Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lessons from the Other Side of the Desk

Dedicated to my friends still in the trenches...

Hi, my name is Rachael, and I need approval from others.

That's a humbling thing to say when you're 27 years old, but it's truth.  And if it's true for a successful, grounded adult, it's more than true for an insecure, lost teenager.

Teacher friends this post is written for you!  These are some basic observations that I know we all know in theory, but perhaps this will be the reminder you need to refocus your efforts.  I wish I could teach a class tomorrow just to address some of these lessons that I've learned, but I hope you'll apply some tips from my current situation and report back with your results!  That way I can live vicariously through you and feel like I've made some sort of atonement for the mistakes I made during my tenure as a teacher.  I've boiled my experiences as a student to 4 basic ideas:

1. You Know My Name?!
The very first class I took at Broadway Dance Center was a ballet class with Beth Goheen.  I  arrived to NYC a week before my program started, so I was just taking class on my own trying to get a feel for the studio.  On that very first day, in that very first class,  Beth asked me my name as she has addressed me by name ever since for the past 6 months.  I took classes at studios in Houston for years, and was NEVER asked my name.  Furthermore, no other teacher has done that since I've been here.  Every day she starts class by walking through the classroom, greeting students by name, exchanging pleasantries, and introducing herself to people she hasn't met yet.  Throughout barre and across the floor, she consistently calls out my name and delivers both critiques and compliments about my work.

As a result, I work harder for Beth's class, than I do any other class.  I try to get there early; I stand in the front; I never mark my arms.  I work hard to apply the corrections she's giving me because I want her to know that I'm listening and that I'm growing.  Even though it's been 6 months now, there's a spark that ignites inside me every day, every time she says my name.  That being said, she addresses me every day, every time I'm in class.  From the first few moments that class starts, when she comes around greeting everyone, I become more present in the classroom.  I'm not just a warm body taking up a spot in a dance class, instead I'm an artist that Beth believes in and with whom she chooses to share her practice.

Application: Greet your students, by name, at the beginning of class.  Take advantage of that time before the bell rings. If this is something you do at the door every day, great! But don't make it seem too routine.  If you missed some people or had to rush everyone in at the end, walk around while they're doing their do-first, or silent reading, or journal writing, and say, "Goodmorning," to them.  Ask them about that book they were reading in the hallway, or about their brother who brought home that stray puppy yesterday, or anything that shows them that you remember them as an individual.  This will take some prep work.  It means you can't be writing on the board or stapling papers, or all the other things that we think HAVE to get done before the students walk in the door.  Furthermore, try to make sure you are addressing every student by name at some point throughout the class-- whether it is asking them a question or giving them praise.  I know a lot of times students would raise their hands, and I would just point or nod in their direction, or say, "Go ahead," to allow them to speak, but there is something significant that happens when you hear your name aloud. This humanizes the student, and makes them feel present in your class.  You want this.  I promise you, they'll work harder.  And this isn't something that you just do the first day after they come back from Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, etc.  They need it every day, every class

2. Free Pass
This lesson I learned in the classes that were the opposite of the Beth Goheen classes.  These were the classes I took when I was feeling tired, lazy, or defeated; they were my free passes.  I knew that the teachers didn't know my name and didn't know my potential.  I could stand in the back; I could come out of my balance when my calves started cramping; I could lower my arms when my deltoids started burning.  No one was going to push me, or call me out when they knew I could do better.  On the other side, I could dance my arse off, and do the best that I've ever done in that class, but it wouldn't make a difference. No one was tracking my progress and acknowledging my growth.  I wasn't one of the rockstars in the front, so it was like I was not even there-- a free pass.

Application:  Are there students who might say that about your class?  They show up every day because they have to, but they're not one of your all-stars getting called on all the time, and they're not one of your knuckleheads getting called out all the time-- they're just there.  Identify those students.  No like really... take out a notebook, and write their names down.  Experiment: Can you list all the students in one of your classes without looking at a roster? Not by mentally going around the room based on your seating chart... but just list every student by who comes to the top of your head.  When you get stuck, or have to pause for a few seconds, you've identified the students to whom you've given free passes.  I guarantee you the majority of those students are not working at their full potential when they're in your classroom.  It's not too late... reel them in!  All it takes is a quick, "Good job, Angela!" or "Look at you! You're totally getting it now!"  Literally seconds of your time that will imprint their minds for months, even years to come. 

3. I Will Break My Ankle for You
Sheila Barker... still scares me.  If you ask most students around BDC about Sheila, they'll say something similar.  Her warm up is probably the hardest warmup of all the classes at the studio.  You're sweating within the first 6 minutes of class, but I wouldn't dare whine or wince while I'm in that class.  I just take really deep breaths, and literally pray to God that I don't pass out while I'm in there.  But if I had to, I would.  I would rather be carried out of her class on a stretcher than quit or cheat during any of her exercises.  She is fierce, and she's not afraid to get in your face.
-"Flat back over, reach longer, longer, LONGER! LONGER!  HOLD IT! Are you breathing? I can't hear you? HOLD IIIIIIIT!  Ok, relax over."
-"Uuuuuugghhhhh!" The whole room exhales.  
-"Oh, now you're breathing," she laughs. "Ok, let's try it again."
Puddles of sweat are gathering on the floor, but no one quits.  We all keep pushing-- keep 'fighting for it.'

