Teaching Isn’t About You, It’s About Them

-By Patrick McNerthney 


One of the best things about making people coffee professionally – a.k.a. being a barista – is the absolute power one has over people’s lives. Yes! A human’s destiny is completely in a barista’s hands (at least for that morning, then again later when they come back for a coffee break, that pesky meeting, or some caffeine-demanding drivel– muah ha ha ha ha). A barista can make you early or late, happy or grumpy, feel like you’re a Hollywood star or a nobody, and energized (or sleepy and befuddled if they slip you a decaf; this time rubbing my hands together: muah ha ha ha ha). What incredible power!

How do I know this? Well, it’s not based on extreme awareness, disciplined observation, and/or incredible insight. No wait, cut the sarcasm–I have none of that! It’s because I was a professional barista for roughly 14 years. Oh how I miss my reign.

(They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, but I declare: it’s a small price to pay!)

Okay fine…the truth is I made coffee professionally for a really long time, and, let’s face it, I loved it – mostly because I worked for a place that encouraged all employees to be themselves. I remember the owner guy would say, “If you’re funny, be funny, if you’re serious, be serious. How you are doesn’t matter. I just ask that you engage with each customer in your own way.” This posture made a big difference, because it allowed me to thrive, and (most importantly) connect with the customers. BUT, before that could happen, I had to overcome a big challenge: Learning the technical aspects of making stellar espresso-based beverages on an old-fashioned, manual machine, and developing the skills to do so at the speed of light (people HATE waiting for their coffee, especially in the morning, and they get GRUMPY). 

Ahhhhhh yes…no problem (gulp).

Luckily, the owner guy had a solution: on-the-job training proffered by teammates. Wait, why didn’t he have some fire-breathing manager or other self-important, corporate-y trainer type do it? Aha! Here’s why… 

Everything seems easy to learn when we already know how to do it. This is the challenge every instructor, trainer, or person-who-writes-the-manual (a.k.a. instructional design) faces when teaching: translating what they do know so that those who don’t know understand exactly what they are supposed to do! AND let’s not forget they must take into consideration the fact that everyone has a different learning style.Thus, teaching takes a ton of empathy. “Students” may need to absorb information from a guide, write themselves notes, just listen, watch YouTube videos, take time-outs for stress management, or a whole host of other things that are likely different from how the teacher thinks the student will learn. 

Invisible Me–front and center. (Outside of barista training I learned best by NOT being in groups).

Owner-guy understood this, which is why he insisted the people doing the work conduct the training. He knew that the inherent diversity of the staff as a group meant there was a higher percentage chance of “matching” the learning style of a given new hire. It was empathy by committee – leveraging the power of the collective rather than one person – and it worked wonders, as evidenced by the fact that even I,learned how to make great coffee! 

(I was really nervous, so guess who I learned best from? The goofy, relaxed girl who kept saying, “It’s just coffee, no big deal.” The super cool, slick but intense guy just didn’t have the patience–between striking catalog poses and crossing and uncrossing his arms, to help me chill out and not be a nervous wreck.)

But empathy by committee isn’t practical for every situation. We usually don’t have a bench of people waiting in the wings to dive in and teach as a group, just to meet diverse learning needs. So, how do we reach those who don’t know what we know (yet) effectively? It’s possible for anyone who teaches anything to become more empathetic (i.e. “better”) in three simple steps:

  1. Celebrate the fact that communicating what you know is difficult. (Hint, this is self-empathy!) 
  2. Slow down, observe, and listen. Are the people you’re teaching scared, excited, shy, confused, bored, nervous, happy (or anything else)? Making it about what they need re-focuses your lens from you to them, which, yes indeed, is being empathetic, or “meeting people where they are at,rather than where you want them to be.” 
  3. Re-evaluate what you’re doing often. This may sound weird in our “hurry and get-it-done” world, but humility in instruction tempers the well-meaning optimism of believing we can make others move forward. 

And that’s what this is all about, right? You’re trying to help the elderly, children with challenges, or anyone needing help with activities of daily living move forward, past the anxiety, fear, and depression that comes from social isolation. Fine Art Miracles (FAM) knows all about your mission, and they can help.

Creative expression – that act of simply making – creates feelings of mastery, self-worth, confidence, and relevance for underserved populations who may feel like they just don’t matter anymore or have a hard time finding hope. That’s why FAM champions teaching Dance & Movement Therapy, Art Therapy, Music Therapy, Multi-Sensory Sessions, Drumming Exercise, and Drama Therapy as effective ways to empower your residents and loved ones to demonstrate both their ability to make change, and the control they have over their own lives. 

With a dash of empathy, and the right tools from FAM, you can teach those under your care to see their own significance, find happiness and move forward. So what are you waiting for? FAM is ready to get you started

I don’t know about you, but I’m a feeling little sleepy. Time for some coffee – I only hope the barista doesn’t slip me a decaf mickey this time…


Skip to content