New Year, New You
Whether you’ve been teaching dance for two years or 20, you know what it feels like to be stagnant and out of new ideas. So how do you continue to grow and keep your classes fresh? And, most of all, how do you stay inspired? Try these nine ideas to keep yourself in tip-top teaching form.
#1 Start a monthly lunch date.
If the daily teaching grind prevents you from communicating regularly with colleagues at your studio or school, you’re missing out on valuable input from people who understand issues specific to your school and students. Organize a monthly lunch or potluck dinner, alternating host homes. Talk about your frustrations or challenges—everything from time management to dealing with behavior issues. You can share what works and what doesn’t. These dates should serve as a support group, allowing everyone to tackle difficulties while building each other up.
#2 Broaden your contacts.
One of the best ways to network and further your education is by meeting other teachers. At competitions and conventions, attend teacher-specific classes. Engage the director of your archrival studio for advice. Travel to teacher workshops, professional training seminars and child and adolescent health clinics. Check your local college for any relevant continuing education courses. Afterward, you’ll be inspired with fresh ideas from experts and your peers. (For a selection of teacher workshops, check out our Summer Study Guide on page 128.) If you studied dance education as an undergrad or graduate student, becoming active in the local chapter of your alumni association is a great way to keep on top of the current trends and research, and establish connections with the greater dance world.
#3 Be patient with yourself.
A guaranteed source of frustration is the student who doesn’t improve, no matter what approach you try. Oftentimes, dancers pick up on your frustration and may think your irritation is their fault. In these situations, it’s essential to stay positive. Turn to a trusted colleague for advice, and look for every opportunity to compliment students. Keep a journal or diary, so you can refer back to your success stories when you’re feeling down.
#4 Hit the books.
From the research at top university dance programs to autobiographies to time-tested lesson plans, there is a wealth of literature on pedagogy, curriculum building, child development and other topics relevant to your work. Read as much as you can, and your expertise will blossom. If you drive, find books on CD or from services such as iTunes, or carpool with another teacher and read to each other. If you use public transit, keep a book in your bag and carry a notepad for jotting down inspiring quotes, anecdotes or lessons to share with your students.
#5 Take a vacation.
Finding time to play may seem impossible, but it’s absolutely essential. Consider it part of being a responsible educator. Studies show that a little R & R goes a long way toward keeping workers focused and productive on the job. A true vacation means a complete break: Turn off your cell phone, don’t check your e-mail and definitely leave those cast lists at home.
#6 Find a mentor, be a mentor.
Relatively new teachers will greatly benefit from a mentorship with a veteran who has a track record of turning out healthy, happy and savvy dancers. Both can benefit from observing each other’s classes and sharing feedback on giving combinations, interacting with students and answering the key questions: What works best? Why is it successful? What doesn’t work at all? Mentorship involves constructive criticism, emotional support and tips on how to better engage and educate. If you’re a veteran educator, pass on what you’ve learned to a new teacher. Helping others can revitalize your own teaching—and you may learn something new!
#7 Shake up your routine.
Kids know when your class is getting stale. They might lose interest, chit chat and get sloppy going across the floor in the same old combos to the same old music. Keep it fresh by using new music regularly and throwing different challenges at them. Have them do a combination in a circle instead of in lines. Want them to travel more? Chase them! Worried about their acting skills? Play charades. Keep a music suggestion box where students can recommend songs they love, and then choose one for next week’s combination. You can also have “surprise” days periodically (but not so often that you lose continuity in their technical development). Choose from the following ideas:
- Back to Basics Day: Everyone needs an occasional brush-up on basic steps. Spend a class doing simple combinations that emphasize precision. For instance, have students do piqué arabesque into plié arabesque across the floor, working on stepping onto a straight leg, keeping both legs turned out, not letting the back leg drop, maintaining proper knee-over-the-toe alignment and pointing the feet.
- Focus Day: Spend a significant portion of one class on unusual turns or jumps. This allows you to challenge yourself by breaking down different steps. Dancers also will enjoy the challenge.
- Make Up a Combination Day: In ballet class, for example, have everyone line up at the barre. Assign each dancer one exercise (pliés, tendus, dégagés, etc.). Give them five minutes to make up their own exercises at the beginning of the class to avoid wasting time between combinations. Be in charge of the music and designate the number of 8-counts, so you don’t end up with exercises that are too short or too long.
- Be Someone Else Day: A great way to keep kids on their toes and to have a little fun is to act out a different persona. For your teen ballet class, for instance, act strict and speak in a Russian accent. In jazz, pretend you’re a tough L.A. choreographer preparing to shoot a music video. You can also portray a specific character from a movie, show or ballet, such as Cooper from Center Stage, Lumière from Beauty and the Beast or Galinda from Wicked. At the end of class, students can guess who you are for a prize. Give them a hint by playing music from the production during class.
- Variation Month: For four weeks, spend 10 minutes at the end of each class teaching part of a variation appropriate to your class level (modify steps as needed). This is a good barometer for measuring how a group compares to the same class level from the previous year and pinpointing any weak areas in their training.
#8 Get outside of dance.
See movies, read novels, go to the theater and check out the latest exhibits at your local museum. Staying culturally informed gives you a healthy dose of perspective during those trying teaching times, and it makes you a better teacher because you’ll have a larger palette to draw from when relating to students. You may find a new analogy to help a child master a step or inspiration for your next recital.
#9 Always end on a positive note.
After a great class, you can sense your students’ happiness and pride in their accomplishments, which inevitably lifts your spirits. End with something fun that makes the dancers feel good about themselves, whether it’s a sweeping waltz combination to big, beautiful music, an entertaining coordination challenge or a game of call and response. A proud dancer means a proud teacher!
Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.