For the last year and a half, I’ve been teaching everything I know to the WordPress community. This hasn’t been easy to do and it’s been quite a journey so far! That’s why I wanted to share my current beginners experiences.
My hope is that it might inspire others to also start teaching themselves. It’s a great way to improve your career while strengthening the WordPress community. WordCamp Miami organizers also shared my enthusiasm for sharing this.
Take a moment to think about who you trust online. What do they have in common? There’s a good chance that they thought you something valuable.
Some of the biggest names in the WordPress community share their knowledge on a regular basis. They write on their blogs, speak at WordCamps and so on. That’s how you remember them and it’s also why you trust them. That trust that you have in them can translate to different things.
The most common outcome is that you might buy a product that they sell. That’s because they educated you about the problem it solves. Now that you know more about it, you want a solution for it.
This also applies to open source projects. They taught you about the problem that their project solves. But, in the process, they also demonstrated their technical ability to solve it. The result is that you might decide to use their project over someone else’s.
You might want to hire them to work on a project or for your company. Through their teaching, you have a better idea of what they can bring to you and your team. Their teaching material also gives you an opportunity to look at the quality of their work. In the end, you’re not trying to hire an unknown quantity.
These are just some of the benefits that come from teaching you something valuable. And the good news is that you can do that too! You have valuable insights that you can share with others.
But teaching isn’t without its own set of obstacles. Today, we’re going to focus on the ones that you’ll face as you begin your teaching journey. We’ll look at what they are and how you can overcome them.
Fear in a teacher’s world
Teaching is scary at first. There’s no question about it. But it’s not the act of teaching itself that’s scary. Fear is never that simple.
No, it’s often a combination of fears that prevents us from heading down the teaching path. And each of those fears affects us in different ways. That said, let’s still go over some of the common ones and see what you can do about them.
Impostor syndrome is a common topic in the WordPress world (and even the programming world in general). I can’t remember when I first heard of it, but my first thought was, “This is me! I often feel that way.” And I wasn’t alone feeling that way. A lot of developers did too. That’s why it comes up so often now.
So what is the impostor syndrome? It’s the fear that others will expose you as a fraud. It’s a bit of a deceiving name because it doesn’t contain the word “fear” or “phobia”. But there’s no question that it’s a fear.
And I’m living it as we speak right now! I have all these thoughts going through my mind right now. They’re telling me that I’m not an expert on teaching and that I shouldn’t speak about it. Here are some example of those thoughts:
- “Who are you to teach this to other developers!? I have so few newsletter subscribers.”
- “I’ve only spoken at 4 WordCamps. I’m nobody. How can I talk about teaching?”
- “If this was important, someone else would have done it already.”
You can’t always outrun these thoughts. They stick there, eat at you and cause you to doubt yourself. But the truth is that it’s often the best time to teach.
Why? Because you’re in the trenches. You’re living what you want to teach right now. You might not be sure of yourself or what you’re teaching, but that doesn’t make you a fraud.
It makes you authentic and relevant to people that are in similar shoes as you right now. They want to know that someone else struggled with the same problem as them. They want to know how you overcame it and what you learned in the process.
This gets harder to do that the longer you wait to teach it. We’re human and we like to tell stories. We can’t always help, but romanticize, distort or just forget what we did.
It’s also the reason why it’s important to me that I talk about this with you now. I’m still a beginner at this teaching thing and the impostor syndrome. I haven’t forgotten what it is to feel that way.
The judgment of others
When I teach, the scariest moment is pressing the “Post” button on Facebook. It’s not publishing my post on my site. That’s easy when you’re starting off. No one is paying much attention to you. You’re like Frodo Baggins who no one suspects is carrying the one ring.
But when you post on Facebook, it’s like putting on the one ring right in Mordor! You can see the evil eye of the internet fixate you right away. You’ve shown yourself and now all the evil of the internet will come down on you! At least, that’s how I feel each time.
I’m scared that I’ll be misunderstood (that happens a lot with advanced topics!). I’m afraid someone will call me out for promoting myself when I’m just trying to help. I think that, for some reason, it’ll lead to hate.
That’s the “Eye of Sauron” of the internet. It’s the judgment of others. In some ways, this fear of judgment is like the impostor syndrome. But it goes way beyond it because it’s about more than just feeling like a fraud.
For a lot of us, public speaking magnifies this fear of judgment. We’re putting ourselves on the spot in front of dozens (or hundreds!) of people. All starring at you and JUDGING you.
And the worst part is that there’s no running away! Once you start speaking, you must give your whole talk. This triggers all sorts of negative thoughts which make you want to run away.
Being our worst enemy
But the reality is that there isn’t much logic to our fears. It’s often just us rationalizing them. That way, we don’t have to deal with them.
For example, let’s look back at the fears that we described so far. We never spoke about the worse critic of all: yourself. You’re the meanest person on the internet or listening to your conference.
