The Substitute Teacher

Having trained exclusively in open classes and having taught for the past several years in The Joffrey Ballet School’s open class program, I have had many opportunities to observe what happens when a teacher is absent and has been replaced by “the sub”. I have looked at this situation from all three vantage points:

1) As the student who shows up for class expecting a particular teacher and being faced with a teacher who is completely unknown to me.
2) As the teacher who must miss a day of work and is handing over his students to trusted colleague.
3) As “the sub” who must walk into a nearly empty room and face students who were expecting someone else altogether.

I remember when I was training, how most of my colleagues reacted to an unannounced sub for an open class; they simply didn’t take class. This was something that I never quite understood. I was there for class. I was there to train; and daily training is essential to the success of a dancer. I may have been disappointed that my teacher (the person to whom I was trusting my professional development) was not going to be teaching but I always felt that the sub’s class would certainly be better than no class at all. And, of course, YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU MIGHT LEARN; even from a teacher that you might know (and might not like).

Teachers (good teachers) care very much about their students’ training and take their work very seriously. Handing off my students to a sub can be very stressful; my students’ growth and success is extremely important to me and I can honestly say that since I started teaching open classes, I have been absent exactly once. Also, teachers who teach open classes have an enormous amount of pressure on them to fill their class rooms. Studio owners and program directors need full rooms for their studios and schools to function, and in many cases (not all) teachers are paid a percentage of the monies collected on their classes. I have always felt that providing consistency to students is part of being a successful and effective teacher in the open class setting… and students expect you to be there…and so except in very rare and extraordinary circumstances, I am there.

I have, on a few occasions, been the sub for an open class. I remember hearing the murmurs of disappointment at the front desk as students checking in are informed that their teacher is out and that I will be teaching them that day (that does a lot for the ego). I remember teaching three students one Easter Sunday at Broadway Dance Center in New York City. I went to work on a Holiday. I had three students. And it was my job to teach those three students with every ounce of energy and professionalism I had. It wasn’t easy; but it was my job.

But sometimes class with a sub can be pretty great, and in once case for me it was a life-changing experience. A good number of years ago I went to Steps on Broadway to take class. There was a sub. I knew there would be a sub. The regular teacher of that class had originally asked me to sub that class for him but Steps had another teacher in mind. I had been trying to get a teaching career off the ground, but kept hitting roadblocks. No one seemed to want to hire me and I was becoming more and more frustrated with the dance industry in New York. And so, here I was facing yet another disappointment in my career. But I always felt “the sub’s class would be better than no class at all” and “you never know what you might learn” so I took that class. When I got to the studio, I found out that the class was going to be taught by Lisa Gajda, a legendary Broadway dancer with a staggering list of credits. I took my place in the back of the room (being the only dancer over 40 in the studio) and allowed the younger professionals and aspiring professionals to take the prime spots in the front. During the plies Ms. Gajda came up to me and asked “Who are you?”. “Nobody.” I responded. She then said: “Because I’m looking at you and I’m thinking that YOU should probably be teaching ME a few things”. After that class we chatted a bit on Facebook and I figured I had met a pretty terrific new person. And then, as often happens with these sorts of things…we lost touch. More than a year later I received an email from CAP21, the musical theater conservatory. They were offering me a job as a ballet teacher. They had gotten my name from LISA GAJDA. That job at CAP21 lead to employment at New York Film Academy, Broadway Dance Center and my beloved Joffrey Ballet School which has become my professional home.

Life changing.

6 thoughts on “The Substitute Teacher

  1. you write so beautifully Bill and so true…i actually got my start as a teacher in NYC by subbing at Theatre Dance for my former teacher, Michael Owens and would you believe that was 34 years ago!
    thereafter, Joe Lanteri asked me to cover for him at Steps On Broadway. and i am still teaching there today 30 years later!
    one can always learn and sometimes- you can even learn more or gain more inspiration from a sub…
    always loved Lisa Gadja as a young dancer -we took class together and she was fearless!

    Like

    • Dear Roberta, thanks so much for your comment and your support. You and your beautiful class have always been an inspiration for me.

      Like

  2. you write so beautifully Bill and so true…i actually got my start as a teacher in NYC by subbing at Theatre Dance for my former teacher, Michael Owens and would you believe that was 34 years ago!
    thereafter, Joe Lanteri asked me to cover for him at Steps On Broadway. and i am still teaching there today 30 years later!
    one can always learn and sometimes- you can even learn more or gain more inspiration from a sub…
    always loved Lisa Gadja as a young dancer -we took class together and she was fearless!

    Like

  3. Bill,

    I will never forget that day and I am over the moon to have been a tiny part of what was obviously your destiny. I mean it sincerely when I say your students are unbelievably lucky to have you. They don’t make many teachers like you.

    With genuine respect,

    Lisa

    Like

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