Students Teaching Students

Program coordinator Susannah Windell works with community students.

Indiana University senior Laura Hunter first became interested in teaching dance when she was in middle school. Today, Hunter is fulfilling that goal as a paid student instructor for the Indiana University (IU) Pre-College Contemporary Dance Program. “I learn so much from my students that carries over into my life as a dancer,” she says, “because when you teach someone something, you have to know how to do it yourself.”

Elizabeth L. Shea, IU’s contemporary dance program director, launched the pre-college program in 2003 with the goal of sharing “all of the knowledge and art-making that goes on in a university setting with the children in our community.” Each semester, five to seven IU dance majors teach community children ages 3–18 ballet, tap, jazz, creative dance, hip hop, modern and musical theater/jazz. For the IU students, the pre-college program is invaluable: Though many of them hope to perform professionally, they may find themselves teaching to supplement their incomes. “It’s a really wonderful way to get some hands-on learning,” Shea says. “The dance majors learn how to relate to children and parents, and, of course, it’s wonderful for a resumé.”

The Program

The pre-college curriculum focuses on the students’ physical, emotional and cognitive abilities. Classes are exploratory and play-based until age 5; as children grow, the classes turn more toward motor learning, body and spatial awareness and basic coordination. “We look at what they are and are not able to digest at certain ages,” Shea says.

As the students get older, they also decide whether they want to work or play at their art. Either choice is welcomed. “Not everyone is going to be a college dance major or professional dancer,” Shea says, “but we hope that they love dance and share that with everyone around them.”

The program started with about 30 community students and now has about 80, who take classes in the campus dance studio and a mirrored gymnasium. The classes are affordable: 30-minute classes are $145 per semester, 45-minute classes are $175 per semester and 60-minute classes are $215 per semester. The pre-college program holds informal studio showings in December, an onstage production in the spring and two two-week-long summer camps. 

The program is fully self-supporting. Funds generated cover wages—the student teachers are paid but do not receive college credit—and marketing and advertising costs. The program receives no grants or outside support.

The Model

In 2008, Susannah Windell, an IU alum and current adjunct faculty who has been teaching for over 20 years, was hired as the pre-college program coordinator. During her years in the field, Windell had noticed that many dancers often start teaching without formal training. “They have not learned how to work with young children, write lesson plans or think in terms of a semester,” she says. “It is important for them to understand what is developmentally appropriate for different ages, so that we have more thoughtful, prepared teachers.” To achieve this, Windell helped reorganize the pre-college program’s structure, implementing an apprentice model that would allow dance majors to be mentored as teachers.

Working Together

Although all IU dance majors are required to take at least one pedagogy course, those interested in teaching for the pre-college program may also take Windell’s “Dance in Elementary Education” class. The course, taken during the freshman or sophomore year, covers basic pedagogy, lesson plan writing, how to structure a single class and a semester unit and how to handle behavioral issues. Each semester, a few students approach Windell about teaching for the pre-college program. Usually, the students have some teaching experience, often at the studios where they trained. So far, Windell has been able to employ all who have expressed a desire to participate.

The new teachers begin as apprentices in classes taught by more-experienced college students. The process of going from assistant to lead teacher gives them the opportunity to learn pedagogy in a practical setting. They figure out how to effectively communicate with children and keep them engaged. Windell works closely with the apprenticing teachers, gradually giving them more responsibility in the classroom. She observes their development: Are they able to prepare an appropriate lesson plan? Can they keep their composure if students act up? This allows Windell to gauge when the college student is ready to teach on her own, at which point Windell assigns the teacher two or three classes per week.

Windell also provides ongoing guidance for both apprentices and lead teachers. She approves the students’ lesson plans, holds monthly staff meetings to discuss management techniques and classroom etiquette and coaches the college students on professionalism and developing good relationships with parents. “I enjoy watching them grow as teachers, feeling the sense of accomplishment that we all get when our young students make progress,” Windell says.

Hunter was recruited into the program three years ago and has been teaching classes on her own for the past two years. “Kids have a very short attention span, and I learned a lot about how to keep the class moving and keep the class fun,” she says. Hunter’s main goal after graduation is to perform as a modern dancer, but she would love to continue as a dance instructor. She says, “It goes hand-in-hand with my career as a performing artist.” DT

Hannah Maria Hayes is a freelance writer with an MA in dance education from New York University.

Photo by Sevil Mahfoozi, courtesy of IU

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