October 2015 | Thinking Out Loud | Encouraging Young Teachers

By Ryan P. Casey

Like many of my peers, I began teaching dance at a young age. In high school I assisted my tap teacher with her youth classes, and when she was absent I was entrusted to lead the class on my own. Before I knew it, I was teaching my own boys’ tap class and beginning to sub for other local instructors.

This is not uncommon. Many studios delegate teaching responsibilities to older, advanced students, whom they train to become instructors. The cyclical model wherein students, when they reach a certain age and ability, become teachers or assistant teachers is a tried-and-true method at many studios.

But as much as studios encourage young instructors, I have found—as a teacher in my 20s—that youth is sometimes considered a concern rather than an advantage.

Some parents and studio owners express immediate hesitations about young teachers, questioning whether they have the maturity or enough experience for the job. Adult students have sometimes looked askance at me because of the age disparity between us, most likely wondering how I could relate to them or fearing that I would alienate them with footwork that was too fast or intricate for them. On the other hand, being close in age to students can trigger problems too: worries brew that young instructors will blur the boundary between teacher and friend, especially via social media.

But I want to defend my belief that young teachers should be embraced rather than mistrusted.

What I love most about being a young teacher, and what I think is most important about employing young faculty members, is having the opportunity to be mentored.

The decade (or less) separating me from some of my students, which some people might view skeptically, creates what I perceive as a unique bond. These dancers are often most comfortable coming to me—or my colleagues who are my age—for advice, feedback, or meaningful conversation about life. My students and I can relate to each other in a way that fosters a special classroom environment. I’m still young enough to know what kind of music they’d like or what might be an effective anecdote or allusion to use in an explanation, and I can demonstrate the physically taxing steps they want to learn. And while some veteran educators might be set in their ways or reluctant to change their pedagogy, I’m eager to incorporate new ideas and methodologies in my classroom, and I have the physical and mental energy to take intensives and workshops.

But perhaps what I love most about being a young teacher, and what I think is most important about employing young faculty members, is having the opportunity to be mentored by studio owners and older instructors. I feel supported both creatively and emotionally by my employers and am confident that I’ve become a better teacher through our interactions.

Last spring, when I was modifying a counterpoint phrase I had choreographed for an advanced class, I called my boss (formerly my own teacher) into the room to help me determine why it didn’t sound quite right. Together we analyzed the interlocking rhythms, and she helped me identify where I should adjust the counts. I needed to find a moment when the two parts could strike the same notes, rather than have them play two separate phrases. This revelation deepened my understanding of counter-rhythms and has informed my choreography since then.

Yes, a studio can profit from the combination of both established and new teachers, but what’s most important is the mentoring process between the two. Veteran instructors advise and inspire younger ones, who then grow up to become excellent teachers and mentors themselves. Isn’t that one of the reasons we teach in the first place?

Ryan P. Casey, an alumnus of YoungArts, The School at Jacob’s Pillow, Legacy Dance Company, and NYU, is a Boston-based teacher, performer, choreographer, and freelance journalist who directs Ryan P. Casey & Dancers.