Well, the year has ended and I’m in major reflection mode. It’s been a great school year - in fact I’d say it borders on having been an excellent school year. Below are a few learnings / observations / realizations:
A Structure That Works.
I finally found a structure that works for most of the students I teach, and me - it has enough consistency to allow me to maintain my sanity teaching 1,600 students a year yet enough flexibility to accommodate a wide variety of populations, needs, settings, and spaces - generally speaking, very generally speaking. Now that I’ve created something that more or less works, something I can fall back on, I’ll be able to really start playing and experimenting next year……(:-)
One of the most important things I learned about this year is the importance of self care - I learned just how imperative and foundational it is to any creative endeavor. I can’t teach (not to mention teach well) if I haven’t slept enough, if I haven’t eaten properly, if I’m stressed beyond belief. It just doesn’t work because the instrument isn’t in tune. After my first year of teaching which I conducted while incredibly sleep deprived (I can’t believe I used to think the answer was ‘work more, sleep less’!!), I learned that in order to function optimally, I need 8.5 hours of sleep a night (not 8.5 hours in bed, 8.5 hours of sleep(!), in addition to an hour buffer beforehand for winding down and getting ready to go to sleep. That’s what I need and when I don’t get it, I pay. I pay in terms of not being at the top of my game, of things just not going so smoothly, and classroom management becoming a big challenge. And so now, if at 8:15pm I find myself unprepared for the next day, for whatever reason, and I have to choose between sleep and staying up to prep, I choose sleep. And (almost) every time I make that difficult decision, I end up being grateful for it the next day. It’s amazing how much wakeful presence can compensate for occasions when I don’t feel completely prepared. So, in short, YAY FOR SLEEEEEEEEP! :)
Eating well is also a huge factor when it comes to teaching. In this area, I actually learned that I don’t need as much food as I thought I did. I started to monitor my portions more closely and made a major shift from processed foods and starchy carbohydrates to veggies, fruit, and lean protein. I ended up loosing 50 lbs. and feel like I have much more energy that I did before.
The last and probably most profound new routine in my self care regiment is my transcendental meditation practice. I was trained in February (thank you Quiet Time Program) and have been meditating twice a day for 20 minutes ever since. As soon as I began this practice my baseline level of stress went waaaaaay down. In addition to the overall quality of my life increasing as a result, it really helped my teaching. I didn’t / don’t often loose my cool in a classroom but it had happened on occasion - those instances were dramatically reduced to almost non. I was just more.. there. For the students, for myself, and better able to improvise. I felt like I had finally found my ground as a person and teacher. Invaluable.
Stay True To Your Own Vision.
It seems simple and it is (though often it’s challenging to implement, especially in a school setting). It’s good old Delphic Oracle wisdom: “To thine own self be true.” In performance, in practice, in thought, and in action.
One of the things I love about my job is that I fall into this sort of grey area between my department and the schools I work with. It’s ideal for me in that I have total artistic freedom while simultaneously having a steady and reasonable ‘classroom teacher’ income (which, for an artist, is something to be thankful for). I love my job and I feel like I’m lucky to be able to dwell in the best of both worlds :)
Relationship. Relationship. Relationship. Power.
Everything that happens at a school site is based on relationship. I’m constantly asking myself questions like: What kind of relationship do I have with the students? Do they respect me? Do they listen to me? Do they want to be in dance class? Do I have a good rapport with the teachers? How does the principal feel about the work I’m doing? Do I have a good relationship with the school secretary (because s/he is command central for all relevant information when it comes to scheduling, field trips, substitutes, testing etc..)? Do I have a good relationship with the janitors (because sometimes I have to negotiate with them to get them to not mop the floor in the cafeteria after lunch because dancers are coming in and we have no other space, and this is our last rehearsal before the show, and and and….)? It’s all based on relationship. The fact that my classes even take place and run smoothly is a true wonder when you think about how many factors come into play to make them happen.
Power is also an interesting aspect of a school site. Who has it? The principal? The teachers? The parents? The PTSA? Some other individual or group in the school community? And then who has what kind of power? Who has the power to schedule? Who has the power to fund? Who has the power to put things on the calendar? Every school is different and it’s important to have a deep and nuanced understanding of who you need to go to get things done.
It’s OK To Respectfully Disagree And Advocate.
Last December I went head to head with a principal about scheduling a rehearsal for a 4th grade class for their upcoming Winter show. The only rehearsal time we could find would cut into their ELD time, and even though the teachers were in favor of holding the rehearsal, the principal didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. From my perspective, the rehearsal was imperative in order to put on a quality performance. So we met and talked it out. Both of us, coming from and respecting our different perspectives, met and talked it out. She explained to me that she felt like she had a moral obligation to ensure literacy for all students at the school and that ELD was imperative to that end - it’s time couldn’t be cut into for any reason. I explained to her that I viewed myself as our student’s arts advocate and felt like all students not only have a right to perform but have the right to take part in high-quality performance experiences, which require sufficient rehearsal time. We went on to discuss and define core curriculum and how students who attend schools with “low test scores” have historically been deprived of arts education experiences. It was a good conversation and we both respected it each that much more afterwards. It taught me that good principals / teachers / people respect a teacher who is not afraid to advocate for their students. It also taught me the importance of being able to make an educated argument, on the spot, that you can back up with research and / or documentation. It helps to know what the current definition of ‘core curriculum’ is as well as what NCLB says about the arts etc… it’s part of being a professional arts educator. Teaching dance isn’t just about getting students to spin, jump, choreograph, and perform, it’s about understanding the big picture, the stage that it’s all set in.
