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Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Teaching Team - Selecting and Maintaining

Contributed by Mark Caldwell of NITA.

A number of colleagues have asked me how I go about assembling a teaching team and then keep them happily engaged in teaching during programs/semesters. Mrs. Caldwell, my mother - not my wife, taught me very early some simple rules that apply to life - and work well when serving as a Program Director. They are:

1. Be polite;
2. Say thank you (often);
3. Offer to help;
4. Show you are gracious and understanding.

Let me explain how I employ these basic rules.

Be polite

Being polite takes many forms. It begins when you initially design the program. You want to invite people who are best fitted to match the content of the program. For example, except in a few states (like Florida), you probably do not want to invite lawyers who focus on criminal defense to teach at a deposition program. If you are teaching a program for legal services lawyers, you want to invite lawyers who have some experience working in public service. Lawyers who have only worked in large private firms may not appreciate the limited budgets and resources of public service organizations. Recommendations to make use of digital animations do not always play well to lawyers who can’t afford paper charts. Likewise, specialty areas of advocacy - such as bankruptcy or tax controversies - may have different procedural rules and customs. In these cases you want to make sure you staff your course with those who know these distinctions.

You are polite when you take the time to invite people to participate early. Waiting until a few weeks before a course begins often conflicts with professional and personal commitments. Someone either really wants to teach or owes you a favor if you place them in this uncomfortable position. Besides, this type of delay only increases the likelihood you will have heartburn as well. Start as early as possible when inviting people to teach. When you are first on someone’s calendar, it makes it far more difficult for them to ask to be excused.

When you tell someone why you want them to be part of your teaching team you show your manners and appreciation. When I invite someone to teach for the first time, I let them know why I want them to be part of the process. Some call this flattery - I call it honesty. Yes, the invitation may appeal to their ego but it usually helps you secure a well-rounded team. NITA and I work hard to be color blind. The reality is you need to reach out to all types of people to create a successful team - you really aren’t blind at all. Balance; politically, by client representation, by gender and race, etc. sends an important message to students. You show your manners when you are inclusive - not exclusive. Inviting just your friends may be fun for you and your teachers but it does not always send the best message to students.

Say thank you!
It is perfunctory to send thank you letters at the conclusion of a course. Take the time to craft an original letter (even if it is word processor generated to each instructor). Your letter should let your colleagues know how they helped the program to be successful. It should point out the high points of the course. It should also ask for their suggestions on how you can do things better in the future. If you receive suggestions and ideas - acknowledge them and take the suggestions seriously. Finally, sign the letters yourself and include a personal hand written note to truly personalize your letter.

Let people know during the course that you appreciate them. Many of these people volunteer their time and expertise. People take vacation time to teach. Solo practitioners give up real money when they teach. Recognize this donation. In a private moment let an instructor know you appreciate what they are doing and that you are glad they are at your program. In a public moment recognize them in a special way in front of students and their colleagues. Give as many instructors as possible a moment when they can shine in front of the assembled masses.

If your budget permits it, a small token of appreciation is always welcome. If you can, make it something that only instructors receive - even a coffee mug can say Program Instructor. Unless you believe instructors are assembling a service of eight, change the gift each year or with each program. If you can, splurge on something they will proudly display. Until you reach my age, a brag wall is important.

Whenever you can, direct the students to express their appreciation publicly. I was never so flattered and honored as when a tribal advocate sang an “honor song” for the teaching team. Group photographs, standing ovations are better than coin of the realm.

Feed your teachers - often. Collegiality is an important part of programs. People often teach because they get to see and play with friends. Breaking bread is one of those times when people can relax and enjoy each other’s company. It doesn’t always have to be the swankiest restaurant in town. Sometimes a hamburger is sufficient - especially if the conversation is good. Instead of asking teachers to submit their receipts for reimbursement, pay the tab yourself - it all comes from the same budget.

Offer to help

New instructors want to succeed. For many they must master the process of teaching in addition to the specifics of the course. Help them! Offer a teaching clinic for first time instructors where you explain the teaching model and allow them to practice. Answer their questions and invite more. Let them know you will provide assistance in the form of partnering them with an experience instructor or you will sit with them for their initial workshop. Offer constructive critiques (in a private place) to help them improve. Give them articles, teaching guides, cheat sheets, or whatever else you can that will give them a higher level of comfort.

