Home Alive believes that people who participate in our classes bring lots of knowledge, skills and insight with them.  That’s why we use an interactive, participatory style in our workshops — to convey information and offer useful tools while also valuing people’s diverse experiences.

As much as possible, we draw the lessons out of the participants themselves and validate their successful survival techniques.  Checking in with participants and asking them what has worked for them in the past in terms of safety and self defense, at every possible opportunity, is absolutely crucial in teaching a successful self-defense class in which all participants feel valued and included.  As facilitators, no matter what our background, experiences, and abilities may be, we will undoubtedly encounter groups and individuals who have had life experiences that we know nothing about.  It is essential that we honor their experiences and the knowledge they have gained from it by asking them what has worked for them and what they have done in the past, rather than trying to teach them skills that may or may not be relevant or helpful to them.  When in doubt, ask!

Example: two hearing instructors taught a class to a group of deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  When they reached the point of the class in which they would normally teach and practice yelling, they understood that the class participants most likely had a different relationship to using their voices, yelling, and making noise than a class of hearing individuals.  Rather than forge ahead and “teach” the usual curriculum, the instructors asked participants to share their experiences with using their voices.  When has it made you feel safer?  Less safe?  Is yelling something you would consider doing?  Would you like to try practicing?  This became a rich discussion in which participants seemed to share authentically and learn from one another.  Ultimately, the group decided together that some people would practice yelling, and some would sit out and support the folks who chose to practice.  Another class involved a group of immigrant women who were experiencing domestic abuse.  They shared safety strategies with each other and had a constructive and empowering discussion of tools other than calling the police or leaving their partners, which were not safe or useful options for them.  In both of these cases, the instructors’ roles were transformed largely or entirely into the role of “facilitators.”

While drawing out and supporting the valuable knowledge and experiences of class participants, keep an ear out for techniques that some in the class rely on that may involve oppressive assumptions that diminish the experiences and options of others in the class.  As we explore with the Box exercise, some of what we’ve been told about self-defense involves stereotypical and often misleading assumptions, and enforces “othering” of whole populations.  An example of this would be someone sharing that they stay safe by “avoiding the south end of town” or “not dressing slutty.”  This participant’s techniques may be helping them to feel and be safer, which is awesome.  While being supportive of them, we’d also want to name for our class that not all folks have the option to avoid the south end, that all folks regardless of dress deserve to stay safe, and that in both of these circumstances, there are other safety options to explore and use.

When preparing for and teaching a class, be conscious of yourself, your specific cultural background, and your audience.  Recognize when you carry privilege (e.g. race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, national origin, age) into the room with you, and how it may affect your group.  Be aware that yours is not the only valid experience.  When planning exercises and curriculum, do your best to consider how your participants’ life experiences and ways of being in the world may impact their participation, and be smart in how you choose and frame exercises, in particular the anecdotes, examples, and language you use to explain them.  Consider if you you need to slow down your expected pacing of the class due to differences in language, ability, age, etc.  Be open to changing things up as you go, be open to feedback, and don’t assume that your preconceptions and assumptions are correct.  If you’re unsure of how to frame exercises for your audience, teach the basic ideas and ask participants to fill in examples – you may learn from them and then have more confidence in leading the class.  On the other hand, don’t lose all confidence by writing off all of your experiences; sometimes you may share more than you know with a group you thought you were quite different from.  And if you’re bravely teaching a group which generally has more societal privilege than you, be your strong, confident self, and remember that self talk is an awesome ally.

Good facilitation of a high-intensity topic like self defense requires a big, broad skillset.  It involves the ability to stay open, present and focused under stress; to know the material well; to read the room and be able to respond quickly to a variety of situations; to find a balance between moving through a pre-set agenda and allowing different needs to be met; to shift midstream if necessary; to respectfully manage distractions and re-direct the group’s focus; to communicate almost imperceptibly with a co-facilitator; to present a calm, relaxed, supportive demeanor even if you’re not feeling it; to gracefully accept all kinds of feedback and use this information to grow your skills.

We’ve found an ideal class to be about 2 1/2 or 3 hours long.  Shorter is okay if need be, but any longer and people tend to get tired.  We always build in at least a five minute break.  In terms of class size, it depends on the group, but we find an ideal range to be between eight and 20 participants.  (Definitely allow for a shortfall between the number of people who say they’ll come and those who actually show up.) We prefer to have two instructors teaching together.

Some people may be naturally gifted facilitators, but for the rest of us there is no substitute for experience.  A few more thoughts that may prove helpful along the way:

  • If you get to witness a good facilitator in action, watch and learn. Maybe even take notes, not only of what they say, but also how they say/present it.  It’s okay to be inspired by someone else’s style while you are finding your own.
  • Be real.  It can be okay to admit you’re trying something new, or don’t have an answer.  Say “I don’t know” with confidence.
  • Try to engage group members with each other.  Often people will direct all their questions to you; as much as possible, find positive ways to broaden the ‘expert’ role beyond just the facilitator.  We all have useful information to share.
  • When facilitating a workshop, don’t dwell on what you wish you could be doing but don’t have time or capacity for.  If you have time stress, find a way to manage it without passing it along to your class.
  • Values statements, group agreements and ground rules laid out at the start can be useful tools in handling difficult situations.  Refer back to these as necessary.
  • Pay close attention to participants and watch for triggered reactions.  It’s good to have two facilitators — one can step aside with someone who needs it, while the class continues.
  • Be aware of group dynamics, especially those that may be excluding or silencing some group members.  Practice subtly challenging these dynamics to support everyone’s participation.
  • Get personal.  Incorporating a brief personal example or two can make the material a lot more engaging.
  • Be aware of how much you’re talking and whether you have participants’ attention.  It can be easy to ramble on and lose the group’s interest.  Practice being concise and focused.
  • Ask for and accept feedback from your co-facilitator and other people you trust.  Even if it’s hard to hear.  It’s also really helpful to ask class participants to fill out class evaluations.
  • Keep at it!  You will get better the more you do it.  ‘Mistakes’ are a great way to learn.