Our classes — some would call them seminars — run two to four days and are presented in company conference rooms, ours and theirs, and meeting rooms in hotels.
The quality of the room is, not surprisingly, directly related to its cost. The up-scale hotels, for example, start off at about the same rate as the cheaper hotels but require the purchase of refreshments at exhorbitant rates — $2/soft drink, $25/pot of coffee, $1/cookie — and then tack on an 18% service fee. And if you include a plated-lunch, that’s another $25/person plus 18% service fee as well. These additions will more than double the per-day cost.
Mid-level hotels charge about the same daily rate for their meeting rooms and refreshments, but often don’t have a lunch service.
Some of the companies that present these seminars provide lunch and, when using one of these mid-level hotels, the instructor takes everyone out to lunch. These usually work out quite well with students getting more one-on-one time with the teacher as well as a nice meal. And the teacher gets to sit down for a while. That’s also very nice.
And some of the companies that present these seminars don’t provide lunch. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s just the way it is. Basically, students are on their own for an hour or so.
Of course, the instructor has to eat and. if he’s from out of town and someone knows an interesting place, students can get some extra one-on-one time if they invite the instructor to go with them, all paying “Dutch”. [Interestingly, the Dutch call going out in a group but with each person paying their own meal, “Going American”.]
Teaching classes in company meeting rooms is where the most variation in quality happens. Some rooms are very well set up for seminars. They will have a good quality projector hanging from the ceiling with the end of the video cable at the front of the room with space and power for the instructor’s computer. The projection screen will roll up and disappear leaving a white board behind it so the instructor can “write on” a projected slide. And there will be a second (or third!) white board on a side wall — with enough floor space so the instructor can get to it. Drawings on the secondary white boards are placed there so the content can be visible for a while. They deserve more thought and need to be in view longer. And finally, the room will have a flip-chart pad and a roll of masking tape for important diagrams that can be taped to the walls and left in view for the full run of the seminar.
We need a lot of desktop space in our classes. Each lab station gets a notebook computer and a target computer board roughly that same size. We put two students to each lab station for the reason that, if working alone, students stop when they get stuck for some reason but, when working as a pair, they usually figure out the problem and, as a result, they learn far more.
All that equipment needs power. We take power strips and extension cords with us but it helps when the customer’s conference table accommodates our power needs directly.
And it should go without saying that the room should be clean, quiet and comfortable. And most are.
But there are exceptions.
A while back, for example, I was shown to the conference room on the first day of class. As my escort opened the door, he apologized for the room and then quickly disappeared.
My first impressions were of cheap paneling, folding tables, badly water-stained carpet tiles and a strong musty smell. The white board had several unrelated drawings in a mix of permanent and supposedly-erasable markers.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “this certainly sets a new low record.”
But there was nothing I could do. So I moved on and started planning our needs for that class. There would be eight students at four lab stations and, with the shape of the room, I decided to move the tables into two rows of three tables with four chairs each.
As I dragged the first table into place, I noticed the legs kicking up a cloud of dust.
I decided to hold my breath, move all the tables as quickly as possible and then run from the room before inhaling God knows what.
Returning a few minutes later, I picked up the chairs and carefully put them in place and did the same gentle manipulations for the instructor’s projector and lab system table.
Next, I started to get ready to re-image the disk drives of the notebook computers. (The lab systems are constantly on the road. Instructors are responsible for preparing the equipment at the beginning of each class.)
I opened the shipping cases and removed five notebooks, four to use and one for backup. I hooked up their power supplies, plugged them into a power strip and plugged that into a wall outlet.
But nothing would power up. The wall outlet was dead.
I added an extension cord and quickly found that all the wall outlets in the room were off.
I then remembered there had been one extension cord already in the room when I entered and now I knew why it was there; it was the sole source of power in the room.
An hour later, all the notebooks had been re-imaged, the books removed from their shipping boxes and distributed to the eight places for students along with the four notebooks and target computers. Two of our extension cords and three power strips completed the set up.
Looking at the white board, I knew it was hopeless for Day #1. It would not erase and using the stinky cleaner at this point would just make the room uninhabitable for hours.
There would be no white board this day.
