Student helpers and teaching assistants have much to offer, much to gain
By Steve Sucato
When it comes to running a successful dance studio, taking advantage of all your available resources is key. One of the best resources for any studio is its student body. Student teaching assistants and demonstrators or class assistants can be an invaluable addition to your workforce. By developing a program in which students learn to function in these roles, you create a win–win scenario: Students aid in the school’s day-to-day operations while gaining valuable teaching and leadership skills.
With the proper training, students can provide additional sets of eyes, ears, and hands in the classroom to help with a number of tasks. These can include maintaining order, demonstrating steps, running warm-ups, and in some cases, taking over for a teacher who has been called from the room.
Setting up a program
While the needs of individual studios can vary, many working models of student helper programs have several basic aspects in common, such as the tasks teaching assistants and demonstrators are given and the ways in which the students are compensated for their efforts.
The size of your student helper program and the number of demonstrators and teaching assistants you utilize will depend on the number of students and classes at your studio, your target teacher/student ratio (for instance, a class of a dozen students at a teacher/student ratio of 1:6 would require the use of one student helper in addition to the teacher), as well as your budget for compensating these helpers.
For many studio owners with student helper programs, such as Melissa Hoffman, owner of Melissa Hoffman Dance Center in Hudson, New Hampshire, a two-front approach is the preferred choice. Hoffman’s program uses a combination of student demonstrators and student teaching assistants.
Student helpers’ hours can vary depending on each studio’s need and each student’s availability. For demonstrators and greeter/escorts, 1 to 3 hours per week is typical, whereas teaching assistants tend to work 3 to 10 hours per week or more. In most cases, the studio owners interviewed schedule their assistants to work on days they will be at the studio for their own classes.
Demonstrators are usually young students who have the skills to act as an example in the classroom for others to imitate. “Student demonstrators have no voice in the class,” says Hoffman. “They don’t make corrections, lead warm-ups, or discipline other students.”
The age at which student demonstrators begin varies from studio to studio. Hoffman starts them at age 13 while Jennifer Kups, owner of Studio J Academy of Dance in Beachwood, Ohio, has demonstrators as young as 10. To train them, she pairs them with older and more experienced demonstrators or student teaching assistants.
Other typical responsibilities of student demonstrators include organizing and lining up younger students for class, helping them with their shoes, helping them use the bathroom, and doing light housekeeping and office duties. Additionally, they can serve as onstage demonstrators to guide young dancers through their routines during dress rehearsals or recitals.
Hedy Perna, owner of Perna Dance Center in Hazlet, New Jersey, takes a different approach to the use of her younger student assistants, whom she calls “interns.” Her studio has a drop-off service in which the interns greet young children at the car, escort them into the studio, help them with shoes and coats, and line them up for class. This eliminates the need for parents to come into the school when dropping off their children. During classes the interns help around the studio with office work and housekeeping duties, while older student teaching assistants handle all classroom helper duties.
Teaching assistants, usually older and upper-level students, act as direct assistants to the primary teachers during class. In addition to (or instead of, in some cases) the duties of student demonstrators, student teaching assistants are often given tasks with more responsibility and that require more skills, such as organizing the music for a class and operating the sound system. They also might lead warm-up exercises, do costume and shoe fittings, and make small corrections. They even can act as substitute teachers when needed. Additionally, assistants can help at recital time by organizing costumes and scenery, working backstage, or serving as onstage demonstrators. They can escort children to the performance areas at competitions as well as aid in studio events such as registration and back-to-school days, parties, and picture days.
Choosing the right students
The jobs of student demonstrator and teaching assistant are just that—jobs—and as in any hiring process, employers should look for certain qualifications and qualities.
Since no one knows the students at your studio better than you and your staff, the process of choosing potential demonstrators and assistants begins there. Like most of the studio directors interviewed for this article, Suzie Wrobel, assistant director of Dance Spectrum in Depew, New York, relies on teacher recommendations in choosing potential student helpers. “Our teachers look for students who seem patient and could talk to other students and relay instruction without being intimidating,” says Wrobel.
With the proper training, students can provide additional sets of eyes, ears, and hands in the classroom to help with a number of tasks.
Whether you post jobs that are open to all students or invite certain ones to apply for the positions, like Wrobel, you’ll want to look for certain qualities in potential student helpers.
Perna has developed a list of criteria for assessing a student’s potential as an assistant:
- Responsibility and dependability
- Technical ability
- Personal initiative and work ethic
- Respectful attitude and behavior
- Maturity, readiness, and enthusiasm
- Loyalty and commitment to the studio
Other qualities to look for include an outgoing personality and level of comfort in speaking aloud in a classroom full of students (and sometimes parents). Have the students demonstrated that they work well with younger children? Can they handle the added workload in their schedule?
Once they have chosen their student helpers, many studio owners work with them before and during the school year to train them for their jobs. Dance Spectrum holds ongoing classes for student helpers that teach them not only how to do specific tasks but also how to identify proper technique in children.
For example, in a training class, Wrobel has her students call out instructions about body positions during head isolations in a jazz warm-up. “I teach them what to do and what to look for in every exercise,” she says. “If they cannot correct themselves, they cannot correct someone else.”
