chewed out the class clowns who screwed around during class and endangered the other students. Also, working on the computer controlled lathe was a lot of fun. But I really didn’t like or get along with my Junior Year Wood Shop teacher, and he was the kind of teacher better suited to coaching P.E. than teaching shop class. I learned more in 7th grade than I did my Junior year about wood working. My High School shop teacher didn’t seem to give a damn about students or teaching them, nor did he play Marine Drill Sergeant and chew us out… he was just kinda there but not there. He was like a permanent substitute teacher, he was just there to babysit us. No one respected him, because he didn’t earn our respect. I remember being treated not as an adult, as Mr. MacLaughlin had treated us, or even as a young adult, which at 17 we were. This teacher acted like we were all beneath him, like he barely noticed us. He’d treat us like we were idiots while he finalized plays for the upcoming Volleyball Match. I eventually transferred out of his class and regretted wasting what time I’d spent there.

    Now I’ve been chewed out for doing stupid shit in class, or just being oblivious like forgetting to check the pressure gauges on the Oxy-Acetylene tanks before I started welding. And the instructor was right to do so. Most of my teachers(2/3’s) didn’t get to chummy with their students, but they would happily and passionately talk about their craft, and any hobbies that related to it in class. But on the shop floor they were all business, amicable but professional. Fair but not insulting, sometimes harsh when that’s what it took to get something like don’t screw around with power tools through our thick, adolescent skulls so we all walked out of shop class at the end of the year with all our fingers. In fact that’s something else Mr. MacLaughlin taught us: “Never trust a shop teacher who doesn’t have all their fingers.”

    The teachers who were professional, not tyrannical and insulting, were the teachers I’ve personally learned the most from. They encouraged me to try new techniques, to make mistakes, and then show us where we went wrong so we could learn from those mistakes. They earned the respect of their student by demonstrating their skills, not by calling them names and demanding obedience.

    I was just watching “Mastering Hand Tools” last night Christopher, and you reminded me a lot of Mr. MacLaughlin and Mr. Morse in that video. Same with your “Making A Roorkhee Chair” dvd which I also have. That is how I think a teacher should act. The only thing really missing was a few rowdy teenagers screwing around for you to chew out, and a Model T in the parking lot, and that could’ve been my Wood Shop Class

  2. Potomacker

    During my time in a school of education, the underlying ethos of being a teacher who ‘cares’ was reinforced variously in direct and indirect ways. This was connected with a very high priority to build up and attend to the student’s selfesteem, regardless of the contradictions of such actions. The most important feature of good ( i.e. employable) teacher according to the professionals by whom my career was determined was the capacity for caring. All the other qualities like competency, knowledge of content, creativity were subordinated. To wit, I needed to ignore all that motivated me to become a teacher if I ever wanted get a teaching job.

  3. ramisdom@sbcglobal.net

    My personal experience has revealed that while I can and have benefited from both the nazi style as well as the collegial , I prefer the nice guy approach. Making mistakes and moving through them has produced my greatest breakthroughs. Teachers many times are compelled to aim for the lowest common denominator, which might explain, but not excuse some arrogance and impatience. You are clearly one of the nice guys. Thanks.

  4. john2t

    My limited teaching experience, electronics, drove home several principals.

    Not everyone learns the same way. Some people have to do hands-on, read, write, take notes, or some other
    method that gets the message to stick. This is why a good teacher needs to observe their class and find out what is needed to unglues their eyes.

    Reinforce their confidence, just about everyone can master a subject give enough desire and aid.

    Force them to think about what they are doing and why.

  5. Spoiler

    With all of the fun and useful back and forth I think it time for Chris to do what Chris does best. Quit talking bout it and try it. Report back. Stain from beer? Works. Finish from soap? works. 3-legged chairs? My kids love em!
    Now prepare a syllabus for your new class “Sharpen This”- promptly throw away the syllabus while you wander off topic sharing priceless gems of your past glory and refer to each of your students by derogatory names that highlight a physical attribute. At the end of each long day stress that none of them deserve to tread the ground that you walk upon.
    I see this as the exact opposite of the Chris that we all seem to respect and in many cases revere. It just might be a hit.
    I volunteer to cart your tools to and from, refer to you often as my Lord and remind you to turn off the charm each night as you return to your wife and daughters. .