Those who teach for us are busy people. You want them to be successful as teachers. They want to be successful. Giving them the tools needed to be successful is always appreciated. What kinds of tools are helpful. Get instructors the program materials, schedule, and administrative information as early as you can - a week in advance in not early. If you are using a new edition of a case file or text let them know what has changed - so they are not embarrassed in class.

Craft a schedule that explains the goals of each segment. Something that simply says, “Conduct a cross examination of Jennifer Jones” when you really want to focus on more specific points is not how you help instructors.

Teaching notes and faculty meetings where you explain goals, give pointers on teaching, allow discussion and questions, and raise issues about student problems are appreciated. Some instructors may not take the time but even they appreciate your effort. You may be surprised when you learn your most experienced teachers are the ones who pay the most attention to your guidance.

If an instructor participates in a lecture or demonstration, offer to share materials from past programs. Seeing what others have done in the past is a very comforting gesture. They may simply copy what you give them or use your model as a springboard to their own unique interpretation. Few people like to start from scratch if there is an example available.

If something comes up during the course that requires them to be out of class, offer to substitute for them. If you can’t substitute, rearrange the teaching schedule so an experienced teacher goes solo and less experienced people are still partnered.

Teach people how to use any technology that is part of the class. Budgets often no longer allow for paid video operators. Offer a session that shows (experientially) how to run cameras, playback equipment, digital projectors and document cameras. If you have written directions - share them!

When an instructor will be conducting a lecture/demonstration, set things for them so when they enter the classroom their focus is on their presentation. Reload slide shows, set the room for the demonstration, provide microphones and paper charts/white boards. Offer to be their witness or ask questions in that uncomfortable time after they ask, “Are there any questions.” Make sure you are the first to applaud at the end and then thank them.

People forget things. Have an unending supply of writing paper, pens, extra materials, and name tags. If necessary, go get these materials for the instructor and bring it to them.

Help them with paperwork. You or a member of your staff should be there to explain how to complete forms, provide extra forms (for MCLE, reimbursement, etc.). Provide reasons why they need receipts, or must complete a specific form. These people do not have their trusted right arm with them to take care of details - help them.

Show you are gracious and understanding

You need to be the calmest, most unflappable, most easy going person at your program. By never letting people see you sweat you create an environment that makes teaching fun.

Remember - shit happens! People need to cancel at the last moment for emergencies, client crisis, judge’s orders, even illness. When this happens be gracious, concerned, and understanding. Your colleagues do not do this on purpose. Even if it makes your life difficult, you must not employ the guilt trip, roll your eyes, sigh deeply, or cry. If it is an illness or personal emergency follow up to let your colleague know you are concerned with more than filling the teaching slots.

Mistakes, personality conflicts, student push back, and even disagreements do happen at programs. Show forgiveness, offer suggestions, change rotation schedules, and mentor. Many instructors may be giants in the courtroom but novices in the classroom. Bring your experience to bear and help them get past new classroom experiences.

Sometimes demonstrations fall flat. Unintended insults infuriate participants (and even colleagues). Teaching points are not made. When such a crisis occurs resolve it with grace. You may privately need to scold someone and negotiate a fix or a departure but do so in a way that does not burn bridges. We have all made similar mistakes in our teaching careers. Showing understanding goes a long way in helping someone become a better teacher.

Final thoughts

My last piece of counsel is that if someone does not play well with others do not invite them to return. While problems may occur, do your best to mitigate them. Use others you trust to help buffer the problem. Finally, recognize that you cannot be everywhere at once. Trust your judgement in who you invited to teach. Remember your manners!


  1. If you've worked with Mark then you know he does what he preaches: it works.

    Because he's run so many courses with so many faculty and so many 'post course' evaluations I hope he'll pen a piece on what students like and dislike. There must be a common core. That would provide a useful checklist for all of us who are planning and running courses.

  2. I have to second the comments about quality teaching teams. I have put teams together and been a member of a few myself, and each one has a slightly different personality as a group. The group dynamic really becomes the driving force of the experience. Think about that for the moment, much like any competition team, the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts. The only thing that I would underline/add to Mark's comments is that the fit of the individuals with each other must be considered as part of the process of putting the team together. I usually ask myself if I would be comfortable sitting in the back yard with them listening to Buffet and having a libation. If the answer to that question is yes, the rest generally seems to work itself out. Many of us refer to this as the "smell" test.