This post is part 2 in my weekly series on “Group Process in Childbirth Education: Building and Supporting a Community of Learners.”
The physical space in which a group meets has a big influence on the group dynamics. Most educators don’t have much choice in what classrooms they teach in – it’s usually a hospital conference room. However, if you have control over what classroom you use, and what’s in it, here are some simple steps you can take to create a welcoming environment.
Having your own Dedicated Classroom: Although as an instructor, I would love having my own dedicated space that was the perfect classroom that met all the needs I describe below, and was optimized for my classes. However, it’s very hard for most childbirth educators to bring in enough money by teaching classes on weeknights and weekends to pay for leasing a space 24/7. It’s a big financial risk to take, and really cuts into your potential profits, so you may want to explore other options.
Some educators have had success opening a retail business that supports a classroom in a back room. But, many have failed at this, since the skills needed to be a good educator are not really the same skills necessary to being a successful retailer.
Sharing with like-minded businesses: You may be able to pair up with other groups or individuals that have compatible needs and complementary schedules. For example, the same space could host early morning and lunch time yoga classes, morning toddler groups, afternoon groups for parents and newborns, and evening childbirth preparation classes. Usually the way this plays out is that one person officially holds the lease and then makes agreements with individuals who use the space. Although this can be quite successful, it’s very important to have very clear agreements in place about things like cleaning up, vacating the space with enough time for the next group to set up, storage, use of other groups’ supplies, and so on. It’s also important to be very clear about financial responsibilities and liabilities. It would be quite easy for everyone to go in with good intentions, but then for some of the partners businesses to fail, or for health challenges to arise or whatever that leaves a small number of groups trying to pay for a space that was originally supposed to be shared by several partners.
Borrowing space at a clinic, hospital, store, school, gym, church, or yoga studio: You may be able to find a local business that does not typically host classes or public meetings, but is willing to host your classes. The advantage can be that the classroom is free. If the business serves pregnant clients, they can be a referral source and students may learn about your class simply because you’re in a place where they were already going. The disadvantage is that it’s often not an ideal space.
Sometimes you get lucky and they have a classroom space or large meeting room, that perfectly meets your needs (and if you’re really lucky they have storage space where you can keep your supplies between classes). But sometimes you end up in the staff lunch room, or the waiting room of a pediatric clinic (students who arrive early get the grown-up size chairs!), or even in the rocking chair display area of a retail store during business hours. (It was comfortable for my students who rocked their way through the class, but a little tricky for me when I had my flip chart set up in front of some bedding retail items, and customers would come up needing to pick out a crib sheet from those racks!)
Using a public meeting room: Your local library, community center, or mall may have a meeting room. They may loan it out for free (though they often then limit access to only non-profit groups or programs that are open to the public) or may charge an hourly rental fee. If it’s free, there can be a lot of competition for the space, so you may need to schedule way in advance or may need to be flexible about your schedule (instead of having a class that’s 7 Wednesdays in a row, it might be three Wednesdays followed by 4 Tuesdays). If it’s an hourly fee, that can start adding up and seeming expensive, but it’s certainly a lot cheaper than having your own dedicated space 24/7. The advantage is that it’s often a very functional classroom space with good furnishings, a white board, and some AV equipment. The downside is that it’s not your space and it’s not anyone’s space… at a psychological level, this anonymous space may make it harder for students to connect to each other and to you.
Using your home: Many childbirth educators over the years (especially Bradley instructors) have taught in their living rooms. The advantage is that it’s free and you can store all your stuff there. And, if the dynamics work right, it can feel cozy and welcoming and may help your students really connect to you and each other. The disadvantage is you’ll have to keep class sizes small, or really pack people into a space; your family will always have to work around classes (keeping the house cleaner than you otherwise might, keeping quiet on class nights, and so on); and some parents do not feel comfortable coming into a private house – they may just never register for your classes, or they might be brave enough to come one session, but then drop out.
If at all possible, pick a centrally located classroom that is easy for people to find in a nice, safe neighborhood, with plenty of free parking.