  6. amftapper

    To be a good teacher, you don’t have to be a hard ass, but you do have to set rules and discipline – and follow through with the discipline. You want the students to enjoy what you teach. As a teacher, you are not there to be their friend, you are a facilitator, mentor, teacher. And in woodworking, SAFETY is always priority number 1. As the teacher, if you are not having fun, then you are doing something wrong. I’ve been teaching woodworking for 20 years. The first time I used a tool/powertool, I was 6 years old, 36 years ago, helping my dad in the barn. I’ve seen students come up with different methods of doing things and I tell all my students, there is always more than 1 way to do anything – if it works for you and is an efficient way of doing something, then do it. Just because I show you one method of doing something doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the wrong way, it is just one way. Back to the point of the story. The teacher should have fun, the students should have fun, but you don’t need to be a hard ass for students to learn.

  7. grbmds

    Christopher, I took a weekend plane and sharpening class from you at Marc Adams. For me, your willingness to answer questions, regardless of whether they were basic, higher level, or just to clarify a technique for someone who didn’t get it the first time around, made the class extremely useful. We definitely all do learn in different ways. For me, an instructor who will tell me when I’m not doing it right in a reasonable and firm way and one whose demonstration and verbal techniques communicate the intended information is a great instructor. I believe that you have the right combination of what is needed to make a class worthwhile. No need to toughen your instruction technique up at all.

  8. gcoyne

    There is a big difference between the “knocking someone down to pull themselves up” versus a no-nonesence correction. The former are bullies who have no respect for anyone (or rather a fear that anyone might ding their halo) while the latter is one who only gives awards to those who deserve it rather than an “I showed up” award.

    You do not need to like your professor but you do need to respect and appreciate what your professor knows and can do. In my experience, those who ridiculed my work the most were those who could not do what I had done—it was more jealousy than teaching.

    My best teachers were those who were good teachers regardless of our relationship. Probably my favorite teacher from college was my statistics teacher. The guy was about 6 feet tall, maybe weighed 100 lbs, had black died hair cut in a pageboy and wore black horn-rime glasses. AND he had a squeaky voice. Many students giggled at/to him. But boy could he teach. I didn’t like him nor did I hate him. He just was. But he was an excellent teacher.

    And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

  9. Frank Ruggiero

    I learned carpentry and woodworking from a great uncle who had zero patience and communication skills. My father told me he was going to be rough with me but I would be learning from a real craftsman. The old man went to work every day with just a wooden tote full of hand tools and a circular saw to cut down plywood. My apprenticeship consisted of basically carrying and caring for his tools, being subjected to being called a jack ass,moron,worthless, and of course stupid. This forced me to learn really quick and after a few months he stopped with the verbal abuse and trusted me enough to start building things. When I asked him why he was so rough on me his response was “you wanted to learn,right?”. I thank him for my education every day.

  10. bedrock608

    My best teacher was my father and he taught me a wealth of information about woodworking, car repair, electronics, plumbing, wiring, building, math, science, history, people, and the world in general! He, and my other very good teachers/instructors, would always earn my respect by caring, explaining, and taking as much time as needed to get the point across!

    The very rare time my father ever had a cross word for me when I was young and having difficulty grasping a point he was trying to make and he said the following: “I work with stupid people!” “You are young enough to grow out of it!” I would take a breath, settle down, and learn!

  11. craighondo

    I think one element that is crucial to this discussion is the question of the teacher’s (and his/her course’s) purpose. Why are students taking woodworking classes? Why are students taking journalism classes? Is it professionalization? Enjoyment? A well-meaning attempt to understand how the world operates and one’s place in it?

