Taking Over a Tricky Class

The transition from a beloved teacher to someone new can be a smooth one.

Congrats! You’ve been asked to take over a key class for a popular outgoing instructor. The transition, however, promises to be a tough one. The participants love the current teacher, they hate change, and they’ve never heard of you. However skilled you are, you are walking into a challenge. Participants want the outgoing teacher forever. Unfortunately and undeservedly, they threaten to unleash their fears on you. Don’t walk out—and don’t let them leave either! With a few takeover transition tips, you can win over the class and make it your own.

Planned Teacher Change

First, determine whether or not the outgoing teacher initiated the change. If so, your life can be a lot easier. Connect with her to create unity and set a cooperative plan that will allow participants to prepare emotionally for the change. By the time you take over, the flotsam and jetsam reactions will have largely been dealt with.

Timeline for Planned Change

Start your transition takeover plan anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks out, assuming it’s a weekly class. Again, if possible, work with the outgoing instructor to ease the transition. Here’s how a takeover plan might work:

3–4 Weeks Out. The current teacher announces her departure and lets the class know she’s the one initiating the change. She gives an “expectations speech” that articulates her faith that the class will welcome the replacement teacher.

2–4 Weeks Out. The current teacher again announces her departure and lets the class know that you, specifically, will be taking over. She talks up your qualifications, expressing confidence in both your compatibility with the group and the class’s ability to be welcoming, positive and open-minded.

The more your predecessor expresses confidence in the class to react well, the more likely it is that the group will meet that vision and behave appropriately. This exchange also gives participants time with their beloved teacher to comment, vent, ask questions and generally work through their reactions before your arrival.

2 Weeks Out. You attend class so the departing teacher can introduce you. She describes your qualifications, expresses support for the change and shows a positive attitude. Your physical presence eases the transition and minimizes the “unknowns.” (Most resistance to change will stem from fear of unknowns, not animosity toward you.)

This is when you become an active player in the class. Stand next to the outgoing instructor to maximize the show of unity and minimize participants’ demands. Take this opportunity to learn a few names, show interest in the group, see how the class has been taught, acknowledge participants’ sorrow at losing their beloved teacher and express your desire to earn the same dedication. Stay honest and open to input. Take notes on the format, style, intensity, complexity and rate of progression—elements that made the prior bond so successful.

1 Week Out. Attend and participate in the class—perhaps even lead a few moves if that is appropriate and approved. Arrange for the outgoing teacher to introduce you to key regulars and class influencers. Ideally, she will tell these people (who can lead for good or bad) that it will be taken as a personal favor to her if they create a positive environment for you and help the rest of the group through the transition. When key influencers have a role to play, they will be on your side rather than setting themselves apart.

T-Day (Takeover). Welcome to your first workout with a potentially tough crowd! By now, the transition complaints and agitations may have died down. Nevertheless, keep the format consistent. Teach with your style and personality—but do not make other big changes. Now is not the time to introduce a new setup.

1–3 Weeks Post-Takeover. Continue to establish your unique personality and style, but minimize drastic changes to content or format. For example, if the class has always used free weights and never used stability balls, stay with free weights for now. Let the group acclimate to you first, and to new equipment and exercises second. If your predecessor offered a 10-minute abs segment and a 5-minute stretch at the end of cardio class and you want to reverse that sequence, wait until at least week four.

Expect to get bombarded with requests, suggestions and input. Listen and acknowledge this feedback, but hold off on implementing any changes. Allow yourself and the group time to settle in. Much of their input may be related more to a need to test you, connect or simply be recognized rather than a true desire for specific changes.

Unplanned Teacher Change

When change is unplanned or sudden, you may have neither the support nor the presence of the original teacher to ease the way. Maybe he was fired, got injured, quit without notice or went on a trip and never came back (this happened with a colleague of mine, so you never know!). Regardless, the odds are that you will face surprised, unhappy crankyfoos who may not react well to the “disappearance” of the former teacher and sudden appearance of you!

In such a case, enlist a manager, an in-house master teacher or a key influencer as an ally. Just before class starts, have this person break the news, announcing the teacher change and general reason for it. The person should then introduce you, giving essentially the same brief talk as in the prior scenario, and should clarify that questions, decisions and discussions are best addressed through him or her and not you, the instructor.

The key is to create some space between you and the prior teacher so that people do not connect you emotionally with the reason for the change. It’s important that you are not seen as a link in the chain of cause and effect. For example, you don’t want participants to start a rumor that you got the previous teacher fired or that you poached the class. From here, follow the steps from takeover day through post-takeover as outlined above.

Beyond that, keep in mind that it’s natural for the group to be curious about abrupt change, so expect questions and deflect them to management. Focus on teaching your best while allowing yourself a buffer zone. Give yourself time and be authentic. One of two scenarios may occur: eventually the class will accept you for who you are and create a happy, successful environment; or the group will not mesh despite your best efforts, in which case either you or some of them will leave. Either way, your problem is solved and you no longer have to deal with a challenging group. Happy takeovers!

© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Super Suggestions for Takeover Success

Acknowledge class members’ feelings about how much they miss their former instructor. These are real emotions that have nothing to do with you. Maybe even share how you have had a similar experience. Then be yourself. Tell the class why you love being a group exercise instructor and why you’re excited to lead their class. Make a point to reach out and befriend those who are open to you.

Be very prepared so you can spend your extra energy focusing on the needs of the participants rather than trying to remember what you planned to do. Above all—have fun. When the instructor is having a good time, it’s contagious. End the class with an amazing cool-down. Last impressions count!

Shirley Archer, JD, MA,
2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year
Singer Island, Florida, and Zurich, Switzerland

Remember they are people just like you. Spend time before and after class to ge

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Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA

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