It may cost more than a classroom on the outskirts of town, or one in a dodgy neighborhood, or one in a neighborhood with poor parking. But it’s worth it. You’ll have more students register if you’re in a nice, accessible part of town. Your students will be happier on the first night of class (and more likely to return for the other nights and more likely to recommend your classes to friends) if you were able to give clear easy directions, and if they were able to park nearby with ease.
Classroom Size and Shape
My favorite classroom is a square room, somewhere between 25×25 feet to 30×30 feet. It’s big enough to fit 12-14 couples, but small enough to not feel awkward with 5 couples. The fact that it’s square gives me the most options for room arrangement.
I have taught in long skinny rooms with big conference tables running down the middle where I feel like I’m having to shout to the people at the end and there’s no room to practice comfort techniques. I have taught in rooms that would comfortably fit 5 or 6 couples but we shove all the tables against the wall and cram in 8 couples. I’ve taught in rooms with columns smack dab in the middle where you have to figure out how to arrange the chairs so everyone has a chance of seeing the front of the room. You can make anything work. But when you’re first looking for a room keep the ideal in mind, and know what you’re giving up if you get something different.
Good, clean bathrooms are essential! Ideally, multiple bathrooms or multiple stalls so students don’t have to spend their break time waiting in line for the bathroom. Having a sink where you can fill a water pitcher is nice and having access to a refrigerator for ice and for cold water is even better. Having non-fluorescent lights that you can dim for videos and for exercise classes is helpful. (Never turn off lights all the way – some adults are scared of the dark…) For flooring, I personally like hardwood that is easier to keep clean than carpet, but then it’s nice if you have yoga mats or exercise mats to lay down on the floor for comfort during comfort technique practice. Other nice options: windows for natural light, some place nearby students can go on break to grab a cup of coffee or a snack, white board, TV with DVD player, and/or projector and screen, lockable storage where you can keep your supplies between classes.
Ideally, you want the ability to control the temperature. We all learn best when we’re comfortable, not when we’re too hot or too cold.
Ideally, I would want 25 – 30 stacking chairs, a small table for the front of the room for me to set my teaching supplies on, a bigger table or two for the back of the room for attendance sheets, nametags, handouts and for snacks. If you have control over the chairs, it’s worth putting a lot of time and effort into finding good ones. Women in late pregnancy are rarely comfortable, especially when asked to sit for long periods of time, but a good chair makes it much better than a bad chair. Avoid chairs designed for short term seating like wedding receptions or waiting rooms, avoid dining room chairs, which are often best for small-bottomed people and usually don’t stack. Look for “church chairs.” They’re designed to be comfortable for long periods of time, but still fairly easy to move around (although ours are a bit heavier than would be ideal). Make sure the chairs are stackable. If you’ve got a small class, you don’t want to have a ton of empty chairs all set up… that makes it look like these are lame classes nobody signs up for. If you’ve got 5 couples, leave out about 12 chairs and stack the rest tidily in the corner!For your tables, light weight folding tables are good. It’s also nice to have a few birth balls and/or “back jack chairs” so people have some options for comfortable seating.
I personally am not a fan of couches for seating because most pregnant women have a hard time getting up out of a couch. Some classrooms offer only yoga mats and birth balls for seating. That may surprise your students when they arrive, if that is not what they expected to find at a “class.” It can also be awkward for pregnant mamas to get down to the ground and get back up again.
Room arrangement makes a huge difference in group dynamics. ‘ll do a full post on this tomorrow.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll address what you may need to do in a space you don’t control. If you control the space, you have more options. On one hand, you want to create a space that is welcoming and relaxing, and perhaps helps to empower people about their birth, or has images of parents and babies that help your students start visualizing themselves in their new role. On the other hand, keep in mind the comfort of your students. For example, many birth educators are comfortable with nudity, or exposed breasts in a nursing mama. Some of your students may not be. You might find candles, sage, and primal art appealing. But on the first night of your class, those might turn off some of your students who will think you’re too woo-woo / new agey / granola for them. (Once you’ve established your credibility, they’ll be willing to go that way with you, but it may be too much for week one.)