Balancing learning with fun
While I have never considered myself a teacher first and foremost or intended to focus on it as a career choice, teaching has featured significantly in my life and I believe has contributed to the success of WOLF ARCHITECTS. Success and good fortune, in my belief, are intertwined with good karma, and teaching has always been a way of giving back.
My first experience teaching was as a student studying architecture. I was well regarded for my ability to design and was often approached for help. Regular mentoring of close friends and guidance with their design projects felt very natural and enjoyable. However, my first formal act as teacher was for a class of high school students in Melbourne around that same period. Having won several amateur ballroom dance competitions, I was considered a rising star and invited to teach. Although it was only a beginner’s class I found it a very rewarding experience. I loved seeing knowledge transferred to benefit others in a positive way. From there I opened the doors of my small home in Melbourne and taught anyone interested for just $5 per hour. I enjoyed sharing my passion and the benefits which exercise and a boost in self-confidence which dancing well provided. I realised the potential as a teacher to nurture personal growth in my students. So it was from these small lessons taught out of my dining room that I had my first tastes of being a teacher.
As my dancing progressed to a professional level, I taught more frequently in both private lessons and group classes. Both were challenging and rewarding in different ways. By the late 1990s I had my own dance school and was almost a full-time dance instructor, coach and competitor. I taught people of all ages, sizes and cultural backgrounds and knew how to tailor each class to get the most out of my students. While each student was different, the common thread was always a desire to achieve a sense of happiness and well-being. It was my role to help them reach that place through dance. To be entrusted with this task was both an honour and privilege.
In 2000 I started up the Wolf Dance Club and taught out of many popular clubs and bars around town. While I competed professionally as a Latin American Ballroom dancer, I specialised as a teacher in the street Latin styles of dance such as the Mambo, Salsa and Meringue. I preferred these dances as they were more social and appealed to a broader audience. I was also very fortunate to be given a gig to teach at the University of Melbourne where I was quickly promoted to head dance instructor of the University Dance Club. Within a few years I was able to expand the club from just 30 members to over 300, making it the largest and most successful club on campus. The secret of that success was in my ability to keep things fun, lighthearted, and exciting while always offering genuine quality information and training. I was fortunate in my time as a competitor to have had excellent coaches such as former Australian champion Paul Green and Helen Richie (as seen on Dancing with the Stars).
I knew my material, was able to demonstrate it and this, combined with a genuine care for my students, was a winning formula. I took students through all their exams and ran social/training events where at times there were easily over 200 students in a class. By the mid 2000s I would have taught a few thousand students and that was a lot of different faces and personalities. I paid great attention to each individual and knew almost all of them by name. We all have different strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, and fears, and as a teacher I had to know how to handle and harness all of these factors. I learnt many great skills as a dance instructor and most were very relevant and applicable when I started up WOLF Architects.
It was during the period when I was teaching at the University of Melbourne that I started to teach Architecture. I had graduated with first class honours and as someone with good practical experience was invited back to teach a few subjects. I taught casually at first and then over the years became a regular part-time teacher. From design to theory for all students from 1st year to Masters, I taught whatever I was challenged with. However, I did find it less rewarding because the students were different. Someone wanting to learn dance will generally be determined and committed. Walking onto a dance floor as beginner and partnering up with a stranger is not easy and takes a lot of guts. It requires great courage to take those first steps alone, in plain view of strangers. Sadly today, architecture is taught in a day and age where assignments are submitted via email and lectures are viewed online. While I was still determined to know each student personally, it was certainly a lot harder to do so. Another disappointing aspect was coming across students who really had no interest in the course. Being so passionate about architecture myself, I found this indifference to be endlessly frustrating.
Despite the new challenges of teaching architecture, I continued on year after year for those students who I could affect positively. I tried to bring relevant, important, and practical knowledge to my classes to better prepare them for the real world. At the same time, I tried to make the classes fun, exciting and inspiring as I had done previously with dancing. I measure my success by the positive reviews I had at the end of each semester as well as the number of students who sought to work at WOLF Architects. The practice has employed many of my former students, some from their first year after graduation.
As WOLF Architects grew and my time became increasingly valuable in practice, it was tempting to stop teaching. However I reminded myself each year that teaching is an honour and a privilege above pay or recognition. Teaching is giving and as I provided my students with valuable real life lessons, the universe seemed to respond by sending me good clients. So long as the University continued to invite me back I would continue to give back.
As my practice expanded from a one-man band to a team of several, I used my natural ability as a teacher to further mentor, motivate and inspire my staff. They, in turn, have learnt to carry that tradition and culture of nurturing and supporting one another to make our office environment one that is fun, exciting and inspiring. Teaching within the practice is even more satisfying as the rewards are instantaneous and benefit the practice greatly. It’s like instant Karma.
The practice continues to award internships and work experience programs as a way to support the industry’s up and coming. While it is suggested that internships need to be mutually beneficial, I’ve generally found that the intern or student always benefits far more. In a practice, which prides itself on excellence, a young designer is simply unable to live up to standards so taking them on board requires a commitment to further teaching and mentoring. There is a trend today with many practices opting not to offer internships at all because they view them as unpaid babysitting. While this is a fair point, I still feel that people need to be given a chance and am mindful of the fact that I would never have worked for renowned architect Karl Fender if he hadn’t offered me an internship.
Offering internships however must always be done with caution. Sadly there are too many young designers out there who just want to accumulate names on their CVs as stepping stones, without a true passion for the craft.
I believe that I will always teach passionately as my way of giving back and as the practice continues to grow I expect others in the practice to step up and take on the responsibility, honour and privileges of mentoring and teaching.
I doubt I will ever return to teaching dance but perhaps in my retirement years I might find myself again inspiring budding young architects on a more personal one on one basis. It has certainly been a wonderful part of the journey that has brought me in touch with many wondrous souls including my wife whom I met as a result of being a dance instructor.
Teaching small groups out of my living room.
Dancing was about having fun and feeling cool.
With my own dance school I taught at a professional level.
At the University of Melbourne, I taught thousands of students.
Teaching dance gave way to teaching architecture but the principles remained the same. Classes had to be fun and entertaining with genuine quality information.