The other day I received the following message from a YBC reader and fellow yoga teacher: I would love to hear what your take is on students who simply drop from all classes, and never return again. I understand that "life happens" but I am wondering if there is some advice you have on how to handle this. I dream of opening my own studio one day. I currently teach in a gym as a subcontractor, so I am responsible for everything --advertising, bookkeeping, planning & have a full-time "day" job, too. When attendance drops, I start to worry first about the students' well-being, but secondly, that my teaching is not effective or that I will not be able to make a living teaching/running a studio full-time.
A while back, I had a student come up to me and tell me that my yoga class wasn't "real yoga" and at first I was angry, and then I was hurt. She never did come back to a second class, which was fine by me, but even as my class sizes grew I never forgot her.
Why is it that even if we have a number of people telling us we're doing a great job, we only hear the voice of that one naysayer? I don't know. Maybe it's the perfectionist in us. Maybe it's the self-doubt that we allow to dominate our thoughts. I'll tell you what, though, it's not worth trying to figure out the why. We'll go crazy trying to figure out why. I can tell you're going a little crazy at the possibility that a student leaving your class is a reflection of your (possibly poor) teaching. I'll tell you the truth: she really might just have not liked your class. I can tell that fear you have is spiraling into the dangerous territory of What Ifs. As if the student or two that left never to return signifies that you will not be successful running your own yoga studio. I'll tell you the truth: you might not be successful running your own studio. But why should we sit around and drive ourselves nuts with the might nots and what ifs? Let's take control of the situation.
Here's what I know for sure:
- As yoga teachers, and members of the human race, we cannot please everyone all the time (ever?)
- An excellent teacher is one who evaluates their pedagogy often.
Here's what I suggest:
Learn to accept that we can't please everyone all the time.
Side note: I am writing this down as much for my own reminder as for yours. I certainly do not have this one figured out, but I'm working on it.
I'm about to say something that might cause some eye rolls. Ready? Teaching yoga, or at least a quality yoga class, is an exchange of energy. Sometimes I'll teach a class, and I'll demo maybe three poses but the rest of the time I'm walking around the room and adjusting or assisting. By the end, I have done very little physical activity but I am exhausted. I am totally spent. My energy is depleted.
As a yoga teacher, you're often a resource for people, which means that people want things from you. You're obligated to give those things, up until a certain point, and for me, that point is when I'm exhausted. I need my space so I can recharge and be a better instructor and member of the human race (because, hello, I think I speak for everyone when I say no one is their best selves when they're spent). We have to draw boundaries. This may irritate students, this may rub them the wrong way, but #sorrynotsorry I have to do what is in the best interest for my wellbeing in order to be the best teacher I can be. I have to accept that I can't please everyone all the time.
The same goes for you. And, well, everyone, now that I think of it. Who in the world knows why your student left for good?! Maybe she moved. Maybe there was a family illness. Maybe she just didn't get down with the way you taught the class. Maybe the lighting in the gym bothered her. Maybe she did hurt herself, as you suggested in your message. This isn't personal. (Really! A good teacher (and I know you are one) explicitly lets students know they have the right to sit certain poses out, offers modifications, makes adjustments and assists, and creates an environment where students feel at ease to do what they need to do to honor their bodies. Anything students do after that isn't your fault.) There are still people in your class. So we need to accept we can't please everyone and move on to the more important part.
The best way to improve is through evaluation and reflection.
If everyone and their mother decided to get up in the middle of your class and peace out, I would say, "Heads up!! Mayday! Mayday! I take everything back! This actually is about you as a teacher!" Instead, it's one here, it's one there. It's not a big deal. But I'll tell you what is a big deal.
Critically looking at your teaching every once in a while.
It might not sound like a big deal, but it is. It isn't easy to examine how we preform our craft, especially when it's something we love so dearly. Something we continually work on and think about constantly. It isn't easy to ask for candid, honest feedback. It isn't easy to hear our flaws (even though we often know what they are deep down). But if we want to improve, we must.
You want to be the best teacher you can be. I know this because you're concerned that a few people might have left your class for good. I know this because you want to run a successful yoga studio. I know this because despite working a full-time job, you are busting your bum to plan, teach, promote, market, and keep records in what essentially could be your free time. So this evaluation process will likely be right in line what what you're willing to do to improve as an instructor.
- Excellent teachers are students first. Take other classes. Take master classes. Take workshops. Challenge yourself to get outside of your comfort zone. When you take a bad class, evaluate on why that class didn't resonate with you. When you love a class, evaluate what it was that you loved about the class. Reflect on how you might authentically implement your learnings into your teachings.
- Evaluate your own classes. Some classes are just awesome. You end the class and you might feel exhausted but good LORD did you just kill it in the studio. I mean, people all but floated out of there! Why was that? What did you do differently? How was the class set up any differently? What music did you use, if any? What passage did you open with, if any? Use a journal to write down your reflections. And when things are the opposite- when the class took forever, nothing seemed to flow, and people left before savasana started, reflect on why.
- Ask your students. Students know more than they get credit for. After all, they've usually been to a number of classes and learned from a number of different teachers. They know what makes a great class. Provide a link to a survey where they can anonymously answer questions about your class. Or, give them a self-addressed stamped post card asking for feedback that they can drop in the mail. Ask questions like "where is there room for improvement in this class?" Ask for feedback on the reach of your voice, on your timing, on your class content. Ask if they have any specific questions for you, or would like to have a workshop focused on any specific aspects of yoga.
- Ensure your approachability. At the beginning of each class let students know that you're always looking to improve, so if there's an aspect of the class that they love or loathe, that you welcome their comments after savasana. Then piggyback on that and say, "If for some reason you need to leave before savasana is over, could you just let me know now so I don't wonder if your leaving is a sign that you hurt yourself of a sign of my poor teaching (insert laugh here)." By being explicitly open and honest with your intentions (and revealing that you are human and worry that your teaching sucks), you're letting students know that you're human, which you and I totally know, but sometimes students put teachers on pedestals and this just knocks that pedestal right out of the picture.
Lastly, know this. Given your letter, in which you have described your concern for your students, and the work you continue to put into your classes at the gym, I have no doubt that you are a fantastic instructor, and will create a wonderful community at your future studio. Have faith in yourself, and keep working at your craft.
Let's talk Fellow yoga teachers, and students, what would you have advised?