Other studios pair new demonstrators and assistants with veteran ones for on-the-job training instead of holding separate training classes.
Regardless of the method employed, it is important that both the student helpers and the teaching faculty feel comfortable with the helpers’ capabilities. Some studios go as far as requiring their assistants to be enrolled in each discipline they assist in.
While some studios’ student helpers work on a volunteer basis, most studios compensate them in some manner. Rates of cash compensation vary from school to school. Demonstrators and greeter/escorts might be paid a starting wage of as little as $1 to $3 an hour, depending on age and experience. Student teaching assistants typically make minimum wage or higher.
“I pay my student teaching assistants like a real job,” says Hoffman. “The ones who are old enough are put on my payroll. For the older girls who assist, this is a way of making extra money for going out and [paying for] gas without having to seek other employment outside the studio that might interfere with their training.” She pays her assistants $6.50 to $8.50 an hour.
Like other studio owners, Hoffman feels that treating student helpers as employees adds more weight to the positions and encourages the students to take their responsibilities seriously. When some form of compensation is attached to the job, student helpers are more likely to show up to work on time and be prepared for class. Most studio owners expect them to arrange for another student helper to cover for them when they know they will be absent.
Other studios, instead of paying students directly, offer tuition or community service credits as compensation. At Perna Dance Center, student assistants and interns earn $2.50 per hour in tuition credit. These alternative forms of compensation work best for underage demonstrators and teaching assistants who cannot be paid a wage.
Although child labor laws vary from state to state (check your state’s requirements), jobs like these fall under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The act sets wages, hours worked, and safety requirements for minors (individuals under age 18). The rules vary depending on the age of the minor and the job involved. As a general rule, the FLSA sets 14 as the minimum age for employment and limits the number of hours worked by minors under the age of 16. See the U.S. Department of Labor website (dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor) for more information.
Benefits to schools
Benefits of employing student helpers include allowing the primary teacher to cover more material in a class, keeping classes moving and on time, offering additional individualized attention to students, lowering the student–teacher ratio in classes, and promoting younger students’ engagement in the class, who look up to the student helpers and want to be like them.
And there is a long-term benefit, too, Wrobel says. “You know what you are getting as a teacher if these assistants someday want to join your faculty. You are training them the way you want them to teach, and you know when you put them in a class they are going to continue that legacy. When you bring in someone from the outside, you really don’t know what kind of teacher they are going to be.”
Benefits to student helpers
For the student demonstrators and teaching assistants themselves, these jobs allow them to earn wages or scholarship money, provide them with basic training as a dance teacher, and generate valuable job and life skills.
“Assisting classes has taught me a lot about how to be a good teacher,” says 17-year-old Amanda Shaw of Melissa Hoffman Dance Center. A student demonstrator and assistant since age 9, Shaw feels that she has a new sense of responsibility and an even greater love for dance because of her work as a student helper.
“Being an assistant teacher has taught me skills useful in any job,” says Shaw’s fellow student Jaclyn Hoffman, the studio owner’s daughter. Jaclyn, also 17, doesn’t see a teaching career in her future, but she says that her experiences as an assistant have helped her became more responsible and more confident in herself and her ability to take charge of groups.
Another benefit, says Dominique Alioto, an 18-year-old student teaching assistant at Studio J, is being in more dance classes. “I take the corrections the teacher gives to the other dancers in the classes I assist in and apply them to myself,” says Alioto. “Even though I have taken the classes before, I keep trying to improve.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of a student helper program is the reason your dance studio might exist in the first place: It promotes the love of dance and provides a way to share it with others.
Says Alioto, “I like helping younger students get a step and seeing the smile they get knowing they have accomplished something. It is exciting to see.”
What more could you ask for?
How to Be a Great Teaching Assistant
5 tips from Hedy Perna to share with students
1. Talk to your teacher. No matter how experienced you are as a dancer or student assistant, you need to talk to the teachers of the classes you are assigned to assist in. Ask them exactly what your duties will be. Do they want you to operate the music system or take attendance? Also find out how much input they want from you in class.
2. Pay attention to routine. Younger children often do not do well with change. In order for students to learn, they must have a regular and repetitive routine upon which to build basic technique. Write down the order of the class and instructions given to the students. Use the same teaching style and technique weekly. Repeat the same instructions and verbiage that the teachers use. Try to emulate the teachers as much as possible, using similar vocal emphasis and tone.
3. Take notes. Not only does note taking help you to remember the pattern of a class, the students’ names, and teaching hints, but your notes can be used later should you pursue a teaching career. Be prepared to take notes for the teacher if needed. Every step or combination taught in classes you assist in should be written in your notebook. By using those notes in subsequent classes, you should be able to repeat a combination confidently and capably.
4. Be proactive. Help students pay attention in class. At the appropriate times, round up students quickly so the teachers don’t have to stop what they are doing to tell you to organize the students. Help younger children with their shoes, coats, and the like, and accompany them to the bathroom if they need help. Learn every student’s name.
5. Be a great example. Know your dance terminology. Be flawless in your technique. Look professional in dress and demeanor and always be friendly and project an upbeat mood. Most important, always be prepared for class.