J Lindsay Brown Dance

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Teaching Tidbits and more

Tough teacher vs. mean teacher

How to tell the difference, and how to fix it.

Why won’t the little farts just listen to me?

​So I’m considered a “tough teacher”. But I try not to be a “mean teacher”. They are not the same, either! A tough teacher is acting out of a desire for students to improve. A mean teacher is acting from their irritation, fear, and ego.
Let me be clear: no one intends to be a mean teacher. Frustration, burn out, a lack support from your studio, all of these things (among others) can result you becoming aggressive rather than assertive. All of us will do this sometimes, but we should do our best to mitigate such habits. As Dolly Parton sang, we better “shine, refine, design”.

I sometimes catch my ego getting in the way of solving a teaching issue. When I notice that I’m digging in my heels, I (eventually) pause and reflect to see what I could do differently next time. I know I need to stop myself if the following comes out of my mouth or keyboard:

“This should be working for these kids, it works for all the other classes…Ugh, they are just so lazy. I can’t do anything with that…This parent/student is just unreasonable” (okay sometimes that is true)…$&@&!..etc….

These are all excuses to give up. But as a teacher, my job is to keep trying. It’s not okay to stop being the adult.

Yes, sometimes tough love is the answer, but it’s important to stop and ask yourself if are acting out of love or frustration. If it doesn’t really serve a specific educational purpose (such as helping students learn to wait on the side vs. “they will learn to respect me”) then don’t do it—it will probably end up unintentionally mean. I’m not perfect, and there are issues I haven’t solved (and there always will be). However, when I’m annoyed, feeling down, and hearing that little niggling internal voice saying “hm…was that mean of me?” then I know I need to pause and ask myself the following:

Are my actions based around logical consequences?
Is there another thing or idea I haven’t tried? (hint: the answer is always yes)

Am I taking this too personally? (Usually, the answer is yes)
Let’s dig in.

Are you enforcing logical consequences, or arbitrary laws?
Here’s an example of a logical consequence: student doesn’t have their dance clothes, or is very late to class. Therefore, they cannot dance because they don’t have clothes to dance in, or they have missed part of warm up.

Here’s an illogical consequence: student is late to class, so they (and the rest of the class) have to do 20 push ups. There is no connection between action and result. This is not a logical consequence, it is arbitrary (it also presents conditioning as a punishment, which is problematic, but that’s a different issue).

If you are making students do something just as a punishment and not as a result of internal logic, reconsider your system. Random rules don’t tend to work, and they create drama and resentment. Also, no one likes senseless rules, not adults, not kids, no one. Being a dictator, ruling by fear and rules alone, does not truly foster respect.

I’m guilty of this, and catch myself doing it more often than I like. Not that long ago, I had beginner students (ages 6-9) doing battements across the floor with very clear and simple timing (step one, tendu two, lift three, down and shift weight 4). One third of the class was phoning it in. I forced the whole class to keep going back and doing it repeatedly.

This would have made more sense if it was practice for a recital dance, or if more of the kids were unfocused; but it wasn’t, and they weren’t. I was just annoyed they weren’t doing what was (in my mind) clearly so easy (by the way, few things are easy in dance when you first learn them, so this was nonsense on my part). It sucked energy out of the room and class was just, well, a chore. I was unhappy, they were unhappy, the battements were unhappy.

What else could I have tried? I wish I’d tried one of the many other options available to me, such as:

  • running the exercise a only a couple more times, and without the “you have displeased me” tone.
  • Dropping down the level, having everyone use the wall to practice their battements, or maybe reviewing how to go across the floor.
  • Having the struggling students practice for two minutes (maybe while holding hands or linking arms) with a partner who had good timing.
  • Changing up my groupings to make sure the struggling kids weren’t all bunched together .
  • Accepting it wasn’t good today and moving on, knowing it will improve over time.
  • Changing how I use the room (more on that shortly).

I don’t think much good came out of these long minutes, and likely I created more annoyance than musicality. Their battements have improved, but it’s not because of that day—it’s because they have had more time and practice. And, possibly, due to the change I did end up making the next class.

So what did I do?
I changed how I used the room. Before, I had them traveling from stage right to stage left across the floor in sets of 3 (which is honestly a lot to ask of a newer and bigger beginning class). The space was too big and overwhelming (it’s a large studio), and there were too many kids, which led to a lot of downtime, waiting for their turn. That’s no good!

I ended up with this: two long horizontal lines of students, starting at the back of the room (so they were facing the mirror). We drilled how to run this new way of going “across the floor” (we walked downstage in our lines, practiced going to the sides and filling in again at the back). Now students had to be ready to go all the time, as there were only two groups. They had a less daunting space to cover, and they could see themselves (and their peers) straight on in the mirror. It took a little time for them to get the system, but now it works wonderfully.

Don’t take it personally.
This is harder than it sounds. If you are really annoyed your students aren’t doing something, chances are you’re taking this personally. Remember—these kids aren’t out to get you. Kids are, by nature and design, quite self-absorbed. They aren’t plotting against you, they are just, well, kids. If you find yourself getting angry and holding onto that anger, acknowledge that your teaching ego might be a part of that (“why can’t they appreciate me?”, “why aren’t they learning—I worked hard on this”, “am I not good enough?”).

Let this all go. It doesn’t serve you or the students. Something just isn’t working—this doesn’t make you (or your class) bad. It just means you have a chance to grow as an educator and try something new! So embrace it, remind yourself that there is no perfect way to teach—education and other humans are not static. The fact that everything changes is one of the best parts about our job! You can do it, and you will figure it out. And once you do, your students will benefit, and you will have gained invaluable pedagogical experience.

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J. Lindsay Brown

Full of tricks and tips gained from a decade of teaching, choreographing, and producing in every setting imaginable!