Keep The Bar High. For Yourself and Others.
This year, the importance of respecting one’s profession was really reiterated for me. It’s like basic self respect - if you don’t respect yourself, others probably won’t either. If you don’t respect your profession, neither will anyone else.
It’s challenging being a teaching artist for countless reasons: the lack of respect that exist for the teaching profession in general is just compounded when it comes to the “teaching artist”. That, in addition to there being no dance teaching credential (at least in California) and no direct route to the profession leads to artists finding themselves in the midst of crazy work conditions, holding positions in which they are overworked, underpaid, and not prepared for. To throw down my teacher talk, the problem exists in a “complex ecosystem.” And still, taking all that into consideration, I think it’s important not to whine and moan about it. Advocacy is important no doubt, but unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the deal going in. So keeping the bar high for yourself, for your students, and for the teachers and principals you interact with is imperative (yes, dance is part of the core curriculum, yes it deserves the same respect as any other subject, yes what students are doing in dance class is fundamental - not in a ‘defensive / let me try to convince you’ way but in a ‘matter of fact / it’s obvious / the proof will be in the pudding’ way).
A few years ago I worked in a school that I wouldn’t have sent my children to in a million years. It didn’t feel like a community as much as it did a prison. There seemed to be no real oversight regarding anything and it showed. In the midst of all the chaos was this one teacher, this one 5th grade teacher who I remember to this day. She walked in with her class and it was like they were all occupying a totally different world. You’d see them walk down the halls and they were happy and calm and joyful - it seemed like they really wanted to be there. The teacher seemed like she really wanted to be there. It was SUCH a stark contrast to everything else I was seeing in the environment. It was SO inspiring because it showed me what’s possible. You can be anywhere, in the midst of anything, and it’s possible to hold your head up high and create your own community / reality / world for you and your students. And it doesn’t even have to be insular. I’d watch students from that class out on the playground, at lunch, in the halls, and they carried whatever it was - their happiness, their calm, their motivation, their “buy in,” into everything they did. It was beautiful to witness.
I think about emulating that teachers work a lot, especially in the context of arts education. Why not come in and shoot for being excellent instead of just mediocre? From my perspective, and in large part due to the complex ecosystem thing, I get the feeling that the bar currently isn’t that high - so just being professional and competent in the midst of it all, will get you far. But that’s not good enough. Professionalism and competency should not be celebrated in any profession - those qualities should be the norm. I mean, you can do whatever you want out there as an itinerant teacher! YOU are the program, YOU represent the art you are teaching to everyone in the community, so why not just go for it? Imbuing it with integrity and importance and diligence and (self) respect? Why not?
On that note, I also have to say that contrary to what I thought might be the case going in, schools are hungry for the arts. Truly HUNGRY for them. And I mean the whole school community: students, parents, principals, teachers, everyone! School communities WANT students to be engaged, they WANT students to get excited about something, anything. And so (at least in the school communities I’ve had experience with) there has been no lack of desire when it comes to the arts - they want more of it, as much as they can get, they want arts providers working there full time! It’s beautiful and right and refreshing because it’s totally contrary to what you always hear.
With regard to the work I’ve done up up to this point in my ‘dance teaching artist’ career, I don’t really facilitate creativity among students. Sure I try to carve out time in every class for students to improvise and create their own choreography, and I even have a couple of class long activities around which those skills sets are the focal point, but really, up until now, I have just been teaching students dances that I make up because that’s all I’ve been able to handle while finding my footing as a teacher.
The next step, now that I’m on more solid ground, is to really get creative about facilitating their creativity. There is merit and importance and beauty in learning a dance from a choreographer, and it certainly engages the brain in a completely different way than regular classroom learning tends to - no doubt - but it also does not involve any creativity on the participant’s part. It’s analogous to me writing up on a chalk board, having kids copy down whatever I write, memorize it, and then spit it back out to me. Creativity is involved in the endeavor, but it’s my creativity, not theirs. I’m just setting it on them.
The irony of the whole situation is that it doesn’t look that way when you pop your head into a dance class. It looks like students are being really creative because they are moving their bodies in all kinds of interesting ways, and it’s such a stark contrast to what you find in most classrooms - it looks creative, but really it isn’t.
One of my goals for next year is to try to find as many places / pockets in the structure I’m working with to incorporate student’s original choreography. And not just “Here are 4 counts of 8 for you in the dance - improvise!” I really want to work on creating scaffold-ed improvisational experiences for students (Luna has been of tremendous help and inspiration when it comes to this).
It’s OK To Just Let Some Reflections Go
I’ve always had a difficult time with this. I have hundreds of ideas that I never got around to blogging about this year. In fact I still have a list from last year and from the year before that. It’s OK. This used to really stress me out and now I just let it go, knowing that those embryonic ideas are dwelling in my subconscious and will reemerge when I’m ready to pay them their due diligence. Ideas / potential blogs posts, I’ll be here waiting for you when you are ready to re-emerge, which I’m sure will coincide with me having adequate time and energy to explore you to the fullest :)
And so there you have it. My learnings / observations / realizations for the 2011 - 2012 school year. There’s a lot I left out but I’m tired and ready, as Adele might say, to “roll in the deep” of summer now. I’m signing off this blog and this year, and looking forward to writing for you again in the Fall.