I am teaching for the instructor I studied with for 15 years. The parents request me for a teacher and I get letters from former students thanking me for the confidence I’ve given them through dance—and in return I get snide comments and what I now recognize as jealousy from my employer. For nine years my instruction, choreography, and methods have been scrutinized by her. (Her daughter is also a teacher.)
I don’t want to bash my employer since I learned a lot from her, but I also learned from many other teachers over the years. My dilemma is that I feel creatively and emotionally drained. I don’t want to desert the students, but when every dance I choreograph, every plié I do, or even every costume I look at is said to be stale or boring, I just want to move on. Judges always say my pieces are creative and innovative, but my employer told me that I need to change my style. I represent her studio! I do this for her!
I feel loyalty and tried to tell her I need to leave before bad blood is created. I’m scared to teach the way I like to and I am creatively depleted. Please help. —Unhappy
Your frustration is coming through loud and clear. It sounds like you are teaching in a toxic environment that has to change, but given your long history with your former teacher/boss it is worth the effort to make one more attempt to clear the air.
Make an appointment to meet with her, maybe outside of the studio so that you both can be on neutral territory. Make it a public place so that you both will have to present yourselves in a professional manner.
Start by expressing your loyalty to her for all that she has taught you and for the opportunity to teach at her school. Let her know that you really enjoy teaching but that based on her constant criticism you feel like you are not giving her what she wants.
Instead of referring to her snide remarks, put your concerns in question form. For instance, “You are asking me to change my style; can you give me an example of what you think is wrong with my current style?” Let her answer without interruption, and listen closely to determine if there is any validity to her opinion. Also, ask her why judges call your work creative or innovative and why she doesn’t see it that way.
Don’t bring up her daughter or the jealousy you perceive. It’s better to make this about you and your employer so that she doesn’t become defensive about her child.
It is important that she know that you cannot continue to work where you feel creatively or emotionally drained, in a setting where you are constantly criticized or discouraged. Explain that you don’t want to leave but that you need to feel appreciated and encouraged to grow as a teacher.
If things don’t change, then I would advise you to move on to a school that will let you work with confidence in who you are and what you believe to be solid teaching practices. I wish you the best. —Rhee
More than a year ago, I was teaching a class when a student broke her ankle. I called 911 immediately and grabbed an ice pack. The child was hysterical. Because her parents weren’t at the school I rode in the ambulance with her. Her parents met us at the emergency room, where they thanked me for taking good care of their daughter. I stayed there for hours to be sure that the student was OK. She was out of dance for several weeks.
While she was recovering, she observed her classes because we were heavy into choreography and she didn’t want to miss it. When her cast was removed and she had finished physical therapy she came back to class and danced for the rest of the year before leaving for college.
Last week I received a letter from the family’s attorney asking me to come in for a deposition because the parents had filed a lawsuit against me personally and my business. They feel that I was negligent in caring for the injured child and that I encouraged her to return to class before the injury had healed. Therefore, they say, the child is now suffering from a permanent injury that I am responsible for.
I have hired an attorney I cannot afford, and my insurance company has an attorney as well. I am doing my best to recall the things that happened and were said that night so that I can be prepared for the deposition. I am nervous that this situation is going to cost me a fortune and that my insurance is going to be canceled. The hardest part about all of this is that the child seemed completely healed before she returned to dancing. She brought me a note from the physical therapist that said she was cleared to return to class.
Do you have advice on how to handle this? I am completely lost. —Karen
I have dealt with this kind of situation before, and the attorney did cost a lot of money, but in the end I was cleared of all negligence. Here’s what I learned along the way.
When an injury takes place, either at the studio or at a performance, you need to make an accident report. This means that you write down everything that happened in great detail, including what the injured party was doing when the accident occurred and everything the injured party says and does. In this case, I would have written down what the parents said at the hospital as well.
Next, you should ask all witnesses to write down what they observed. Another important thing to do is to have a camera available to take pictures of the child, her injury, and the surroundings. That way you have a much easier time recalling what took place long after the incident. These actions also give the lawyers the impression that you are organized and responsible, which could discourage the lawsuit in the first place.
At this point, I suggest writing down everything you can remember. Ask your students or anyone else involved to write down what they recall, too. It’s very important to bring to your attorney’s attention the letter from the physical therapist clearing the child to dance. If there’s a video of the injured child performing or taking class after she was cleared to return, it could help you prove that the child did not appear to have any signs of a permanent injury after the fact.
When I went through this situation, I discovered that a large percentage of these types of lawsuits are dismissed and that the lawyers are really looking for a payoff from your insurance company and not you. Obviously I am not an attorney and you need to follow the advice of yours in this matter, but do provide as much information as you can that defends your actions.
It is easier said than done, but try not to panic. Let the professionals handle the legalities and you do the best that you can to behave professionally during the deposition. In the long run you will be smarter and stronger for this experience. Good luck. —Rhee
All of my life I have danced or taught dance, but today I am dealing with serious health issues that are going to cause me to stop teaching. I don’t know what I will do without dance in my life because it is all that I know and it is my passion. My family keeps telling me not to worry because I will be able to collect disability and not have to worry about anything, but what they don’t understand is that dance is not about money for me, it’s who I am. No one around me understands what I am going through and I’m hoping you might offer me some words of wisdom. —Katherine
I am sorry that you are dealing with this illness. You are not alone when it comes to your passion for dance and the fear of giving it up. My responsibilities as a publisher and speaker now keep me from teaching, but I still think of myself as a dancer. That’s because dance is in my blood and nothing can take that away from me—nor you.
If your health permits it, look for new ways to be involved in the dance world. You could consider writing about your experiences as a dancer and teacher. You might be able to consult for other teachers or work in a management position for a school. You could create a curriculum based on your years of experience and knowledge. I see a dance world that has endless possibilities for everyone who “knows the passion.”
Take care of your health, but don’t think that you can’t continue to share your expertise and love for dance unless you teach. You have many options to continue in the world you love so much. I wish you all the best. —Rhee