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My First Year As a Public-School Teacher: "Nothing Prepares You for Middle School Kids"

Photo by Michael Avilez, courtesy of Chrissie Leong

In Take the Lead, actor Antonio Banderas wins over a group of reluctant inner-city students with a racy tango performance. While the 2006 film was inspired by Pierre Dulaine, ballroom dancer and founder of Dancing Classrooms, teaching in a public school is rarely as easy as it looks in the movies. From financial challenges to lack of administrative support and parental involvement, public-school teaching differs greatly from the studio environments in which most dance educators began their own training. We asked several public-school teachers to share their passion for the hardest job they've ever done. —Kat Richter


Chrissie Leong

Formerly of Beverly Hills High School

Beverly Hills, California

I started teaching at a studio in college, did student teaching in grad school and subbed dance classes throughout New York for the Department of Education, but nothing prepares you for middle school kids. I always say, "No one peaks in middle school," and I had 30–40 students at a time, five times a day.

I had to learn very quickly: classroom management, grading, choreographing 20 routines each year and how to survive the constant testing that you get every day from students. In a studio, the dancers stand at the barre and wait for instructions, but in a public school you spend most of your time trying to rein them in.

It takes a good three years to build a rapport with the kids, and I would not have survived those three years if not for my mentor. She brought me out to L.A. to help grow the program and held my hand along the way. We talked at night, and every morning on the way to work. It takes a lot of heart to teach inner-city kids, and she definitely had it.

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