Letter To My Soon-To-Be-Ex Client: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress.  A losing cause.  Or a sinking ship.  And sometimes that ends up getting me in trouble.

A few months ago, you called me asking if I knew anyone who could teach some in-person classes for your Nameless State Economic Agency.  You said you were skilling people up to get good jobs in a tech support environment, something I know a little bit about.  You said you had someone who was going to develop all the curriculum, and it was nearly complete.  And all you needed was someone to stand there and talk.

itsnotyou“How about me?”  You laughed, nervously, and said you probably couldn’t afford me.  (You were right.  Your rate was about 1/3 of what I would have quoted.)  But things have been slow, and it was only a tw0-week commitment, and sounded easy-squeesy.  Plus, I LOVE teaching in the classroom and hadn’t had the chance to do any ILT in years.

Fast-forward to three days before the first class.  Still no learning objectives, only a few disjointed PowerPoint slides, no test questions at all.  Ooopsie!

I sucked it up and made it work.  I built a wiki (paid for it myself) on my own time.  I built a “chat” function on my personal site.  I helped your SME write meaningful test questions. I found an amazing technical resource on LinkedIn and got her to do a video chat with your class.  I made up troubleshooting demos and role-play scenarios on the fly.  I pretty much taught my ass off for two weeks.

Of the 50 people in your class, 45 got hired.  (The other five I rated “Do Not Hire”.) The instructor reviews were mostly “walked on water, rarely gets feet wet”.  The representatives of the client that sat in were writing things like “incredible instructor” on their little note pads.

(I did get dinged by a couple of students for cursing.  You try moving from the West Coast to the Bible Belt and see what happens to you.)

In my postmortem review, I told you that if you could come up with a little money I’d be glad to re-design the course for you, based on what I saw.  I quoted 40 hours at your tiny rate — far less time than it would really take, but I know you are a very low-budget group.  And I wanted you to succeed in the future, with the next 600 trainees.  Whether I taught or not.

We had that “client” meeting in the big conference room, with a tiny TV screen where nobody could see my slides.  You said they loved the facilitative model I used, and didn’t want a bunch of  PPT slides with a brain dump of facts to memorize.  The students demanded more troubleshooting training, more role playing, more interaction.

I carefully outlined the course — including role-plays, scenarios, a class wiki, a “chat” discussion group, and lots of discussion and group building of knowledge.  Then I walked you through it over the phone and online, step-by-step, explaining each and every activity.  You approved it.

Off I went.  I designed a thing of beauty.  Twenty-four perfect modules, carefully connected to build technical skills rather than rote memorization.  Limited PowerPoint slides. Lots of “have the students use the scenario in their small group, and report back” type stuff.

I completed “Week One” and you loved it.  The client had some little changes they wanted on Week Two, so I slipped those in and handed it off.  That’s when our honeymoon ended.

“It seems a little light,” you said.  “Needs more meat and potatoes.”

No woman was ever more mortally wounded by hearing from her intended that he “wanted to see other people.”

I gently asked exactly what “more” you’d like.  I explained that in a “facilitative” model like this, much of the time in the second week of the class was spent in troubleshooting practice and role plays.  Students were designing their own scenarios, trading with other groups, solving them — and then reporting back to the class.  The facilitator would then help them “process” the learning.

(The snarky bastard in me wanted to offer to script out exactly what 25 students were to say out loud in each and every role play, but I pushed him firmly back down into the dungeon.)

That’s when the romance went out of our relationship.  When I realized that it had all been a sham, and we’d never grow old together like in the movies. You said those words that made me cry:

“Well, 99-95% of our instructors are not at that level of facilitating, anyway.”

Uh huh.  So how do you think that’s gonna work out for ya, then? If these guys just want to stand in front and lecture, and I give them a one-hour module that pretty much says “have the students do an hour of role-play and process the results”?

Yes, there were some harsh words said.  Some crockery broken. We eventually agreed to disagree, and I asked you for a list of what you wanted me to change.  And I did every single thing.

Now I’m sitting on the couch in the light of the television, eating Rocky Road out of the box with a spoon and watching Oprah with the sound off.  Trying to understand what happened between us.  How could the perfect client have changed so much?  Were there warning signs that I missed?  When my friends laughed about you at parties, should I have listened?

My wife, a very smart woman, listened to my story.  And she suggested that maybe I should have just given more instructions in the “Facilitator Manual”.  Instead of saying “use this scenario and do a role play to process with these points” — the kind of guidance that I’d like — I should have done more.  Given more.  Cared more.

I should have said:

  • Get some #2 pencils
  • Sharpen them to a point
  • Get 25 3×5 cards, no lines
  • Write your name at the top
  • Write the scenario
  • List only three answers, no more and no less
  • Hand them to the left
  • Rank them in order of relevance
  • Post to the board with gold stars

Well, I’m paraphrasing.  My darling pretty much said I should include more “how to facilitate” instructions in the “Facilitator Guide” so that the 95% I didn’t know about would be able to do it.

