March-April 2016 | Thinking Out Loud | The Unseen Student

By Avis Sauls

As a dance educator for 20 years and a dancer for 29, I have experienced a spectrum of teacher-to-student relationships. I know that it’s natural for teachers to scan a classroom and group the students according to their abilities; doing so helps us systemize an approach for teaching each student. It’s also natural to be drawn to those students who excel and are easily engaged.

This is where things get tricky for dance educators. As teachers, we have to use our excitement to steer the class and put all students on a path of discovery through the lessons we prepare. This positive driving force sometimes causes us to overlook the dancers who don’t immediately grasp our concepts.

In some cases, dance educators may think they are too good to teach the students who do not catch on initially. Sometimes certain variables—such as figuring out how to get better results from these students or learning how and when to deviate from our prepared teaching plans in response to their unforeseen needs—can delay the class’ progress. As a result, many instructors don’t know what to do with the students whose needs for more explanation or a different teaching style are causing the delay. Not surprisingly, the instructors lose focus on these students, who then become “unseen.”

The potentially unseen student can help us become better teachers, by digging deep to discover new teaching methods.

Why does this happen? It happens because teachers lack the knowledge or will to invest in these students, beyond their first attempts. If educators took the time to fully assess these dancers, they would find that the unseen students have other gifts. And the educators might discover something about themselves—new “aha” moments that inspire them and lead them to expand their teaching methods. Unseen students can, when given the attention they deserve, unlock teachers’ curiosity to dig deeper or enlist colleagues to help them generate ideas that will help the students gain understanding.

All students have different strengths and abilities, and they vary in how they learn and perform. As teachers, we know that but don’t always accept it. But we must. We should deal with these differences in ways that stimulate the classroom or studio atmosphere beyond what we imagined or planned.

Yes, we will encounter students who don’t have the abilities we seek or who don’t grab our attention at first glance. We must remember that all students want our full attention. They want to benefit from our corrections, knowledge, and wisdom. They want to be loved. Our job as educators is to fully maximize the potential of our students and embrace the beauty within each of them.

How do we do this? We emphasize each individual’s strengths and consistently work to help each dancer overcome weaknesses through varied and useful approaches. The potentially unseen student can help us become better teachers, by digging deep to discover new teaching methods. As dance advocates, our goal should be to encourage our students to thrive and appreciate dance artistically, technically, and socially. We all agree this art has codified methods that should be respected; however, we are trusted to reach each student who walks into our classroom. We can accomplish this only by being flexible and diversifying the delivery modes of what we’re teaching. When we don’t do this, dancers are indeed unseen—and underestimated and limited.

Let’s push past our comfort zones and agree that every dancer deserves to be fully engaged by our teaching, and not slighted by our lack of will or insight. Some students may not immediately respond to our expert approaches, but smart teachers realize that what seems to be a hindrance (to the student) or an inconvenience (to the teacher) is actually an opportunity to grow. If we are willing, we can configure new tools and varied teaching styles. And with this new mindset, we can look at each student and think, “I see you.”

Avis Sauls is artistic director, choreographer, dancer, and lead instructor at Essence Dance Company in Dallas, Texas. She has a BFA in modern dance from Texas Christian University.