by regular columnist Elissa Jordan, Adventures in Teaching
I was covering a class last week for a very popular Wellington based teacher. She had given me a set sequence to follow and wished me luck. Turns out I would need a small smattering of that luck.
I sat myself behind the desk, ready to check clients in as they arrived. All was going well until a very flustered lady came rushing in. She stopped short:
I explained that she was away on holiday.
Whose going to be taking her class?
I explained I was.
Uughhh… Sorry, I didn’t mean that!
In my head I’m thinking;
Yes, you did.
At this stage I had a choice to make: allow myself to take the unwelcoming reception personally, or putting it aside and give the best class possible. I choose to put aside the slight and focus on teaching.
This same student audiably huffed when I deviated away from the scripted sequence in even the slighted manner. When Nicole came back from holiday she was given a full report by her student of my every infraction.
This student was a high-strung Type A personality. She’d had a hell of a week. She was stressed out and tired and just wanted to enjoy a comfortable and familiar yoga class. Arriving to see me behind the desk threw her off completely. There was nothing I could have done to make her happy about being taught by me. But this is not always the case. Often, the care we take in covering another yoga teacher’s class can make a big difference to our students.
I’ve found myself in a similar situation in the past – turning up to what I expected to be a strong, powerful, fast-paced Vinyasa Flow class, and instead been given a slow, beginner’s level Iyengar class – so I was able to draw on empathy and compassion for this student. Although there was nothing wrong with the style or the teaching of the substitute, it’s not what I had expected or paid for. As a student, the regular teacher had let me done.
Your duty as the regular yoga teacher:
As the primary teacher, you’ll have an idea about how flexible your students are – will they welcome change or will they run from it?
I’ve had teacher friends remark in the past how similar yoga teaching is to counselling. Students will divulge a surprising amount of really personal information to a trusted yoga teacher. Over time it does become a very intimate relationship. Passing over the care of your students to another should not be taken lightly. All too often, however, it is.
I’m as guilty of picking a substitute teacher for convenience as anyone. I’m due to go out of town and rather than getting the best there is, I’m only interested in finding someone to show up on the appointed day and time. Often it was someone I’d never met. When working at a fitness centre with an approved list of cover teachers, you email out to the list and take what you can get.
You take the time to build a rapport with your students, caring for them and then when it suits you, you abandon them to fate, fingers crossed that whoever answered your email knows what they’re doing. When it’s said in such a straightforward manner as this, it does seem a starkly callous approach.
Here’s a better approach to getting an unknown yoga teacher to cover your class.
If you’ve asking a teacher you’ve never met to cover your class, pop along to one of their classes. If you have a set sequence, make sure you’ve passed it along. Try to get the teacher to come along to one of your classes. Especially if they can do it the week before any planned leave, so you can announce that you’ll be away but this trusted, familiar face will be there to support them.
And when you come back, check in with the regulars on how they went, if there’s any feedback, if they would be happy to see that same substitute teacher again.
Your duty as the covering teacher:
A few weeks ago, my friend and fellow teacher had the unfortunate experience of contracting food poisoning. The result was me teaching one of her classes on very short notice.
Luckily I had been to one of her classes before and I knew the tone and approach. I also asked for her regular sequence, and from her sick bed she was able to dictate some notes to her husband for me.
When I walked into a room full of people who were expecting someone else there was a quick shift in the energy of the room. I was able to put the room at ease by assuring them that I was given a sequence by their teacher and so they would still be getting what they came for.
A consistent level of care. That’s what it comes down to when covering, or getting your yoga class cover.
So yourself a favour – when you agree to cover another person’s class, ask some questions.
- Does the teacher have a set sequence?
- Do they play music?
- What level are the majority of students?
- Is there anything they’re working on?
- Anything to avoid?
- If you’re never met the regular teacher before, try to organise a quick chat to allow you to run through how things work. This helps to minimise disruption.
- Where time allows, try to pop along to the class as a student. Get a sense of the primary objective of the teacher. Are they trying to increase flexibility, build strength, instill confidence, aid in relaxation?
The more effort you make to ensure the students get a consistent experience the smoother the class will go both for you and them.
I’ve had the experience of a substitute teacher walking in and ask;
‘So, what have you guys been doing?’
I was a newer student when this happened. What have we been doing? Yoga. I didn’t have much of a sense of the differences from one type to another. And I can tell you that it didn’t instill me with a whole heap of confidence.
How to transition a permanent change of teacher for a class
Having another teacher step in and cover for you a single class or on a short term basis is one thing. But what about when you’re moving away from the class permanently?
When you transition a class from one teacher to another there is a right and a wrong way to do things.
The wrong way: agree the switch privately, organise the details with the incoming teacher and then just stop showing up.
If students can have such dramatic reactions to a cover teacher as the one this post opened with, imagine their reaction when a teacher they’ve come to know and trust disappears permanently.
The primary risk of transitioning a class from one teacher to another is that when the familiar teacher leaves, so will all the students. It’s like a startle response. Either the students follow the vacating teacher or they fall away in search of a new class.
A better way to transition the class with less impact, firstly communicate your decision to your students as early as possible. Allow them time to voice their concerns or ask questions. Tell them about the incoming teacher, assure them they will be in good hands. The more notice you can give to allow students to adjust to the change them the better.
Some students will likely still fall away. Even if both teachers have a similar lineage and approach, no two teachers are the same and some students just may not gel with the new teacher.
At Healium, I’m about to be part of a transitioning exercise where I’ll be the incoming teacher. Jenifer Parker, studio owner and principle teacher, is going to be handing over the reigns. The approach we’ll follow is a tried and true method she’s used several times in the past.
How does it work?
- Phase one: I make a start by participating in the class so students can get used to seeing my face.
- Phase two: I being to assist the class with Jenifer still teaching.
- Phase three: I begin to teach with Jernifer assisting, then with Jenifer participating as a student. Slowly she disengages.
- Phase four: the class is mine.
When this approach was first introduced to me I thought it was quite a drawn out process. Is all this palaver really necessary?
As I’m only in phase two of the process I can’t give it a gold plated stamp of approval, but it does sound promising. Furthermore, it sounds professional.
If you were to leave a 9-5 desk job, you would be expected to give at least a months notice. You would write up hand over notes and if possible you would help transition your replacement into the role. If this is how things operate in the ‘real world’ why should it be any different in the yoga world?
So next time you need someone to cover your class, or you’ll be covering a class, take a moment to put yourself on the student’s mat. Make sure you find a suitable teacher to cover your class, and brief this teacher so they know where your students are at. Conversely, if you’re covering a class, make sure you ask enough questions to know what the students will expect of you. It will make your job easier, and it will lead to more satisfied students.
*Nicole is a fictional name.