The Challenges And Rewards Of Teaching Web Design

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Just over four years ago, I decided to take a part-time position teaching website design and front-end development at a local university, the University of Rhode Island. My time in the classroom has been one of the most challenging as well as one of the most rewarding experiences in my career, and I believe that other Web professionals would greatly benefit from spending some time in an educational setting teaching others their craft.

In this article, we will look at some of the challenges to prepare for if you are considering taking on a teaching position. I will also present some of my personal experiences and insights, including the benefits and rewards I’ve enjoyed as a teacher, to help you consider such a move for your own career.

Challenges

Let’s start by looking at some of those aforementioned challenges as well as the solutions I’ve used to meet them over the years.

Not Everyone Learns The Same Way

Where you teach, as well as the variety of students in your classroom, will have a dramatic impact on your overall experience. Over the years, students from all walks of life, age groups and experience levels have taken my course. The only constant is that every one of them is completely different — which poses quite a challenge when preparing materials and exercises for the class.

Ultimately, your job is to do what you feel would help the students understand the concepts best. Yet, no matter how well you prepare, the reality is that your materials will work great for some students and not so well for others. You will not be able to reach all students equally because everyone learns differently.


Everyone learns differently, and your responsibility as the teacher is to respond to those different needs. (Image credit: opensourceway)

As you receive feedback from students and realize which ones get it and which ones are lost, you will need to adjust your lesson plans to make sure that you reach all students, not just best and brightest who understood the concepts right away. Of course, part of the challenge is that you must strike a balance here. You’ve spent time carefully considering and building your lesson plans, and you don’t want to blow it up and redo everything because a particular student did not respond well to them. Instead, find ways to get those slower-paced learners up to speed.

I had one student a few years ago who found it difficult to keep up. He was always falling behind, and he felt bad about asking too many questions and holding up the rest of the class — but by asking fewer questions, he fell further behind, and the problem just worsened. Eventually, I suggested that he bring in a digital camera to record the lessons so that he could go over them again later at his own pace. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of being recorded, but I felt it would help him, so I was open to the idea.

The change was immediate. Watching the recordings at home and going through the lab exercises for a second time at his own pace, he found that the lessons began to make sense and that he was able to keep up in class. His final project ended up being one of the best of the group — a dramatic turnaround from where he started in the course.

Not Everyone Is Cut Out To Be A Web Designer

That being said, the reality is that some students, no matter how much extra attention you give them or how responsive you are to their learning needs, will just never get the material. Unfortunately, I’ve had to drop a number of students from my class over the years. Despite my best efforts, including extra materials developed specifically for these students and extra class time to answer their questions and tutor them, they simply didn’t understand the concepts being taught.

In most cases, these students tried incredibly hard. They put in the effort required, but the results weren’t there and the rest of the class was held up because of their struggle. Having to sit down with those students and explain that I didn’t think they were right for the class is easily the most uncomfortable thing I have had to do as a teacher.


Failing to get through to a student does not necessarily mean that your material or teaching approach is bad. In many cases, it’s not you, it’s the student. (Image credit: D Sharon Pruitt)

If you are going to take on a teaching role, be prepared to make difficult decisions. As uncomfortable as these conversations are, they are sometimes necessary for the good of the class.

Rewriting Lesson Plans

The Web is constantly changing. Lesson plans and exercises that were relevant one semester may be woefully outdated the next. As the Web evolves, so too must your lesson plans.

When I began teaching over four years ago, responsive design hadn’t yet become the best practice it is today. Now, it is one of the most important aspects of my course. Despite all of the work I had put into the class materials, I had to pretty much start from scratch when I decided to introduce responsive Web design into the lessons.

Make sure to teach skills that are relevant to the industry today, revisiting your lessons after each semester and making changes as needed. Most of the time, I need to make only minor changes to course materials; I rarely have to start from scratch. Either way, though, prepare to revise your lesson plans regularly if you hope to keep the course relevant and up to date. Furthermore, understand that your time in the classroom is just a fraction of the time you will have to spend preparing for the class.