(Snarky me at this point suggested if I was hiring carpenters for a remodel, I wouldn’t hire one who only knew how to use a hammer on a framing job.  If he couldn’t operate a nail gun, there wouldn’t be instructions on that in the blueprints.)

But I do have to admit that she has a point.  Facilitative Learning is a whole different box of rocks for your traditional technical trainer.  No longer the “sage on the stage”, you’re actually helping the learners build their own knowledge.  It’s messy, it takes longer, and it’s much harder work.

But we do it because it beats the PANTS off of your boring old PPT lectures!

So I guess you’re moving on, and that’s probably best.  It was fun while it lasted, we had some laughs, and I’m sure the two of you (your PowerPoints and You) will be quite happy together.

Me — I’ve got my eye on this cute little Second Life learning simulation…

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Ferguson August 30, 2009 at 11:51 pm

This is entertaining, though sad on so many levels.

First, of course, is the Teaching Means Talking model that the NSEA has welded to its organizational cortex.

Second is reading about your wiki and your chat function. You’re very offhand about having built them, because they’re clearly just a couple of tools that made sense to you in context. I’m willing to bet such tools are few and far between at the agency.

The very concept of students designing their own scenarios and trading with other groups — assuming they know something about the tech support problems they’d be dealing with (I figure that’s in week one), this seems like a terrific, creative way to engage the learners, assemble some scenarios, and road-test them.

You may be faulting the government agency too much for being government. I’ve had more than one corporate client who’d blanch at the idea of not having that list of bullets for the scenarios (get the pencils, get the cards).

We talk a lot about dinosaur organizations, forgetting that guys like triceratops hung around for two or three million years.

I appreciate your sharing this; it’s given me ideas for my current project.


Diane Yeoman August 31, 2009 at 7:49 am

Dear Dick,
I love your method of teaching. You know how to reach learners. That’s the whole point.


Jeff Hurt August 31, 2009 at 2:24 pm


I’ve seen you in action and I know your style. You’re definitely the pro with a bent for humor!

Facilitative Teaching & Learning is so hard to explain to those who’ve never experienced it and even harder to sell. I think that’s exactly where we are moving with networked, collaborative, horizontal learning. So many people think there needs to be a “sage on stage” expert with the information packaged nicely into PPT bullets.

On the other hand, those who foster facilitative learning are normally the true experts in their field. Those presenters know their content backwards and fowards, inside out, upside down and have interacted with it on many levels. They also have a grasp on how learning occurs and how the brain operates. Those are the true masters that can help ignorant people grasp new concepts and apply it to their daily lives.

Now if we can just figure out how to package that into an elevator speech that sells better than the expert, top-down, controlled presentation.


Ralph Mayer September 2, 2009 at 7:13 am

Dick, I had the wonderful opportunity to witness your teaching first hand in the above-mentioned situation. You were awesome. The students were blown away by your interaction with them in this wonderful facilitative model–something few of them seemed to have experienced in their learning careers. Having taught thousands of hours myself in large organizations (BellSouth, Delta Airlines, Marriott, etc.) who embrace only facilitative teaching styles, I thought I was back “at home” experiencing your teaching–and observing first hand in the student’s faces, the awe of learning.

You keep on keeping on. The organization that hired you in this situation is coming out on the losing end–but the irony is that they don’t even realize it.


Sarah Bray September 3, 2009 at 10:33 am

Oh, wow. The pain! The “I can relate!” (You eat rocky road with a spoon when things go awry, too?) Sigh. The greatest thing about doing what you love is the heart connection to your work. It’s also the worst thing.

You’ve handled yourself admirably, soldier. :)


Rob Bartlett October 22, 2009 at 6:58 am

Amazing post that tells the story and has helped to further my own trek to having clients buy what I’m selling.


Zayford Beeblebrocks July 14, 2010 at 9:16 am

I know the client you’re talking about. Here it is almost a year later and I know that they have had to lay off about 100 staff/instructors/course developers since your experience with them. In 18 months, they went from approximately 120 staff to the current 20 or 22. They have so few clients to teach, that they’ve also–for the most part–stopped using their contract instructors & writers. I know a lot of it has to do with the current economy (since they are 100% state funded), but your experience hit the nail on the head and says a lot about the philosophy of the organization. If they were a private business, they would not even have the 20 employees left–as they would no longer exist. In my opinion, the students deserve so much more.


Mark W Schumann October 2, 2010 at 10:59 am

This is a great story, Dick. When you talk about facilitative teaching and learning, is that a specficic technique? Or is it just a perspective of being mindful of what connects with your students’ brains? Are you talking straight-up Carl Rogers stuff?


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