Pedagogy – The Art, Science or Profession of Teaching

The following post was made by Suzanne Kirsch, a superb ballet educator and colleague in Michigan:

Pedagogy- Webster’s definition is “: the art, science, or profession of teaching; especially : education”. Do you think this is a necessity in the dance teaching profession? How best to obtain it?

This query relates to a post I made on February 9, 2017 “Teaching What We Know”, in which I discussed our obligation to be fully trained in a dance discipline if we are going to teach it. In that post I discussed how dancers are trained differently in different genres of dance, and in order to be effective, the teacher must be fully trained in that genre. But Suzanne’s question goes deeper; here she is looking at how we come to our teaching methods, how we formulate our teachings, HOW we pass on our traditions.

So in looking at this question, I truly believe that there is more than one way to learn “the art, science or profession of teaching” dance. But regardless of how the knowledge is obtained, an effective teacher must HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE of how and what to teach.

Firstly there is the academically taught, pedagogically trained teacher. This teacher typically has a university degree in dance which in addition to dance technique classes included classes in dance pedagogy, anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, music, composition, dance history and many other related topics. There are also teachers with extensive training in teaching through programs like the ABT National Training Curriculum or the Cecchetti Council of America, where teachers are trained to teach. And typically, these teachers are beautifully trained, very effective teachers. I have met some who are astoundingly good. And sadly, some who are not good at all.

Next there is the professionally trained dancer, who, after going through the rigors of professional dance training (and usually after a performing career), turns to the studio to teach the next generation of dancers. These teachers will typically teach their students in the same manner in which they were taught. Rather than being taught to teach through educational programs, they rely on their memories of their own dance education. Many of these teachers were taught by great teachers and they channel that teaching into their students; passing on what they remember. And typically, these teachers are beautifully trained and often make very good teachers. Some are astoundingly good. And sadly, some are not good at all.

I have witnessed a certain amount of animosity between these two types of teachers that has frustrated and saddened me. When I was training in professional schools in New York, the general opinion was “If you really want good dance training you don’t go to college, because the dance teachers in college programs aren’t that good”. Dancers and teachers coming out of college dance programs were definitely looked down upon. From what I can see of college educated teachers, this opinion is closed minded and unfounded. Similarly, I have met very highly trained and very knowledgeable dance educators who look down upon the professional studio trained dancer who turns to teaching; citing their own extensive education as a requirement for excellent teaching; certain that without their education, it would be impossible to know how and what to teach. Again somewhat closed minded.

And there is no one right way. And there is no one perfect teacher. And students will benefit from many different teachers and many different teaching styles during their training. Students will benefit from a teacher who has extensive training in  pedagogy, anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, music, composition, dance history, etc. Students will benefit from teachers with extensive experience on the professional stage. Students will benefit from teachers who studied with great Master Teachers. No one teacher can give a student everything.  I truly believe that each teacher should be judged on their own merits. “It takes a village”.

But there is a third type of teacher. This is the teacher who went through extensive teacher training, or perhaps professional studio training, or maybe a performing career. This is the teacher who learned their art in a manner consistent with their particular discipline. This teacher does not parrot what their university taught them, or what their great master teacher taught them but takes that knowledge, that training, that art and looks at it in a totally new way. This teacher takes their training, be it pedagogical, professional, or stage experience and allows it to live in their body, to grow in their consciousness, and develop in their heart. And this is the teacher who will bring something deep and rich and personal to the studio. This is the teacher who finds new ways to work with each student’s imperfect body. This is the teacher who will reach and touch those studying under them. And this is the teacher who will help make a dancer and maybe guide a great artist into a career. I strive every day to be that teacher. And every day in the studio I get one step closer. Another relentless pursuit.

3 thoughts on “Pedagogy – The Art, Science or Profession of Teaching

  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, William. This is a beautifully written article with an especially inspiring conclusion. Interestingly enough, Suzanne is a colleague and friend of mine and a truly remarkable dance educator. We have taken class together, taught at the same studios and collaborated in dance teachers’ organizations. I’ll have to show her the thread. She will be happy you shared this post!

    I always say teaching is easy, educating is the difficult part. To be a truly great teacher takes knowledge, experience and a great deal of critical thinking. Throughout the years I have spent countless hours awake at night reviewing the previous days lessons and questioning how I could have better presented something in class, analyzing the outcome and creating intentions for the following class. You are right to say it is a relentless pursuit. And yes, it takes many different kinds of teachers to both educate and inspire today’s students. We have a large responsibility.

    Your original post was regarding the value of aging teachers in the classroom. I have spoken to many exceptional dance teachers in my age group who do feel undervalued and underpaid because the perception is they can no longer teach effectively. Perhaps this is something that is unique to my area. How do we change this? Is this happening in other areas? No one should feel this way after dedicating years to the industry and accumulating a wealth of knowledge. Lots of discussion points here.

    I no longer teach the way I did 30 years ago. I have had to analyze my priorities and seek out those students who genuinely appreciate what I have to offer now. Background, education and experience of the teacher are seemingly overlooked. Parents and students enjoy the false perception of progress by means of immediate and effective results gathered from competition scores rather than choosing the slow and painstaking method of technical training. Again, slightly off topic, but related to how our industry is changing.

    I have recently begun to work with a select group of aspiring ballet dancers teaching a popular dance conditioning technique. My approach now is to make the students do the critical thinking. Activate the muscle, identify its functions. How can these functions be used in a ballet context at the barre and center? How can you apply this information to help reach your personal goals in ballet class. I find this sort of teacher/student collaboration much more rewarding and a way to continue working with dancers. I am putting the responsibility on them and there is freedom in that.

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    • I have known Suzanne for many years and have great respect for her. We first “met” on a ballet website but we have spent time together a number of times…she is FANTASTIC!

      With respect to changing the public’s perception of older teachers….I haven’t got a clue. It is not just a problem in your area. It is everywhere. Those of us who are lucky enough to have landed in pre-professional schools (and let me tell you…a lot of it is luck) don’t really face the problem. All we can do is fight the good fight and keep doing what we do for anyone who is willing and interested.

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      • And…you are clearly a WONDERFUL teacher…any school/student would be lucky to have a teacher who works, prepares, analyzes and cares the way you do. Just keep at it …it’s all,we can do.

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