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Tips for Hard Teaching Days

gray clouds

Mid-season can be rough. Even though you may have plenty of really cool things coming up at your studio (competitions, spring show, spring break, etc.) they are all coming up and not here. Right now we are putting in the work. Add to that some gray, gloomy weather and it just feels hard sometimes. Here are my favorite mantras and approaches to help get through the very important work now, which will make the later part of the year even better:

  • What you do is less important than how you do it. This is my go-to response to students who haven't mastered the technique of their current level but are bugging me to do more. I do not care at all that you can spin around on your heel three times. That is not a triple pirouette. I equally do not care that you can get your ankle above your head if you bend and roll-in your standing knee and also tuck your pelvis to get it there. I do care that I am teaching in a way that offers opportunities to practice a concept without using the exact same exercise to the point of disconnection. So I am willing to re-examine my point of view and adjust, but I'm not going to lower my standards.

  • Consistency matters more than mood. You're not in the mood to dance today? Okay but that does not mean either of us should lower our expectations. The only way to progress is to work consistently. Liz Fosslien has a great illustration of this concept. (She has a lot of great illustrations. Her "success and failure" illustration is framed and hanging in my hallway.) But what if the students are motivated and its you, the teacher, who is feeling blah? I have some ideas for that, too.

  • Face a different wall in the studio. Simple? Yes. But sometimes all you need is a little change in perspective to shake the blahs right off. It's amazing how simply looking at something new will shift the energy in your classroom. And you can keep changing which wall is "front" throughout class. It's a great exercise in spatial awareness for your students and is particularly good for those kids who don't realize how much they are relying on the mirror or watching their ballet BFF.

  • Run class in a different order. Of course we want to make sure that students are warmed up before we do anything super crazy and barre is well-designed to do that. But sometimes we get a little too precious about it. Assign a number to each barre exercise and have students take turns rolling a die to see which exercise to do next. So what if grand battement comes up before rond de jambe? Let the leg be a little lower for safety's sake and go with it. Dégagé comes up 4 times? Okay. You can do the exercise 4 times and keep refining it, you can change it a little each time, or you can let the student roll again. Repeat the process with center and allegro work. Running class in a mixed-up order can help students find and use different muscles because they don't have the opportunity to rely on as many habits.

  • Change classes for a day. This can be particularly fun if you swap with a teacher in a different genre. Sometimes it isn't possible--I definitely don't know enough about ballroom to swap with my friend Fred--but I can swap with a contemporary teacher if I get general directions beforehand. It totally freaks the kids out in a good way, instantly raises the energy in the room, and everyone gets an expanded perspective on how different genres compliment and contrast with each other. Swapping classes with another ballet teacher is also a fun way to mix things up. When I do this I mostly spend the time complimenting the kids on how well they're doing and taking notes on what I want to bring back to my classes. It helps me get fresh eyes on my own work. But what if you are the only teacher in the studio? You can still switch things up. Try a conditioning day, a variations class, or a ballet history class. Or if you're hitting your slump right around the time you need to start choreography for a spring show, let the kids make up movement to the music and incorporate some of their ideas.

Hard days happen for us all. It's okay to change your approach for a day to keep class fun and it's definitely possible to do it in a way that still fosters growth. And easier days are on the way.

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