During the summer of 2015, I gave into my weakness for whims — a bad habit I have long given up fighting against. The whim in question was to complete the Skillshare Teach Challenge — a competition to create and publish a Skillshare class in one month.
I’d never taught anything before (besides driving to my younger brother, which may have put me off teaching for the following years) but I was excited for the challenge. I had a topic that I’d been talking about endlessly on my Livejournal (yes, people still use it) to my friends there for over a year, and I wanted to tell more people about it.
I thought teaching my passion would be an easy, fun goal for the month that I could also, maybe, add to my resume. I didn't really have anything else going at the end of May, and I’d been setting and achieving monthly goals for over four years by that point. It felt like a perfect challenge.
It turns out that it was more of a challenge than I was expecting.
The hardest part of teaching something you love is that you know too much about it.
The topic for my course: How to create your signature style, so that women could dump their overburdened closets and look chic every day without having to think about it.
The first struggle came when I was outlining the course for Skillshare. As I tried to put some hard-earned understanding into a teachable format, I found that I had no idea how to do that.
My “first time” with this skill was two years prior. I couldn’t remember all of the thoughts and questions I’d had then. I couldn’t remember how I finally got certain concepts to click for me. I’d forgotten what it was like to be a beginner.
I had to start over.
I sat down with pen and paper and rifled through memories, scratching down quick thoughts in uneven handwriting until the whole page was filled with enigmatic and confusing phrases like “silhouette most imp.” and “how to find yours?” and “colors really hard.”
This was how I came to my first realization about teaching something I loved:
You can’t know how much you know until you look at it objectively.
Think of it your course/opus topic this way:
If you've loved something, done something, or practiced something for a long time, you probably know a lot about it. It's impossible to work with something for any length of time without learning something, even if you aren't really trying. (I apologize to my 9th grade guitar teacher, who I routinely ignored but somehow still managed to learn to play Wonderwall.)
That’s good because it means you’re probably better at this one thing than all the other people who didn’t study or practice it, but it comes with a downside:
The longer you study something, the less you know about learning it.
It’s easy to forget what it was like to be a beginner when you’re an intermediate or an expert.
When you're new to something, you flounder. You don’t even know how little you know.
What are those metal bar thingies on a guitar? Why do you use picks when you already have fingers? How can you tell if it's in tune?
Then you do it for awhile and things start coming more naturally. The metal bar thingies are frets and you don't fret so much about which ones make which chords anymore, but maybe you do still fret about getting your fingers stretched in the right way.
After a while, you're a pro (not a true story for me) and you don't think twice about tuning your guitar. You just know when it needs to be done and when it doesn't.
But now you don't remember everything that you didn't know when you first started.
You might remember that beginners need to know how to tune a guitar, but you don't remember that beginners wouldn't automatically know when the guitar is out of tune. You might remember that beginners don't know chords, but you might not remember that they probably also don't know scales.
Teaching changes that. When you do it right, you're forced to examine the process from the mindset of the beginner again.
The second hardest part of teaching something you love is that you don’t know as much about it as you thought you did.
As you begin to outline how you’ll teach your passion, you might soon come to the jarring and unsettling realization that you don't know as much as you thought.
And let me tell you, that’s a nauseating feeling.
Our guitar player can tune a guitar by ear because she has perfect pitch, but she has no freaking idea how to explain how to tune a guitar. She doesn't know what tools are available (if any) to help people without perfect pitch. She doesn't know any tips and tricks for beginners who may not have perfect pitch. But she's still got to teach all these baby guitar players without perfect pitch how to tune their guitars.
Which brings us to the real question: How do you teach your passion to a beginner?
The truth is that you’re going to have to learn more about it. And that shouldn’t be a daunting prospect! The stuff you’ll be learning is the basics, and you’ll only need a quick refresher. Most of the time, you can do this by following this process:
Start from the very beginning.
...Or the beginning relative to where your students are starting. Break down the process into themed or linear segments (create an outline). Work backward to force yourself to think about the skill or knowledge as a whole.
Have a non-expert friend read over your outline and tell you where they get lost.
Create the lesson plan you needed [then].
Creating a lesson plan is difficult. It makes you think in an unnatural way because instead of intuitively doing your passion as you normally do, you have to think about the knowledge itself. What did you need when you were just starting off?
Don’t forget the parts that were super easy for you.
For me, I intuitively know how to put an outfit together, but it took some trial and error to get that knowledge out in a way that made sense. Early feedback on the project told me I'd left out key elements to the lesson – things I took for granted and, therefore, forgot to add to the syllabus.
But most of all, just do it.
The hardest part is starting. You’re fretting over how to make a lesson plan, what to include, what you must be forgetting, and so on. But you have to start because you’ll only get better by teaching. Commit to getting a draft down.
Even if you never show your lesson plan to anyone (although I hope you do!), forcing yourself to think about your passion as if you’re teaching it will make you better at it.
This is how you become a master of your craft — not by practicing and studying forever, but by practicing, studying, and then teaching someone else.