This one is a little harder to explain.  I don't fully understand why we all work so hard for Sheila.  I mean we're all grown adults, there's nothing to really be afraid of, but there is definitely fear in that room.  Here are my two guesses: #1) No matter how old you get, no one ever wants to be embarrassed in front of their peers.   And although Sheila is compassionate, and we know her actions come from a good place, she will call you to task if she thinks you are giving her anything less than your personal 100%.  Let me clarify that she is very deliberate in differentiating her students, and she won't embarrass you because you aren't as good as the person next to you, but she will embarrass you if you aren't as good as the person you were the day before.  #2) Sheila's just scary.  She's demanding.  She has high expectations.  You never know exactly what to expect from her.  She is challenging-- regardless of what level of dancer you are; you will get your butt kicked.  There's just no such thing as an easy day in Sheila's class.

Application: #1) I don't think there is anything wrong with a little ol' fashioned humiliation. Again, let me be clear that there's a difference between belittling a child because of their lack of abilities (never, ever acceptable), and belittling a child because of their lack of effort (very, very appropriate).  Students need to learn to be embarrassed when something has their name on it, and it's not their best work.  I still remember my 4th grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Huffman.  I was terrified of him.  But I made sure to do my reading and homework every night because I didn't want to be embarrassed in class.  There's an art to humiliating kids-- you have to switch it up.  One day you send a student outside-- you'll deal with them when you have time, you don't want to waste their classmates time, the next day you raise your voice so you make an example in front of the whole class, the next day you keep your voice low and tell them you're so disappointed... you can't be predictable.  The other side of that though, is that you don't want the student to shut down in your class.  Although they did not bring their best effort that day, you have to go out of your way to find something to praise them about-- whether that day or the very next day.  Remind them of what it's like to be acknowledged for the right reasons, and that you are lavish in your praise if they are giving you their best.  #2) Be scary.  That doesn't mean be rude and distant- that's not how Sheila is at all; she's actually quite fun-loving.  But you should be the type of teacher that students know they're going to work in your class.  It's going to be hard, and they're going to have to use their brain.  And just because they're giving you the "right" answer doesn't mean that's enough.  In fact, there's never an "enough" point-- they're always pushing for more, inquiring about more, thinking more critically.  They should know that for the next hour, they aren't going to rest, and their brain is going to hurt.  Every grade level has that class.  Strive to be that class for your students.  The one that the students are all still talking about at lunch.  The one that they all keep saying is, 'soooo hard,' but they say it with a smile on their face because they delight in the challenge.  

4.  I Feel Like I'm Floating
--"What's your name?  Wow, fabulousness! Keep coming back, ok?!" --H. Rigg
--"That's it Rachael!! You've got it!"-- B. Goheen
--"You have a beautiful voice..." -- B. Sheppard
--"No, thank you.  You had such wonderful focus and intention with your movement." --A. Dones

Simple. Nothing profound or elaborate.  But life-changing and life-breathing all the same.  I remember the words; I remember the teachers; and I remember the feeling.  At the end of every class, students go literally go out of their way to walk to the front of the studio to pass by the teacher before they go out the back of the room.  We all mask it with 'thank you's' for the teacher and for the class, "Thank so much! That was such a great class!"  Blah, blah, blah.  Although our teachers are INCREDIBLE, and we really do appreciate them, there's that tiny inkling inside of you hoping that you did a good enough job in class that the teacher will linger on your 'thank you' just a little bit longer than everyone else's and ask you your name, and where you used to dance, and give you the faintest hint of praise on your artistry.  Again I remind you, these are mostly 20 and 30 year-old men and women-- hungering for recognition and approval from their teachers.

Application: I think the application here is clear.  Let positivity flow from your lips all day long.  In public, in private; aloud, in notes; before class, after class, during class-- as much as you can fit in in a day.  Take inventory of how much you complain and reprimand compared to how much you encourage and uplift-- a good number to strive for is 10% to 90%.  That's a really hard percentage to reach, but words are so powerful, and they can practically breathe life into a student.  I can't stress enough how simple these words need to be. "Great work today, Johnny!" and maybe a pat on the back as they're walking out the door is all you need-- you can change. their. day.  And often that message will fuel them for another week or two, leaving them excited to show up to your class each day because you notice their effort. As shallow as that is coming from me, put yourself in the mind of a 12 year-old... case closed.

Closing Notes
First of all, I didn't know exactly where to fit this in, but the whole time I was writing about the rigor and demand of Sheila Barker combined with the encouragement and acknowledgment of Beth Goheen, all I could think about was Emily Peck.  If you haven't sat in on her class, please find time to go this week, and be mesmerized.  But be careful because she might also make you want to quit your job as you realize you will never be the teacher that she is-- so why waste any more time trying.  ;) She epitomizes all of these principles I discussed, and I wish I could have had more time to study under her and basically be her. 

Secondly, I hope most of you know me well enough to know-- that IIII know-- that my classroom fell faaaar short of upholding these principles.  I use 2nd person in this post simply because you guys are still in it, and you can make changes tomorrow morning!  I wish I could.  Please try something out this week and write me back with your thoughts and results!  Maybe you can give me some tips on being a better student.  :)