The Constraints Of Time

Speaking of time, another challenge is that you have only so much time with the students. So, you need to pick and choose exactly what to present according to what you feel will serve them best. If your classes are like mine and many of your students have no previous experience with Web design, HTML or CSS, then you’ll need to start with the basics. Giving students an understanding of basic design principles and introducing HTML and CSS all the way up to the most current best practices is a tall order. In the end, you have to leave some things out and accept that you can’t teach students everything.

Take support for Internet Explorer (IE) 6. Finding ways to support that old browser has consumed countless hours for those of us who have been in the industry for years, but we don’t struggle with it much these days because use of IE 6 is now so low. Among most of the websites I have worked on lately, IE 6 does not even factor in the user base. Because of this, I have decided not to discuss the challenges of IE 6 because I do not feel it is relevant to the work the students will do once they leave the classroom. If we covered IE 6 support, it would mean we have that much less time to cover something else. The challenge is to decide what is more (and most) important and to make the best use of the time available to present those concepts.

As a side note, websites like Smashing Magazine and other online sources that have built an archive of articles about Web design topics over the years are an invaluable resource for those of us who are teaching the next generation of designers and developers. So much of what we do today is built on the practices of the past. The history of our industry is important, but finding time to present all of that history in the classroom is hard. So, referring students to topics and articles to read is an important strategy for teachers. This is why these archives of articles, which might not seem relevant to today’s best practices, are so important and why decisions like .NET Magazine’s to drop thousands of old articles when it resigned its website is such a problem.

As Andy Clarke states in his article “Preserving the History of Web Design,” we need to ensure that new professionals in our industry learn this history, “to learn about the progress we made so they don’t undo it.” Unfortunately, we cannot cover all of that history in the classroom, so the challenge is to figure out how much of it to present and how much to refer them to for review outside of the classroom.

You Represent The Industry

You will be the first Web professional who most of your students have ever met or been able to speak with at length. To them, you represent the industry. The stories you tell and the opinions you share will shape their own understanding and opinions of the industry. That is a pretty big responsibility.


Always keep in mind that you play a major role in shaping your students’ understanding and opinions of the Web industry. (Image credit: Dell Inc.)

We all have bad days, but taking negativity from the office into the classroom will absolutely affect how your students see the industry. You don’t have to present the job as being all rainbows and gumdrops, but be mindful of what you say to students and avoid using the classroom as a place to blow off steam, regardless of how bad your day is or how frustrating an exchange with a client has been. Complaining about clients is never productive or appropriate, and too many in our industry relish the opportunity to share bad stories. Doing this with students gives them the wrong impression and trains them not to respect clients.

You have an opportunity to set these new Web professionals off on the right path. By maintaining a positive outlook and by exposing the students to the best parts of our industry, you can help to cultivate designers and developers who will help our industry continue to grow, instead of hold it back.

You Are Responsible For What You Put Into This World

Building on this theme of responsibility, you are absolutely responsible for what you put into the world. I have heard many Web designers echo this sentiment as they look to do work that has meaning and that makes a difference. The projects and clients we take on and the websites we launch into the world are our responsibility — and that responsibility is multiplied many times over when you decide to become a teacher.

As a teacher, you are at least partially responsible for the work your students will do. When your students go on to do great things, it is awesome. One of my students a few years ago took a position with an important non-profit organization in our area. Seeing her work make a difference for that organization and the people it helps was extremely gratifying.

Unfortunately, not all interactions with former students end as positively as this one did. Other former students of mine have done really bad work as freelancers. I remember one former student contacting me and asking me to look at the most recent website he had designed and developed for a client. There is no way to sugarcoat it — the website was bad. The design was unattractive, the user experience confusing, and the code sloppy and poorly written. This put me in an uncomfortable position.