    Different styles of teaching and different relationships between teacher and student beget different results. If the goal of the course is for students to “love” woodworking, then I would argue that it is not pedagogically wise to berate them and be a jerk so that they improve more quickly. If the goal of the course is to bring them closer to being someone who can make a living off of their work as a trained professional, then the kind of professional school training that resembles your journalism training might be more efficient.

    As someone who has taken one of your classes, and as someone who only daydreams about what it would mean to walk away from my job (in academia) and work wood for my living, I can say quite confidently that I enjoyed your not being a jerk in the class I took. I didn’t leave that class leaps and bounds closer to being a master woodworker who could sell my wares or have them displayed, but that’s not why I took the course. I took the course – as I imagine many of your students do/did – because I like you, your approach (books and woodworking), your aesthetic, your general philosophy, and the fact that you know more about taking sharp objects to dead trees than I do. So I suppose there’s an argument about transparency in course offerings in there.

    Your success says as much/more about you as a student than it does about your professors. I wonder how many of your classmates loved journalism and would have been fantastic journalists had they been encouraged? Perhaps I’m being a bit squishy in an increasingly cynical world, but I’d like to see heart in addition to technical proficiency. Surely the best have both.

  12. Mark

    After 48 years in education there is only one thing that really counts if you want to be a great teacher(whatever the subject). You must really like and care about your students. While some students are more “likable” than others they all respond to you when they know you care about them. Teaching is a complicated skill that takes time and experience to learn. If you want to learn some exceptionally effective teaching techniques I suggest you check out “cooperative learning” by Dr. Spencer Kagan.

    Mark Yehle
    P.S. Never try to fake anything with students–they will know it immediately–be yourself.

  13. jglen490

    Call it “like” call it “respect” call it “fred”, if you prefer. But learning happens and teaching is better when there is a positive working relationship between teachers and students. Just my experience. So in my opinion, it’s O.K. for there to be “like” happening in the classroom.

    I also understand that relationships can get out of hand and “like” becomes something NOT positive.

  14. alpen

    I think it can also make a difference related to the length of the course. In a one or two week class, the students will not see the long-term benefits that come from having heavy demands placed on them. Ove the course of a semester, or an internship or apprenticeship, story changes.

      1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

        Ha! (FWIW, I got an A in it and have taught copy editing at the college level, but I make and miss mistakes.)

        1. SATovey

          After decades of being a perfectionist and proud of my attention to detail I realized something:
          One can only be as detailed as one’s eyesight is able to see,
          and ones attention span is able to persist.
          And technologies do not aid that endeavor.

  15. David LyellDavid Lyell

    “So having someone tell me my chisel edge looked like s&%t only made me work harder to become as good a sharpener as he was.”

    Spite has fueled some of my most productive seasons of learning. I think the trajectory of my master’s degree was shaped by a single 20-minute conversation where a member of the institution I was working for told me I was doing everything wrong. That conversation ran through my head every day, pushing me to work harder and achieve more.

  16. robert

    Huh! I had you pictured as a leather chaps, banana hammock speedo and a riding crop kind of guy.

  17. BLZeebub

    Great teachers are RARE! As with students, teachers come in all shapes and sizes and proclivities. What’s important to relate is the subject matter delivered by someone with gravitas and an ounce of humanity. You sir, have nothing to worry about. Cheers, mate!

    1. BLZeebub

      But please please please burn those leather pants. Save the bullwhip for the missus. LOL

  18. duckfarmer27

    I firmly believe that no one technique works in all situations. The personalities involved and the environment should indicate to a good teacher which method is most effective. At least that seems to have worked well in my education (engineering). As to woodworking, I was very fortunate. My junior high shop teacher was great and got me going in a love of working with my hands in not only wood but metal. Little did we realize at that point that I would marry his kid sister (she and I were in the same class), would end up neighbors and he would help me build our house one summer. I was lucky to have that teacher near up until last year, when he passed. Good teachers can become friends and even relatives.
    Dale

