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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Becoming an Advocacy Teacher

Another gem from Mark Caldwell, NITA's Director of Specialty Programs.


People contact me on a regular basis volunteering to teach for NITA. Often times I give them the NITA party line, “It’s best to attend one of NITA’s Teacher Training Programs so you can appreciate our process of teaching.” Sometimes I talk with them about their experience in the courtroom and where they have previously taught. Depending on the particular needs of my programs and their experience I may offer them an opportunity to teach.

In honesty, it is difficult to break into advocacy teaching. Program Directors or school administrators tend to stick with people they know and who they are comfortable with at their programs. It is not so much a “club” as administrators not wanting to take risks. It is easy to invite people you know and like. Those who appreciate the system and who have been successful at previous programs are regularly invited to return.

The Catch Twenty-two of the process is there are fewer and fewer cases going to trial. Getting trial experience is becoming a real issue for younger lawyers. The economy has also had its impact on advocacy teaching. Registration numbers at programs are lower than in the past. Programs are being cancelled. Budgets are tightening so Program Directors must be highly selective in who they choose to teach - only the best get invited when a program is half the size of past years. Likewise, teaching opportunities are shrinking. Even with law schools attempting to shift to experiential learning there are simply a finite number of courses being taught.

Counter to these trends is the harsh reality that many of the “stalwarts” are getting older. In the not too far future NITA, and many other organizations, will find they have exhausted their supply of teachers as many gracefully go to retirement. Recognizing the “graying” of the organization NITA encourages its Program Directors to recruit new teachers. From my own perspective it is still difficult to take the risk of inviting someone who has never taught before.

Does this mean you should be discouraged and not even attempt to teach? No. There are opportunities to teach and if you want to become a teacher you should reach for your dreams. It just means you will need to work hard to achieve your goal. Here are my thoughts on what someone should do if they want to teach:

1. Become a student of advocacy. If you have not attended an experientially taught advocacy program you need to either attend (regardless of your experience) or ask if you can observe for a day. Advocacy teaching is not about experienced advocates pontificating about how they became successful. It is a very scientific process that works based on how people learn. You need to appreciate how programs work before you can be successful at teaching. The stock line about attending a Teacher Training program is more than lip service. Those who extend invitations to teach pay attention to such credentials - especially if they are accompanied by a recommendation from someone who taught at the program you attended.

2. Master the process of constructive critique. NITA employs a four part system in its teaching. Other successful programs use their own systems. There may be no one right way to teach but all of the systems I know use a process that A) Identifies the specific problem; B) Describes the problem with enough specificity that the student can not deny that she was performing in the way described; C) offers a genuine fix to the problem so that the student can change their behavior in the future; and D) provides a reason why the student should change her behavior.

Is this a lock-step approach? Of course not. The very best teachers I know vary from the process. The one connecting theme is they all follow it more than they deviate from it.

3. Dissect what you do, or someone you admire does, when experiencing success at trial. Great teachers are able to break down the component pieces of each skill utilized at trial. Not only do they know what works and does not work -- they can explain why this is the case. To be a successful teacher you must be able to clearly, and succinctly, tell someone how to perform and why it is important that they do it as described. Start your process immediately. Yes it takes some of the spontaneity out of your practice but it makes you a far better teacher than going on instinct alone.

4. Observe other teachers. Studying how others teach helps you develop your own skills. Even the greatest advocacy teachers borrow ideas from others. There should be no pride of authorship as you develop your own repertory of comments. Attribution is always appreciated but over the years I’ve come to find that many have laid claims to some of the best teaching comments, drills, demonstrations, etc. The bottom line is if something is effective in teaching another how to master a skill - make use of it.

5. Deliver your comments with a positive spin. I’ve seen two teachers deliver the same suggestion to participants at a program. One offered the diagnosis and solution as something the student had done wrong and the other suggested the same fix as a way of helping a solid performance become a stellar performance. The delivery with a smile was met with appreciation while the other was viewed as hyper critical. Creating the atmosphere that I’m here to help you improve versus I’m here to teach you how to do it right is significant.

6. Learn to offer comments efficiently. Time is always a factor when teaching. As much as we like to believe it is our comments that turn students into great advocates, the reality is performances are what help students improve. Certainly teacher comments give direction and help students make a determination of how best to perform but it is repetition that actually leads to mastery. Keep in mind the cardinal rule that one or two points are all a student can recall and integrate. Your comments should be efficient and to the point. The more time you spend talking the less time your students perform. Don’t steal their time.

7. Develop effective demonstrations. The best demonstrations do not overpower students. Your goal should never be to have students say, “Wow, I could never do that!” Instead, following your demonstration students should say, “Wow, so that’s how you do it. I think I can do it too.” Your demonstrations should illustrate the component parts of each skill. Offering too much in a demonstration is like offering nothing. If students can’t recall how to do something the time is wasted.

8. Play well with others. Team teaching can either take everyone to new heights as instructors play off each other, or suck the very life out of a room as teachers compete to show students their intelligence. Cooperative teaching lets both instructors star and ensures that students get the most from their performances. Learn to communicate both in the teaching room and outside. Nothing frustrates students more than instructors who appear disorganized and not ready to teach. Make sure you share coaching responsibilities. Remember that teaching is not about the teacher but the students.

9. Let people know you want to teach on a regular basis. Squeaky wheels get attention and so do people who make it known that they want to teach. This is not to suggest that you pester Program Directors, Academic Deans, or colleagues who teach. Do let people know you want to teach. Check calendars and make your offer timed to when invitations are being extended. You are more likely to get your opportunity if you time your contact to about two to three months in advance.

10. Do not say no. When your first opportunity presents itself you had best say yes. Your acceptance speaks volumes about your interest while your declining suggests perhaps you are not as committed as you indicated. If you have a great reason to say no then make sure you clearly explain why you are not available. Ask if you can substitute at a time when you are not otherwise engaged. If you are lucky you may get a second invitation. I never ask someone to teach more than twice.

Do not think you will always get invited to the big show as a first opportunity. Program Directors often give people an opportunity at programs where expectations are lower. It may be the subject matter is not your favorite or slightly outside your comfort zone. Say yes and work hard to succeed. Many professional athletes and actors toil in the minor leagues before they get the chance at the highest level. You should do the same.

Teaching, like being a student, is a lifetime occupation. The best teachers I know are always looking for new material, considering how to more effectively communicate an idea, refining their presentations, and talking with others about the process. I can think of no greater reward than helping someone improve their skills. Each time I teach I mentally thank those who helped me learn both the skills of advocacy and the craft of teaching. Each time I teach I leave the course with a feeling of accomplishment and my emotional and intellectual batteries recharged. I highly commend the process and encourage those who are interested to take the steps necessary to be become effective in the classroom.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Mark! As a program director myself (ok, fine - assistant director) you hit the nail on the head. Over and over again you see that teaching advocacy is a separate and distinct skill apart from being an effective advocate. It's like the mail, as Newman (from Seinfeld) put it, "You see, certified mail is always registered, but registered mail is not necessarily certified." And as someone Mark took a chance on a few years back, it humbles me to read this. You makes me want to be a better teacher all over again. And I'm not just kissing up here! Ok, maybe a little.