Now, I’m not trying to say no one will ever judge you. It’ll happen and it’s not fun at all. But, for each negative experience, you’re going to have dozens of positive ones! The problem is that we tend to remember the negative ones a lot more. (Yes, our minds are awful self-sabotaging machines)
Mastering your fears
The idea that you can overcome your fears is kind of inaccurate. It leads us to believe that there’s a future us out there that lives without these fears. But that’s just not going to happen for most of us.
We won’t ever get over our fears. We can just reduce the impact that they have on our lives. We learn to manage the emotion like we do with love and hate. Most of us can control those two feelings well enough.
With this in mind, how do you manage your fears? The best way to do it is to face your fears over and over. You keep doing it until the feeling becomes familiar and you feel you have some control over it. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche and easier said than done. That said, it’s a common form of therapy.
So let’s imagine that you have a fear of public speaking, you want to try to speak often as you can. This means giving talks at WordCamps, local meetups or even to your co-workers. This last one is quite good because it might feel safer and easier to you.
This won’t change the fact that the first time that you face a fear tends to be the scariest. But if things go well (knock on wood), the second time will be a bit better. And then, you just try to keep the ball rolling!
That’s all there is to it. There’s no magic bullet. It’s all about taking small steps and building up your confidence in yourself.
Build teaching habits
Let’s take a look back at your favorite teacher. There’s a good chance that they publish something on a regular basis. It could be a blog post, a YouTube video, a podcast episode, a drawing or even a combination of those.
What they produce isn’t even that important. It’s the fact that they’re regular that is. They built the necessary habits so that they’re always producing new teaching material. That way they never end the week with nothing.
It’s a myth to think that you can just flick a switch and start a new habit. It’s possible that you’re able to, but most of us aren’t that lucky! It’s safe to assume that your favorite teacher wasn’t that lucky either. So what can you do to make sure that you’re successful at building new teaching habits?
When I started writing, my goal was always to sit down and write 1,000 words a day. That was just a horrible goal to pick on my part! I only picked it because that’s what Nathan Barry did.
The problem was that I didn’t even like writing that much. So, first, I had to motivate myself to sit down to write. And then, I had to write all these words. I don’t think I succeeded even once!
This is such a common mistake. You shouldn’t worry about it if you’ve done this before. Humans are notorious optimists when it comes to building new habits. We always think we can handle way more than we can in practice.
The trick is to break things down into tiny habits. Instead of 1,000 words a day, I decided to write 100 words a day. This was small enough amount that I wasn’t intimidated by it. Yet if I managed to do it, I’d have 700 words at the end of the week! That’s a blog post for most people out there. (Unless you’re a long-form lover like myself. :P)
It was also small enough that, if I got in the zone, I could write more. I also had plenty of room to grow the habit. Once I found it easy to write 100 words a day, I bumped it up to 150 words.
Willpower is a muscle that you need to train
Willpower is an interesting concept. A lot of times, we hear the analogy of the well to describe it. We imagine that it’s a resource that we can just get more of. That’s why we say things like, “I wish I had more motivation.”
But that’s not how willpower works. In reality, it’s a lot closer to a muscle. It fatigues as you use it during the day. It also doesn’t work as well if you don’t let it recover. That’s why we tend to do worse when we have more stress in our life or haven’t been sleeping well.
That’s the reason why starting with small goals is so important. You want to tax your willpower muscle as little as possible. That way, you can do it on the good days and the bad days.
That said, it’s not enough to pick small goals. You also need to be regular so that you can increase the strength of that muscle. That’s why it’s ideal to pick a small habit that you can repeat every day.
You want to practice it so much that you almost don’t need any willpower to do it. This lets you use your muscle to build brand new habits without losing the ones you built already. This creates a positive feedback loop that helps you grow as a person and a teacher.
Learn to pick yourself back up
So far, we’ve painted a pretty rosy picture of habit building. It would be foolish to think that things will go great all the time. We all have off days. They’re nothing to feel ashamed of. It’s your ability to get back on track when those happen that define how well you’ll do in the long run.
Going in with the idea that it’s all-or-nothing, that you have to be perfect is often a recipe for disaster. It does you a lot more harm than good. Why? Because you don’t plan for failure, you have no strategy in place for when life throws you a curve ball.
Here’s a simple example. Let’s say that you decided to write every day. What happens if you go on vacation? You’re not going to stop taking vacations so that you can maintain your writing habit! (I sure hope not anyhow!)
So what do you do? You might try to write in the morning before enjoying the rest of your day. You might want to take time off during the vacation and not write. It’s normal to want a break.
But you have to plan for these situations. Especially if you decide to stop for a little bit. When you’re starting a new habit, taking a break from it is deadly. I’d even recommend against it. You shouldn’t allow yourself to miss more than one day, two at most. One day isn’t the end of the world, but it goes downhill quite fast after that.