  19. D Moriarty

    I can guarantee you that as a student of various woodworking instructors over the years that a good instructor will generally be associated with the carrot. After taking a 2 week and very expensive course from a well published instructor in the Pacific NW who berated his students, failed to show up for part of the day, and was a general grouch (such that some didn’t show up the last few days of the course), I can tell you without doubt that this one one of the worst learning experiences I have ever had, and I was a very eager student. On the other hand, taking Jim Tolpin’s one week course in Port Townsend was the direct opposite, and I learned so much from a caring, patient, and learned teacher. Please don’t emulate the former in any way – it won’t ingratiate you to your students or make them learn anything more.

  20. hmerkle

    I think this is simply a ploy to get us to discuss the merits or pitfalls of leather pants and a bull whip rather than the hair changes…

    1. Sage Blackthorn

      Nothin’ wrong with leather pants, they go with the leather aprons we use to wear in metal shop, and the leather sleeves that snapped on to those aprons for welding.

  21. Garybergeron17

    Your definitely onto something. My best teacher, Mr Beschta creative writing, was such a hard ass and was respected and or feared for it. Until, that is, you shed your teenage self importance and adopted a bit of humility, then you were lucky enough to be taught the craft of words.

  22. Fraise

    You’ve explained something. Woodwork at school was taught by a kindly old fellow who’d been a captain in the Long Range Desert Group. It was a grammar school and we saw woodwork as down-time. He only needed to be asked ‘sir, was it or Tobruk or Benghazi that was the turning point in the desert war?’ and we would be off on a narrative adventure. We loved him. He made tea on the scotch glue boiler ring, never raised his voice, was an island of rationality in a barmy world. Of course I’m still a duffer at woodworking. Any improvements have come from articles written by people like you. Good luck!

  23. St.J

    Whether they like you or not they must trust you. Educational research (https://visible-learning.org/glossary) shows that the credibility of a teacher is paramount to students’ learning. “trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy” are essential to credibility. It’s possible to dislike someone you trust but unlikely.

  24. Steve Kindem

    Thanks for being a nice teacher. I get yelled at by my wife all the time at home, so it’s nice to get a break at class, which is just about the only time I get for woodworking.

  25. BHearon

    A love and passion for the craft is the most important thing to teach. Seems close to impossible with a whip, less difficult when they like you, even though that may not be essential.

  26. lancestuch

    The problem with this line of thought is, yes, your journalism instructors may have been like that to teach you better. Or, they just might have been a-holes who got off on having power in the relationship. I am forced to be around many a-holes as part of being a human being who works and has a family. I don’t really want to spend my leisure time and money sorting out who is an a-hole and who is just acting like an a-hole for my own edification. But that’s me.

  27. Spoiler

    The word that comes to mind is Koyaanisqatsi ( roughly-life out of balance) . I taught science for 30 years and that number is only important in that times change … and it is a large enough number to see several educational cycles. When I first began teaching- my school, and therefore I, was hard-nosed and unrepentant when it came to doling out assignments. The rule was work them hard and often and never let up. Students did not love school, they liked me because I was “authentic”. They learned because I demanded the learn. Years passed, seasons changed. The demand to crack the whip waned and the emphasis on process over work load became the new norm. We were looking for a method that balanced “need to learn” with “desire to learn”. Students did not love school but the loved learning, They liked me because I was authentic. They learned MORE because I asked more of them. They learned more because I found ever more interesting ways of teasing out their desire to need more. I learned that when I tried to figuratively beat them and berate them into thinking they were not good enough… a good many believed me. I learned that when I guided them toward whichever fork in the road would lead them to be their best self, they not only took it- they ran far ahead of what I could have ever expected of them. I’d suggest leave the whip in the barn where it belongs for two reasons: It will only work on a stubborn few… it will leave you the teacher feeling out of balance.

    1. Al Phelps

      The best teachers are those that inspire their students to enjoy the class and to want to learn more.

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