More specifically—How friendly should we be with our students?
As is almost always the case, this question has as many answers as there are ballet teachers in the world. These are my thoughts.
The Ideal Situation
Obviously, in the ideal situation we do not even have to concern ourselves with being friendly. Being friends with these people before us (no matter the age) is not why we are here. We are here to teach ballet. Period.
We go into class, we give corrections, we spark inspiration, we build motivation, we hone in on weaknesses, we highlight strengths, we speak, we command, we demand, we insist, we listen, we hear, we adapt, we think, we create, we imagine, we ask, we answer. We do so many things. But what we don’t do is worry about if we are being friendly.
Quite frankly, to give a solid ballet class there just aren’t enough minutes available to spend on being friendly. That is not to say we are mean. No one wants to learn from a mean or rude person so it would not serve us well to antagonize, ignore, or belittle our students. Plus, those negative things only take up minutes just as being friendly does.
Bottom line: We are neither friendly nor unfriendly. We are teachers.
Of course, I don’t know everyone’s experience, but drawing from my own I can say there are far more schools that say they want professional teachers than there are schools who actually want professional teachers.
Outside Of The Ideal
I believe many schools simply are unaware of what true ballet teaching looks like. It is not for the weary or the faint of heart, that is for sure. But it also promotes all those qualities they claim to want for their students—self confidence, grace, strength, technique, a positive learning environment, focus, attention to detail, etc. Ballet does all of this and so much more.
I am a pretty severe introvert. I care deeply for humanity and individuals, but I seriously am not concerned about appearing warm and inviting. Allocating my energy to ensuring people find me friendly is entirely exhausting. Seeing as this is my personality, it is rather frightful when suddenly I become aware that my job hangs in the balance if I can’t manage to put on a smile and act cheery for my students.
Yet, this is exactly what many schools ask us teachers to do. And because most ballet teachers can’t afford to simply walk away from a paying job, we make attempts to give the people what they ask for while maintaining as much of our integrity as we can.
I imagine the experience is not so different for teachers who reside on the opposite side of the personality spectrum. Sure, they may have a slightly easier time being conversational with their students, but ultimately good teachers know chit chat needs to be restricted in the studio. We come into the ballet studio to work, not to socialize.
So What Do We Do?
First, I admit: I have no idea.
Second, I will say that I have done some experimenting with a degree of success. Here is what I have discovered:
- There has been a misunderstanding. When a director (or parent or student) comes to me with the “you aren’t friendly” talk it generally means they have misunderstood my intentions. When I view it from this perspective it helps me relax a bit. Come down from my “I know how to teach ballet and being ‘friendly’ does not factor in. Please, let me do my job” edge. Granted, it is still a frustrating conversation to have, but at least I have changed my mindset from defending myself to trying to help them understand my approach.
- Be prepared to look extra hard at your students. As teachers, we are already working so hard at knowing who we are teaching because we recognize that knowing our students has a great capacity to unleash their potential. However, when placed in a situation where my teaching methods are viewed as “not nice enough”, I really have to go the extra mile to understand why they are there in the first place (usually it is not to learn ballet), what it is they are wanting from me, and am I able/willing to give that to them?
- Stop caring so much. This is, for me, the hardest challenge. I teach directly because I care about keeping good ballet alive. But sometimes that passion comes across indifferent or demeaning to those who have not been exposed to the same level of ballet training as I have. When I am able to calm the flames of my passion for ballet, I feel myself less stressed out over the fact that I am not teaching ballet to its fullest. (Admittedly, writing that out makes me feel a little teary.) It is not that I am watering down how much I adore excellent ballet, it is simply that I am subduing it for a class period or two so that I have a better chance at relating to my students.
- Adjust priorities. I have had the most success with this. In my regular teacher mode, my priority is to find the weakness; to give the correction; to help make the dancing better. But in these “not ideal” situations, I have turned that upside down. My priority is to find the strength. If you look hard enough, you can almost always find one positive thing to say. Even if it is totally unrelated like, “Your skirt twirled so pretty during that combination!”. I know, I know. Commenting on pretty skirts is not teaching ballet. But, if it can get you to a place where your students will listen to a correction you have, then, in a way, it is cultivating an environment in which you can teach.
To sum up, my suggestion is to use friendliness as a tool and to build your skills with this tool. If the tool is not needed, that is wonderful. Leave it behind. But when you step into a class where you sense friendliness could serve you well, then pull it out and wield as much power from that skill as you possibly can. Hopefully, you will be rewarded with getting to use it less and less as time carries on.
As professional ballet teachers in “not ideal” situations, it really is up to us to bring real ballet to these places. If we don’t do it, no one will. The frustration that comes along with this task is not insignificant. It is valid to feel restricted, disillusioned, and unable to give anything of value.
But we have so much to give. We have ballet.