Twenty something years of teaching ballet has taught me plenty of things. As educators in the arts we speak often about how life lessons are learned so well through the arts. What a beautiful thing. I could probably write a book on the lessons I have personally learned through my years as a student, as a professional, and now as a teacher.
Of the many lessons I have learned it is that being prepared with a plan is of utmost importance. Particularly, when it comes to teaching younger students and students with whom you are not overly familiar. Consider your time, consider your goals, consider your students, make a plan, and then ready-set-go!
What an excellent formula! End of story! Good bye and let us all go forth with our brilliant lesson plans and conquer the world!
Only, even a beginning teacher will tell you that sometimes, oh yes sometimes, those perfectly thought out plans simply don’t work. No matter how smart we are, no matter how much effort we give, no matter how much we want it (and we desperately want it!), sometimes the plan just doesn’t work. It is no fault of the plan. It is no fault of ours. It is no fault of the students. There is no fault to be had. It is very simple: the plan is not working.
Why isn’t the plan working?
Well, as we all know there could be an array of reasons. Depending on the age, of course, it could be anything from a bathroom accident to some weird dressing room politics going down before class. As strange as it sounds, we mustn’t forget that we are teaching humans. The human element is going to show itself and sometimes it is going to interfere with our plans.
A Short Story
I was once teaching a class with 3-year-olds. One day a tiny dancer was unhappy to leave her mom and come to class. Before I could address the situation, the mom had plopped her sobbing kid in front of me and left the room. As you can imagine, chaos broke out. All the tiny dancers in tears, with me in the very middle wondering what in the heck do I even do now? I tried every trick I knew. It was all in vain. The crying continued and escalated. Finally I decided, “Yeah, I am not doing this anymore because this is not working and if I don’t make a change I am going to be crying, too”. I marched right out into the lobby and told the parents that all of their kids were crying for them and that if they wanted their kid to have a ballet class I fully expected every single one of those parents to join us and we would all dance together. They stared at me for a moment unsure if I was serious. I stared right back, all the while kids are wailing in the background. So, in came the moms. It was rather horrible, I admit. But hilarious at the same time. And I am convinced that had I not chosen right then to abandon all structure that nothing would have happened except the crying.
My point is that sometimes the discipline and the structure we try so hard to achieve must be put to the side momentarily in order to address more pressing issues such as very young humans who don’t understand why their mommy has to leave them; or a tooth has come out and we must all celebrate; or someone’s pet died and they can’t hold back the tears so we must pause and cry with them; or school was especially stressful so we must throw our hands up and do something extra creative to release the tension; or the competition level amongst the dancers is taking a negative turn and we must sit down and discuss the impact our behavior has on the people around us and our own art; or the rut of ballet class is sinking in allowing a laziness to take hold so we must demand more and do so with tremendous authority. And then still there are those times when our plans are not exactly going poorly, but they simply are not being as effective as we had imagined and so we must adjust.
Be Willing to Adapt
The reasons lesson plans can be interfered with are vast. Being organized and prepared is important, but being flexible, able, and willing to adapt or even throw it all out is just as important. The wisest teachers know when to give in and are able to come up with a new plan in a pinch. Of course, this takes many years of experience, but a new teacher should prioritize this skill. Being able to teach a productive class without a lesson is enormously helpful and reduces a huge amount of stress. And as we all know, a stress free teacher is the best teacher. I have no doubt our students would agree.
In the end, my humble suggestion would be to plan, but hold that plan loosely. Don’t be too committed to it. Allow it to breathe; allow it to shift; allow it to fly away with the wind if need be. After all, ballet teachers are artists and artists create. So, let’s create a class where learning can happen; with or without our plan.
- How Learning Happens
- Thoughts on Musicality
- The Teaching Wheel
- The Dance Teacher’s Secret Weapon: Expectancy