On being a teacher


ON BEING A TEACHER

I’m feeling the excitement as we start up another (our third!) fall semester at Wild Lily Dance Centre (www.wildlilydancecentre.com), the studio that I co-own and where I teach.  This time of year always has more of the ring of the “New Year” for me than January 1, likely because of years of pre and post-secondary schooling.  It’s the time when I dig out curriculums, tweek them, improve them, and envision students learning from them.  New choreographies are running like a constant movie stream through my mind. I’m sharpening my pencils and my mind in preparation for the upcoming classes and getting ‘first-day’ butterflies.

No semester or class is ever the same.  I teach beginners, so I also get to witness students catch the spark and find something they love as much as I do.  I also get to see the start of dance friendships that develop as dancers discover new parts of themselves, and continue because these people “get it”.

My journey of training and learning has not only been about technique, but about teaching.  I enjoy teaching so much that I want to learn more about how to communicate the material to students, as well as how to inspire and motivate them.  I’ve been blessed to have been able to study with some of the most skilled and wonderful teachers in this dance genre.  When I attend a workshop or do a class, my mind is open to “How is that person as a teacher?  What makes them an engaging (or non-engaging) instructor? Why did I get so much or so little from that person?”

As students, we should also ask ourselves what makes a good teacher?  How do we determine if we’re getting what we should from our classes or workshops?  How do I know if it’s me or the teacher?

Just a caveat:  I make reference to teachers in the feminine in my comments for simplicity, not to take away from or suggest there aren’t male teachers.

What follows are (in my opinion)  some of the things that make a great bellydance teacher. Feel free to add your own or comment:

Knowledge:

Sounds simple enough, but is it?  Knowledge of the dance moves is one thing. But knowledge should go beyond merely knowing how to do the moves.  It has to include knowing how to do them properly: to me this means knowing which muscles to avoid injury to the dancer.  It also involves knowing how to perform them so that they have the best impact and so that they fit with other movements.

Knowledge should also go beyond the movements themselves to the context of the dance style.  What are the different styles within the “bellydance” genre?  What are the ethics? What are the controversies?  What are the cultural and societal issues? Too many students, especially beginners, are sent out with only their enthusiasm and popular views of what bellydance is, to discover later that, in their experience, the things they did, the costume they wore or the music they danced to were inappropriate.  For example, dancing in the gypsy (or for me, Atseguin) style means more than wearing hoop earrings and a bandana.  Students should be educated so that they can make their own choices about how they want to conduct themselves within this dance genre. While I feel it’s okay for a teacher to express her own perspective or views, she should educate her students about the other perspectives and points of view so that the students can make an educated choice.

I also believe that a teacher should continue to learn herself.  A teacher who relies on training that she received a decade or more ago, without continued learning and growth as an artist, is not honouring her students, and may even be putting them at risk.  Methods change, the dance form has grown and developed, even previously held views about stretching, warming up, cooling down and muscle dynamics have changed. Some teachers I know will take beginners’ level classes from other instructors just to refresh themselves in the basics.  I think that is very wise and try to do that whenever I have the opportunity.   Also, I try to learn other dance forms when I can.  Not only does it add to our knowledge, it refreshes our perspective on how it feels to be the student.

Respect

A good teacher has respect for the students she is teaching. That means showing up on time (barring emergencies), being prepared, being available to students if they have questions, and generally, being a pleasant person to be around.

It means giving students appropriate time to learn the movements or concepts, being able and willing to explain things more than one way and repeating things if necessary, and understanding that different people learn at different paces.  It is also appreciating that students have different goals than the teacher does for herself or the teacher perceives her students should have.  A student who is taking the class to get more exercise, to gain confidence, or even just for plain old fun, is worthy of just as much time, effort and consideration as someone who wants to make dance her career.  There is nothing wrong with having standards and expecting the students to work hard, but the student should never feel degraded because she can’t keep up.

In addition, we have to be conscious that there may be students who have limitations physically or psychologically/developmentally.  This can present a challenge to an instructor, but that challenge is ours to meet.  The student should never be given less because of those limitations, nor should she be treated disrespectfully because of it.

Teachers must also keep personal issues with a student out of the classroom or studio.  In a small community, such as the one in which I teach, and being the owner of the studio, it is not inconceivable that the people who are in my class and I may have had some contact outside the class setting that left a less than positive impression with me.  There may even be an ongoing issue. Sometimes personalities don’t mix. But that should never, NEVER, impact how you interact or teach that person within the class.  NEVER.  Because, even if they don’t know the context, other students notice the tension, and it will impact how well they are able to learn from you.  If the dynamic is so bad that you can’t prevent yourself from responding to it during class, then you have an obligation to assist the person in finding another suitable class or giving her a refund.

