Staff Training: How to Teach When You're Not a Teacher

Today’s blog post is written by Christy Warren, Senior Manager of Education, PatronManager.

I worked for a non-profit arts organization for 14 years, so I understand your title doesn’t always reflect everything you do. You might be a box office manager or a development director, but you probably also handle budgets, payroll, scheduling, hiring, ordering supplies, and maybe even cleaning the office microwave. 

One other task you likely do is train new employees. This is an extremely important task, but it usually doesn’t get as much attention because it’s more of an as-needed assignment. Most people in the arts don’t come from a background of teaching, though they tend to be very empathetic and relationship-focused people which lays a great foundation on which to build.  

Full confession: I fall into this camp. My first box office position was shortly after college. I was good at my job, so my boss charged me with training new staff members as they were hired. We had a list of items everyone needed to know, so I would just work my way through the list showing all new hires how to do each item. It was fine. New staff learned how to function and did well in their jobs. But after working with four or five people, I started to figure out ways to help them learn faster and more effectively. 

Fast forward a few years, and I enrolled in graduate school to study adult learning and organizational development. This is where I discovered the theories behind the methods I was using in the box office, unbeknownst to me at the time. The two biggest takeaways I can offer you from these experiences are:

  1. Adults need to understand the “why” more than children do
  2. Understanding different learning styles is imperative when working with adults

Both of these points are derivatives of a learning theory called andragogy, which was coined by Malcolm Knowles. Andragogy is the study of how adults learn, which is different from pedagogy (how children learn). At its core, adults draw from past experiences in a way that children are unable to do, so adults need to understand why something is important. Children, on the other hand, will just accept content for what it is.  

So when teaching adults, it’s best to help them understand how a specific topic will help them be faster or better at their jobs. I like to think of this as a “what’s in it for me” focus. Why is this topic important for the student, and how will they benefit by learning or doing it? Thinking back to the box office, rather than just showing someone the mechanics of how to sell a ticket, help them understand why your specific process will help them complete orders faster so they can reduce the line of customers and get everyone into the show on time. The actual act of selling a ticket doesn’t change, but how you frame it does. That frame will impact how well the student remembers the process.

I also love analogies when working with adults. Since we draw on past experiences to remember things, using references to common phrases or everyday objects as a way to explain something complicated will help paint a picture in their minds. For example, when I talk about securities and permissions in a database, I use an example of a hotel. Logging in is like walking into the lobby (a profile) because it’s the place everyone has access to. When you check in, you are given a key (a permission) to access other things. Some permissions can be shared with other people, like using your key to access the pool area or exercise room. Then some things are specific to just your key, like your specific hotel room. Most adults have stayed in a hotel before, so this analogy helps people relate to the concept and makes it feel less daunting. 

Which brings me to the second point above. Learning styles impact adult learning very strongly. There are many different learning style models, but the one I typically use (because I like acronyms) is the VARK model

  • Visual – seeing charts, text, images, maps, plans, flow charts
  • Aural – listening, talking, group discussions, storytelling
  • Read/Write – consuming or producing the written word, lists, notes, handwritten or online
  • Kinesthetic – sensory experiences, hands-on activities, examples, case studies

Utilizing multiple forms of learning styles will help you reach more people and keep them engaged. I’m not suggesting you create four different ways of teaching each topic, because that’s overkill and sometimes just not possible. However, you should alternate your methods in a larger training session. For example, start by showing someone how to sell a ticket (visual) and then have them do it themselves (kinesthetic). A Q&A session can be a great group discussion opportunity (aural): “How are discount codes shared with customers?” or “Let’s talk about the different methods of handling comps.” Closing with reading homework or handing out a quiz (read/write) can round out the day. 

Yes, some people will like certain portions of the day better than others, and that’s okay. That means you’ve engaged them in the right way for those moments. If you do an entire day of lecturing, the aural learners will love you, but your visual and kinesthetic learners will zone out very quickly. Everyone is able to focus in a non-preferred style for a short period of time, so changing it up often ensures broader engagement.

In the workplace, when tasked with training another employee, focus on the “why” and vary your instruction methods to fit different learning styles. Doing those two things will drastically increase your student’s ability to learn and retain information. This increases their ability to ramp up and quickly feel like a valuable member of the team. It also makes you a highly valuable teacher. 

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