He was obviously very excited about his work and was asking for feedback, but any feedback I could give would be negative. In the end, I told him that I was happy to see him working on the skills we had covered in class, and I suggested a few improvements to the website. The student thanked me for my input and made a few changes to the website. Since that time, I have followed his work and seen other mediocre websites that he has designed for clients, but he never again asked for my feedback, nor have I offered it.

This experience was not confined to this one student. Over the years, other former students have taken on freelance work and subsequently launched poor websites into the world. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t feel some responsibility for these poorly done websites, but in the end, you cannot police every student once they leave the class. All you can do is give them the best information and show them the right way to design and develop a website. What they do with that information, for better or for worse, is something you have no real control over.

Rewards And Benefits

So far, we’ve looked only at the challenges of teaching in this industry. Those challenges are real and substantial, but if you can meet them, then you’ll also find a number of rewards and benefits from taking on this responsibility. Let’s now turn to some of those rewards.

Helping Others

Helping others can be a powerful experience. Spending time in the classroom to teach others your craft is one way to use the knowledge you have gained to improve the lives of others.

Many of the students I teach are unemployed or underemployed. Their tuition for my class is paid for by a grant set up to give them skills relevant to today’s workforce. Helping these unemployed individuals to better themselves and learn new skills is important work, and seeing students go on to find good entry-level jobs in the industry is incredibly rewarding. Hearing from those students later on that the lessons and conversations in the class helped to prepare them for success really makes all of my hard work worthwhile.

I have always loved the giving, collaborative nature of the Web industry. Teaching students is one way to contribute to the Web community while having a real impact on the lives of others.

Learning By Teaching

One of the best ways to truly understand something is by teaching it to others. While my time in the classroom is dedicated to teaching website design, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t learn quite a bit from the experience as well.

Try to explain the CSS box model or the difference between relative and absolute positioning to a new student, and I guarantee you will understand the concept better than before. This greater understanding and the experience of explaining these technical concepts to students will also help you speak with clients.

Teacher/Learner
Teaching forces you to find ways to explain concepts in a way that others who do not have the benefit of your experience will grasp. (Image credit: opensourceway)

Being able to communicate with clients without being too technical or intimidating, and in a way that helps them to grasp the concepts enough to be able to make informed decisions about their business and their website, is an important skill. The lessons you prepare and your conversations with students can and will equip you for these client interactions and make you better at what you do.

Generating Business

Speaking of clients, I wouldn’t have expected this when I began teaching, but my time in the classroom has led to a number of projects outside of the classroom. Multiple students have passed along solid leads to me because they could not handle the projects themselves with their level of experience. Former students have also invited the agency I work for to bid on projects initiated by the organizations they’ve joined.

Over the years, a number of people have asked me whether I realize that, by being a teacher, I am training professionals who will one day replace me or, at the very least, take work away from me. I’ve honestly never felt that way. I’ve always felt that there is more than enough work to go around. And, as my experience shows, being a teacher and making a positive impression on your students will not only not lose you clients, but could actually generate business for you and your agency.

How Do I Get Started?

Hopefully, this article has given you some points to think about as you consider whether a teaching position is right for you at this point in your career. If you’d like to explore this possibility, how should you begin?

My opportunity came when I began telling others of my desire to speak more about our industry and the work that I do. A fellow Web developer who had taught at the university for many years heard me one day and, knowing of an opening at the school, referred me. Within a few weeks, I was in front of my first group of students.

While my experience might not be typical, there is a lesson in it. Spreading the word about your interest in a teaching position could open doors. Do not be shy to let others know that you’d like to explore this move.

Other strategies are to contact your local universities, colleges, and business centers to see whether they have any openings. Sometimes, a little outreach turns up an amazing opportunity.

If you can’t find an opening at an institution of higher education or you feel you are not yet ready for that level and would like to start smaller, consider giving small workshops or classes at a local library or even as a private tutor.

Whatever path you choose to get started, consider what you can offer to students who are interested in learning more about our industry. I assure you that the students will not be the only ones who get something positive from the experience.

(al, il)


© Jeremy Girard for Smashing Magazine, 2014.