Class Participants Share Best (& Worst) Instructor Traits

When I add up the time that I have spent teaching group exercise classes over the last 20 years, it comes to approximately 253,440 minutes. That does not include the 30,000 or so minutes I have spent in continuing education courses or the 60,000 minutes I have spent taking other people’s classes. Why am I counting in minutes? Because when I surveyed a group of regular class participants about what makes an instructor great (or not so great), guess what came up repeatedly. . . time!

Everyone surveyed agreed that overall, their biggest pet peeve about an instructor relates back to a failure to value the participants’ time: lack of preparation, poor time management or not recognizing students as individuals.

In the respondents’ eyes, the biggest bummer about taking a bad class was having wasted their time. They point out that the time they have invested in taking a class far exceeds the number of minutes actually spent inside the studio. It includes:

Preparation: packing a gym bag, laundering the necessary clothes, organizing their day to fit a class in

Travel: time actually spent in transit and in some cases, time/money spent on child care arrangements

Workout: if they don’t get a good workout from the class, they have to invest even more time somewhere else to make up for it

So when teaching a class, every minute counts—and our students are watching closely! Aside from superior technical skill and knowledge, participants rate the top five qualities in a group exercise instructor.


1) are always prepared for class

Students can tell when an instructor is just “winging it.” Nearly everyone has been faced with filling in at the last minute (especially those of you who work in another department of a club and can be plucked off the floor in the event of an emergency!), but instructors who consistently fail to plan ultimately fail their students.

“It’s obvious when the instructor hasn’t given much thought to class,” remarked a Step class participant. “Everything is choppy and they cannot remember what they just told us to do.”

Another respondent pointed out that while being able to spontaneously modify instruction based on the students’ needs is definitely the mark of an experienced teacher, it is another thing to give random directions. “There is a level of audacity on the instructor’s part to put me through a series of routines without having pondered in advance what it will do to my body,” wrote one athletic class participant.

2) prize punctuality

Back to those minutes! As mundane as it sounds, beginning and ending class on time is really important to our students. Have you ever seen participants become antsy while the instructor fiddles with the stereo? “Once the class start time rolls around, I want to be moving,” said one diehard club member. “Time is money, and we are on the clock. Please give me my money’s worth.”

Also, when it’s time to stop, resist the urge to call out “One more time!” “I am a clock watcher during class,” admits one participant. “I cannot wait for class to finish because I am so tired. Plus, I have a million other things to do. When the instructors say, ‘Let’s do it again!’ and it’s going to put us over class time, I just want to scream.”

While you may think you’re doing your students a favor to get one more round in, stick with the advertised timetable. The next class on the schedule will appreciate it, too.

3) teach the class as it is advertised

Many respondents mentioned that they relied heavily on class descriptions to decide which ones to go to. “Make sure you teach to the audience you’re advertising,” suggests one veteran participant. “Some people follow instructors around no matter what kind of class it is. Regardless of who is in the room, the instructor should teach the class as it is described in the schedule.” If your class is labeled a beginner class, don’t up the ante for the people who are following YOU instead of taking a more appropriate class. While altering your level of instruction may make your “regulars” happy in the short-term, your class will be less successful in the long run because it will scare away your true beginners.

On a related note, while it can be fun to try new things, make sure that what you’re doing fits the scope of your class description. I once received a complaint that an instructor had decided to incorporate a few dumbbell exercises in a class that was advertised as a tubing class. One of the participants had physical limitations that prevented her from being able to use the dumbbells. She was very self-conscious and did not want to be conspicuous in a group setting. She had been so happy to find a resistance training class that she could do, only to have the rug pulled out from under her. While I’m sure the instructor had only the best intentions, it created a very poor experience for the student.

4) focus their attention on the students

Are you watching the class or your reflection in the mirror as you teach? Do you make eye contact with your participants? Respondents gave high marks to instructors who were able to interact and give real-time feedback during class. “I don’t just want to be cued, I want the instructor to watch how I am executing the moves and give me pointers,” writes one respondent.

That means that instructors should be so comfortable with their delivery that they can focus on student output during class. “It must be a crazy juggling act,” said one respondent. “Instructors are part performer, part teacher, but what I really need is to know that I’m being safe and effective in my workout.”

5) deliver great customer service

“I’m not saying that I expect the instructor to be my new BFF,” writes one student, “but I love it when an instructor greets me by name.”

There is sometimes a point when it may seem “too late” to ask for someone’s name. Rest assured, that is NEVER the case! You may worry that after all the times you have chatted that the student will be insulted. Or perhaps you’ve asked before and promptly forgotten. If you don’t feel comfortable asking (you can blame it on a mental block), think of another way to find out. Ask other staff members. Have a nametag day in class. Casually ask for the student’s last name and then search your membership database to find the first name.

Most people who gravitate to group classes enjoy the social aspect. Little things, like saying hello, using names and inviting students to come back to class, show them that you appreciate their attendance.

So, now the students have had their say about their instructors. Next time, instructors get a turn. Please e-mail me at about what makes for an ideal participant–and maybe a few habits that just drive you crazy.