Technology and Teaching

I am someone who is always been very resistant to change; and technology has always been a big challenge for me. I remember, a number of years ago, receiving a phone call from my sister that went something like this: “There’s this thing on the internet called Facebook. You have to join!“ So I investigated this thing called Facebook, and I thought to myself: “This is not for me.”. As Facebook grew in popularity, I eventually, but reluctantly joined. I opened up a Facebook account, and within five minutes I had a friend request from somebody with whom I had lost touch, and for whom I had been searching for years. And I thought to myself “well maybe it’s not so bad.” It never occurred to me that professional connections could be made through Facebook. I was chatting with friends from elementary school. I was looking at photos of summer camp buddies. It was a pleasant diversion from the stresses of life.

Then one day I got a Facebook friend request from someone named Austin Eyer. I had never heard of him, and up until this point I had never received a friend request from someone that I didn’t actually know. I suspiciously accepted the friend request. He immediately sent me a message offering me a teaching job at CAP21. He had gotten my name from Lisa Gajda (the legendary Broadway dancer), but didn’t know how else to get in touch with me. And so began my teaching career.

After a number of years of using Facebook to reconnect with friends from the past, and share photos with with family, I received an invitation to join a “private group“. There are private groups? Well apparently, there are private groups for everything; and there are private groups for dance teachers. A lot of them. I joined a number of these private groups for dance teachers. I followed the threads. I read the posts. I never really participated. One day I read a post by a ballet teacher who is having a particular problem. I read all of the responses that people made; I disagreed with all of their suggestions. So I decided to offer an opinion. I made my comment; a very long comment. And several people commented on my comment. Two of those comments were: “You should really start a blog“ and “Would you come to Michigan to guest teach at my studio?“. And so my career grew.

At an age when I should have been earning as much money as I could, to save for my retirement, I took what was for me, a very uncharacteristic risk: I left a very lucrative career to become a freelance dance instructor in New York City. Through hard work, determination and an enormous amount of luck, it worked out just fine.

And then came this pandemic. And my teaching career seemed to be crumbling as studios and schools were telling me to stay home; classes were cancelled. Within a week, however, each of the five schools at which I regularly teach had transitioned to virtual teaching. I was now expected to teach on something called Zoom. I hate change. Technology is challenging.

I would like to think that life experience teaches us lessons that stay with us; lessons that revise the way we think. Joining Facebook and starting a blog were ideas to which I was resistant. They represented “change”. I was now responding to Zoom in exactly the same way. But I had no choice and so I reluctantly started teaching on Zoom. Right from the start I made some discoveries about how Zoom would change the way I teach and how Zoom would change the way my students learn. (This is the topic of another article: https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2020/04/22/challenge-teaching-in-the-face-of-a-pandemic/ ). And although I was grateful that nearly my entire teaching schedule had transitioned to Zoom, grateful that my income was still in place during these very unstable times, I felt like “something” was missing. I felt that what I bring to the studio, the quality that makes me “Me”, was not translating to the virtual platform. I just felt like it wasn’t really working.

But then the messages started coming in; message from across the country, and messages from around the globe. Messages telling me that “It’s quite an opportunity to take class in NYC from the comfort of my home in Dallas”. Messages telling me that “You have taken the bull by the horns and are giving your students a full experience”. Messages telling me that “I don’t care how scratchy the connection is, it’s still a connection and still gives me the same feelings that dancing in a studio does. In some ways it’s actually better.” And messages telling me that “You are a beautiful example of everything Arpino, Joffrey and D’Addario aspired the company and training program to be. Thank you!“.

Then the virtual guest-teaching offers started coming in. Guest-teaching has been part of what I do for the last several years. It is something that I love to do, but because of how it can disrupt the training of my regular students, it is something that I do have to limit. Guest teaching can also be very expensive for the schools that invite me, as they incur the costs of travel and accommodations in addition to my fee. But now, thanks to Zoom, I am guest teaching across the country and in Europe as well, with no disruption to my regular schedule and at a much reduced cost to the host studios.

I think that one of the things that I bring to the classroom is an atmosphere in which dancers can learn how to learn. That is clearly still in place. The way I structure a class and the way I choreograph is still in place. How I explain my personal take on technique and artistry is still in place. Obviously teaching virtually will never fully recreate the experience of being in the studio. But I am coming to realize that virtual teaching does many positive facets.

Whenever I face a new group of students I expect them to approach the work with an open mind. I expect them to take the ideas and techniques that I present, and to work on them to their fullest; regardless of what their previous teachers may have taught. Shouldn’t I expect the same from myself? So the next time life presents me with a challenge, presents me with a hurdle to which I am resistant, I hope that I will remember to approach it with an open mind. Because how else can I grow? I have always tried to help my students learn how to learn. This horrible pandemic and the transition to Zoom, to which I was so resistant, have helped ME learn how to learn. And hopefully I will come out of this period of quarantine having made new connections, having reached new students in new places and having grown as an educator.

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