Fortunately, no one was using the adjacent training room so I commandeered the best-looking flip-chart pad and a box of markers and moved them into my classroom.
At the beginning of each class, I usually go around the class and have each student introduce themselves. I ask for their name, where they were born, and what they do for fun. The goal is to break the ice and start getting to know them as individuals.
But I go first because I have an ulterior motive.
“I’ll go first,” I say. “My name is Ed Skinner, I was born in Memphis Tennessee, and for fun I do a precision pistol shooting sport called ‘Bullseye’ where we shoot paper targets at 25 and 50 yards.”
My ulterior motive is to find out if there are any shooters in the class and, just possibly, find a local group of Bullseye shooters with a weeknight regular competition to which I could visit and shoot. That’s a long-shot, no pun intended, but even without finding that, often there are shooters in the class who want to talk about their guns, and sometimes there are those who are just curious and want to ask questions. (I do make it clear that I only shoot paper targets. I don’t have anything against hunters but am confident that’s not for me.)
But for this class, I modified my question. I added, “And you each has to make one positive statement about this room that no one else has made.”
Since I was going first, my addition was, “And I’m pleased to see the company has saved money on expenses by using this same carpet in what I would guess are several different installations and in spite of the obvious water damage — and they’ve not beat it to death with the use of a vacuum cleaner.”
“Positive statements” from other students included the “cost-effective choice of paneling”, “saving money on white-board erasers and cleaners” and “not wasting money on a handicapped-usable ramp down into the classroom instead of the abrupt and otherwise unmarked step since this entire floor of the building was wheelchair inaccessible with no elevator and a steep staircase with no light.”
Fortunately, they all understood that my attempt at levity was just an acknowledgment of the common suffering over which we had no control.
They laughed, I laughed, and we moved on. Class began in earnest after that and we had a good four days. The equipment worked, they asked good questions, we had neither too much nor too little content, and nobody fell down the step, nobody developed a wheeze, and no one went into epileptic seizures.
And the Course Evaluations they wrote at the end of the course were actually quite good. Of course, the “facility” fared poorly, but not as badly as I had expected. Indeed, the room received a “1” (poor), the lowest rating, from half the students, “2” from two more and, go figure, “4” (good) from the last two. (Perhaps those last two had tested some of the anonymous drugs that were offered during the week or perhaps I have misunderstood what they were doing in there?)
My summary of complaints for the facility went only to my management to do with as they saw fit. It included:
- Dead bugs in all corners of room (example: 7 in SE corner) and under student tables;
- Live bugs wandering through the classroom;
- Filthy carpet (heavy footsteps raise cloud of dust);
- Obvious black mold on wall in adjacent classroom in adjoining corner (presumably in the common wall);
- Public notice in the lobby warning of asbestos in the building but assuring us it had all be “immobilized” (the air conditioner duct across the ceiling of the room was encased in a plastic tube, and the ancient hot water lines running to the radiators had several coats of paint on their fiber-looking insulation);
- Fire Extinguisher sign in room pointing to location from which the extinguisher had been removed including the bracket and the remote control for the air conditioner placed in its stead;
- Missing ceiling tiles and exposed “works” in ceiling;
- Water stains in majority of carpet squares;
- No warning of step down into classroom;
- Room felt damp all the time unlike other buildings in area;
- Entry-way closed two of four days for anonymous drug-testing in adjacent room: used back door to enter classroom;
- Restrooms on classroom floor closed two of four days for same reason: had to go up one flight (no elevator, no light on steep stairs);
- No handicap access to classroom (not an issue for this group of individuals);
- No preparation for locking/unlocking the classroom around lunch (building is open to public access);
- White board unusable for two days, returned to marginal service by instructor after repeated cleanings but required liquid cleaner each night to “survive” the next day;
- No flip chart (instructor “borrowed” one from adjacent classroom);
- Wall power outlets not functional;
- No trash containers; and
- No refreshments.
I forgot to mention that we were in the basement beneath the basketball court.
If the “employer” whose training room we used isn’t completely obvious to you, I’ll just add that it was your tax dollars that furnished the room.
Mixed feelings are, therefore, appropriate.