Knowing your students
Who do you want to teach to? This is always a good question to ask yourself before you start teaching (or even if you’re teaching already!). Our first instinct is just to dive in and start teaching. We sit down and write a blog post or record a video and then share it.
But you should never forget that successful teacher help their students be successful! It’s a symbiotic relationship is easy to overlook. You can never forget that it’s a two-way street.
So, with that in mind, who do you want to help? Is it your ideal consulting client? Is it BuddyPress developers? Or maybe it’s theme designers. No, it’s WordPress business owners!
Find your audience
As you can see, there are a lot of different people out there that you can help! It’s tempting to decide to teach to everyone. After all, that gives you the largest pool of students possible. What could go wrong!? Plenty.
Teaching to everyone often leads to the worse results. Your teaching becomes generic and unmemorable. It applies to everyone but doesn’t make anyone more successful.
Great teachers have a specific audience that they help. You need one as well. So how do you pick one?
There’s no right answer here. It depends on what you hope to do with your teaching. If you want to attract more business, help your future clients. If you’re passionate about something and want to teach it, teach that. Passion is contagious and your students will notice it.
But it’s ok if you don’t know either. You shouldn’t stress out too much about picking the “right” audience. You can just start teaching and see where that leads you. You’ll find your audience along the way.
Know where they hang out
This is where knowing who your ideal students are helps. You want to know where they hang out. It could be on Facebook, Reddit, a forum, etc. You have to figure it out.
Because it’s an invaluable source of high-quality teaching material! You can read or listen to the questions that they ask. Using that, you can identify the painful problems that they have. And then you can then teach them how to solve them.
After that, the only thing left for you to do is share your solution with them. And that’s easy! You already know where to do that. It’s where they hang out and ask questions.
Staying in touch
Now, it’s good that you found where your students hang out, but that’s often not enough. You also need a way to stay in touch with them. You want to build a relationship with them so that you can keep helping them in the future.
This is even more important when trying to teach on the internet. Your potential students might come from a social media link or a Slack chatroom. You teach them something valuable and then they leave without ever coming back.
This is where email comes in. In last few years, email has seen a resurgence as a marketing tool. There’s a good reason for it. Email is still the best way to build a relationship on the internet.
That said, no one gives out their email just like that. That’s why a lot of websites use exit popups to ask them to sign up for their newsletter as they’re leaving. They hope that the reader got some value out of what they taught them. And because of that, they’re more receptive to the idea of giving the website their email.
Now, you should also ask your students for their email (with or without using popups). Getting their email means that they care about what you’re teaching. They’ll come back if you stay in touch with them.
But you can’t just ask for an email and never email back. That’s a common mistake that we can do when we start teaching. We create a newsletter, but we don’t do the work staying in touch with the people that sign up for it.
You should try to send them something every few weeks. That way, they don’t forget about you. Otherwise, they’ll unsubscribe from your newsletter the next time that you email them.
Empathize with your students
A common pitfall when you start teaching is not having enough empathy for your students. We make incorrect assumptions about them. This can lead us to take shortcuts while explaining things because they seem so obvious to us.
You want to avoid being the person on top the mountain. You can’t forget that your students aren’t on the same level as you. Instead, you should try to place yourself lower on the mountain so that you’re just a bit ahead of them.
That way you’re close enough to identify with their struggles. You can give them a hand and pull them up to the next level. What does that look like in practice?
You want to avoid taking shortcuts because they seem obvious to you. Explain everything in more detail than you feel is necessary. No one will get angry at you for over explaining something.
For example, if you have a block of code, you should explain what each line does. This might seem like much, but sometimes we make small decisions without thinking about them. Doing this forces us to clarify these small decisions for our students.
You can also ignore most of this
When I started teaching, my ideal student didn’t hang out anywhere. I wanted to teach advanced programming topics to WordPress developers. I was super passionate about it, but couldn’t find anyone who talked about it.
I didn’t have students asking questions. There was no painful problem to help them with. I just decided to pitch my tent and try to see if I could find other people that cared about what I taught.
This goes against everything mentioned so far and what you’ll read online. But it’s possible to do it. It’s just a LOT harder. You don’t have somewhere to share what you’re trying to teach.
I also think that staying in touch with your students becomes more important in that scenario. You don’t want your students to forget that you exist. You’re not always sure how they found you in the first place since they don’t have a specific hang out spot.
It’s always worth pointing out that all this takes work. It just doesn’t happen overnight. This is often intimidating as a beginner.
But every teacher you know was a beginner at some point. The difference between you and them is that they started. It’s not worth it to wait until the perfect moment to do it. That moment doesn’t exist.
It’s just your fear trying to convince you to not make the jump. We both know that you’ll never be quite ready to make the jump. You just have to do it and go from there.
Here are the slides for the talk I gave at WordCamp Miami 2016.