Teachers should never discuss individual students or classes in a derogatory way where there is any possibility that a student will overhear the conversation or be privy to it.  And, in our age of “social media”, an instructor should never post “Just had the most awful class!  Why to I teach?” or something equally as derogatory in a context in which students (whether they are the ones being referenced or not) may read it.  They may assume it’s referring to them, or they may think “If she would say that about another class or student, what does she say about me?”
Every teacher should remember that the students are the ones who give them the privilege to teach, and that fact alone should prompt teachers to treat students with consideration.

 Professionalism

In addition to the things discussed above, a good instructor teaches professionalism and ethics to her students.

While there is no written code of conduct for bellydancers, any type of conduct that makes an individual dancer look like they are inconsiderate of other performers or the audience, poorly trained, or shabby in conduct and/or appearance makes all dancers look bad.  The general public are not consumers of bellydance, so they will judge the many by the few.  I’m a believer that if we  treat our chosen art form as something to be valued, the rest of the world eventually will too.  And, overall, people are all impressed by someone who holds herself above the fray, who is respectable and who has class.

A good instructor will build this into her curriculum where appropriate so that, if a student does move on to perform in public, she will conduct herself in a manner that promotes, not denigrates, bellydance.  If the student knows the rules and breaks them, the responsibility lies with the student, but if the breach is due to ignorance because she wasn’t taught, then the shame is on the teacher.  (look for my  next blogpost on “Professionalism” for more details!).

Even if a student never performs in public, teaching ethics goes a long way toward the student valuing her dance training and passing that respect along to others.

 

Humility

As a teacher, the lessons I am most grateful for are the ones my students have taught me.  Sometimes, it’s a simple reminder that it’s exciting and scary to learn something new, teaching me to go slow, to be gentle and to be observant  Sometimes it’s the questions that allow me to explain more fully.  Sometimes, it’s a new way of  thinking about a move that I can use in future classes:   I had a student once who could not get her mind around the reverse maya, until she was watching Mad Men and said “Ah!  It’s Joan Harris walking!”  Sometimes it’s an email from a student telling you how much learning this dance has meant to them, which teaches me that what I’m doing has an impact.

A teacher should ever believe that she is above her students.  If she does, she loses the ability to see things from their perspective, and thus becomes a less effective teacher.  She should never believe she cannot be taught anything new.  And she should always remember that without students, there’s no need for a teacher.

I was fortunate this past summer to take an intensive with Rachel Brice. In the eyes of most, she has earned the right to hold her nose up in the air and be a complete diva because she is so skilled.  Instead, she was down-to-earth, honest and not at all afraid to make fun of herself.  By the end of the four days, though, I had pushed myself harder than I ever had in any other class or workshop.  I discovered that I learn better from a teacher who earns my respect by treating me with respect than I do from someone who expects that respect simply because she’s the teacher.  Rachel really embodied the humility that I believe the best instructors should have, and I try to remember that every day that I’m teaching.

She also impressed me when she showed us a video of a young French dancer named Illan Riviere and expressed how much he inspired her.  Her openness to be taught by the next generation spoke volumes.

 A teacher should also honour where she ‘came from’ as a dancer and teacher.  Even if the experience with a previous instructor was a bad one, it makes you a better teacher (a bad example is still an example!).  We all take a little of our teachers with us into our classes with us, and if we are complimented on our teaching, we have our ‘ancestors’ to thank.

 This is a tribute to the people I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from.  Thank you to each and every one.



July 2011

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~ by lorisavory on October 6, 2011.

3 Responses to “On being a teacher”

  1. […] I wanted to share this blog post with you.  It’s written by Lori Savory – a lovely Wild Lily – and it talks about admirable qualities of a good, valuable teacher of dance. I don’t think I could have said it any better – thank you Lori for sharing such a lovely insight. It’s exactly what my mind has been thinking,  I couldn’t agree with what you’ve written any more. […]

  2. Vanessa-Elizabeth (http://www.vanessa-elizabeth.ca) pointed me to this post and I just wanted to let you know how spot on I think your comments are for any type of teacher. Shared it!!

  3. […] thoughts about being a belly dance teacher Lori Savory has written a fantastic post about the things that make a great belly dance teacher but her thoughts apply to all dance forms: “[Being a good teacher] means giving students […]

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