Interview with Bessie Coutu, Cosmetology Instructor at FCTS

Programs and Schools

Bessie Coutu is a cosmetologist with six years of teaching experience and thirteen years of professional experience. She is a cosmetology instructor at Franklin County Technical School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and works part-time as a hair stylist, specializing in weddings. Career Colleges recently interviewed Ms. Coutu to discuss her teaching background to provide students with insight into what they can expect when training to become a cosmetologist.

Q. How did you become interested in teaching this program?

A. When I was in high school, I went to a trade school. I had to pick a trade, and cosmetology seemed easy, so I chose it. But I ended up falling in love with the industry. I love everything about it -- making people feel beautiful and great about themselves, and building connections with clients.

I had such a great experience working as a cosmetologist that I wanted to share it with others. A friend encouraged me to look into teaching, and it seemed like the right fit, even there are numerous steps to become an instructor in Massachusetts. For me, it was the right thing to do.

Q. What are some challenges typically associated with technical instruction of this program?

A. One of the big technical challenges for some students is building dexterity, which is important whether students work on hair, skin or nails. It's a skill that has to be cultivated, and can take time. For hair, practicing different hair styles helps students build the coordination they need to hold and shape hair. I often have my students do finger waves, like ones worn by Christina Aguilera. It's a technique that probably isn't used on a daily basis, but being able to sculpt and mold hair in that shape can be exhausting, and it helps students build their strength and dexterity.

Q. As an instructor, how do you define the success of a course?

A. At my school, there are criteria students have to meet each year of the program. I mainly teach fundamentals: my students learn about basic anatomy, skin, disorders and other elementary information. After my class, they should be ready to begin working on clients, and we test their readiness by giving them a final exam. I think the class is a success when students have the knowledge they need to move to the next level.

Q. How can students best prepare for the challenges of the program?

A. I would say that they should do research to find out exactly what cosmetology is. Cosmetology has a lot of different avenues, but there are a lot of things students need to learn to get through a program -- it's not just cutting hair or painting nails. They should make sure they know what the expectations are when they enter the program.

Also, it is true that the best students are the ones who are really excited by the field. Cosmetology is about customer service from the minute the day begins until it ends. Students need technical skills, but also need the skills it takes to make clients happy and work one on one with people. Students should make sure that the field is a good fit.

Q. In what ways, specifically, have you attempted to maximize your students' comprehension of a particularly troublesome concept/subject?

A. In cosmetology school, students have to learn a lot of different things -- all about skin, nails, disorders and diseases. A lot of the terminology is difficult to understand and remember. I try to use a lot of visuals, and do plays on words to help students remember some of the vocabulary.

Q. What skills will your students not be able to learn in the classroom?

A. Ultimately, the true experience begins in a salon. Much of the real learning comes from trial and error on the job. I can teach how to consult with a client and work with a client, but students have to develop your their own style. Also, because cosmetology is such a big industry, schools can't teach everything. There are a lot of different color lines, for example, and the ones we use at school might not be the ones students use when they get a job at a salon.

Q. What are some fundamental characteristics a student must possess to achieve success in this class?

A. An interest in cosmetology, and commitment is the main thing. Good cosmetologists enjoy working with people, and have good communication skills. There's also self care. Personal hygiene is really important. Being in the beauty industry, students want to be able to represent the services they have to offer. Students might not do their own hair or nails or facials, but the ability to present a professional look is important.

Q. Do you teach students how to open up their own salon?

A. I give a brief overview of that, so that students know their options, but that's about it. But if a student came back and asked for advice or help with opening a salon, then yes, of course I would give it. Generally, students coming out of school can't open their own salons for a couple of years because they don't have the credentials they need to do it.

Q. How do you choose what cosmetic products to use in your courses?

A. My co-teacher and I try to pick out products that have good pricing, first. At school, products get overused and misused, so we need affordable products, but always from professional salon industry companies. We also try to use products that are the same as ones used at salons in the area. Sometimes we try new things, to see whether they'll work for the program.

Q. Do you teach students how to behave when they make a mistake on a client?

A. Yes! In our student clinic, students often react by saying, "Oh my god, I need your help," when they're working on someone and make a mistake. I teach them not to freak out, to call over an instructor, discreetly point out what happened, and let the instructor deal with it. Remaining calm is the main thing when making an error.

Q. Many great hairdressers are able to finish their jobs very efficiently. Does your coursework place an emphasis on speed?

A. It does, but not in the beginning. I always teach quality before quantity. If you can give me a beautiful perm wrap that takes a whole day, I prefer that to a rush job. I want to make sure students have the fundamentals down. Speed occurs naturally, once you develop a pattern of doing things. Once students get to the point where they work on clients, then we look at timing.

Q. What types of internship or volunteer work do you recommend your students pursue while taking your classes?

A. I include volunteer work as part of the program. I take senior students to assisted living homes and do volunteer manicures. It brings the community into the program, and also helps students step out of their comfort zones. Through the course of the year, students develop relationships with the residents, and that's really fun to see. I think it creates a mutually beneficial relationship between the community and students.

Q. What is your outlook on the future of these career programs?

A. I think the cosmetology industry has grown. There are so many different avenues you can take for learning cosmetology - at the high school or college level, for example, and the field is big. Students can also get a professional license without having to go to college, which gives them a lot of job options. So I think these programs are growing, and will keep growing in the future.

Q. What associations or professional groups do you recommend to your students?

A. Students can join the National Cosmetology Association and get into shows for free -- that can be helpful. But I really recommend getting involved with local events and groups, and building relationships in the community.

Please note: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, any job outlook predictions, career/educational advice, and salary information found on this page are based solely on the opinion of the interviewee and not that of or any other organization.