Support Our Vets

Students benefit from the wisdom of longtime teachers such as Amy Brinkman-Sustache of Danceworks.
Photo courtesy Danceworks

Veteran teachers have much to offer a studio. Here’s some sage advice for keeping them engaged and active.

by Jill Randall

What a gift to have staff members who bring 20, 30, or more years of teaching experience to your program. Their understanding of technique, child development, lesson planning, and choreographing on students is deep and wide. Using an extensive toolbox of strategies and material, the veteran teacher easily works with the dancers in the room and can agilely lengthen or shorten exercises at a moment’s notice.

But there can be struggles too. Some common scenarios with longtime teachers might include the following:

  • Their exercises, vocabulary, or class formats are out of touch with current practices, trends, and aesthetics.
  • They repeat and recycle lessons or choreography too much from past years.
  • Their music selections feel out of date.
  • They no longer regularly take class, perform, or choreograph outside of the studio.

 

Judy Williams Henry of Movement Laboratory with former student Shannon Evans.
Photo by Zorbaugh Evans

Words of concern you might hear from students include stale, static, burned out, predictable, recycled, uninspired, and dated. These strong descriptors are detrimental to most aspects of the life and business of a studio. So how can you, as a studio owner, encourage lifelong learning and a growth mindset in your veteran teachers? How do you make sure your veteran teachers are providing exciting, current, and fresh classes? The answer is much more layered than simply telling a veteran to take a workshop.

 

Pitfalls and solutions

Any conversation between a studio owner and veteran teacher needs to be solution oriented. Here are four common pitfalls facing veteran teachers and some supportive solutions.

 

A teacher has the same level or age group for years on end. For many reasons, the schedule and staffing might remain the same for quite a length of time. When the next dance season comes around, consider mixing up some of the schedule to challenge teachers and students alike. Nothing makes you break out of a rut like a new group of students and a new level or age group. Terry Goetz, director of Creative Dance Center in Seattle, says she tries to examine her teachers’ assignments regularly. “I try to make sure that people are teaching the age group that energizes them and fills them up,” she says. “It is about staying in touch with your staff. Are they happy with the schedule? Is it working for them?”

 

There is power in sharing within a group and in hearing from colleagues. Teachers who work together push themselves to keep questioning and exploring.

Veteran teachers don’t receive regular feedback. It is very common to let seasoned teachers work on their own, while administrative staff put their energy into newer teachers. But the same rigor, feedback, and observation schedule will equally benefit longtime teachers. A dialogue between directors and longtime teachers can provide the time and space to discuss concerns such as burnout and care for the teaching body. “I want to be doing more observations throughout 2018,” says Goetz about her Creative Dance Center staff.

 

The teacher repeats choreography for recitals or competition. Knowing when to repeat dances and when to offer new choreography can be a delicate balance for all staff members. Directors can solve this problem by writing out clear guidelines about how much choreography needs to be new this year for each production or competition season. Set a deadline for all teachers to submit details about their pieces, and set dates to observe all works in progress.

Natasha Posey of Danceworks works with Sue Mae Ooi.
Photo by Ernie Rey Photography

Remember that creating choreography in a studio setting isn’t just about the teacher—it’s about the students as well. Judy Williams Henry, owner of Movement Laboratory in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, asks herself, “What do I need to choreograph for these particular students to move them up and to challenge them?” as she makes dances for her students.

 

The teacher doesn’t take class, perform, or choreograph anymore. Dance careers and priorities shift and change over the decades. Expand the definition of “professional development” to include activities such as observing other teachers, seeing professional performances, and attending shows at high schools and other studios. Ideas and inspiration can come from an array of opportunities, many of which are low cost and easy to find. Goetz explains that studio owners could offer ongoing professional development onsite with teachers teaching fellow teachers. Creative Dance Center holds two or three faculty meetings each year that include up to 60 minutes of movement activities. “Everyone brings something to share,” Goetz says. “This always generates ideas for the whole staff and leads to so many sparks.”

 

Inspiration and collaboration

As teachers, we long for our students to describe us as fresh, evolving, curious, and timely. Kim Johnson, senior director of programs at Danceworks in Milwaukee, emphasizes that inspiration and annual reflection inform her creative work. Because she has been a teacher for 20 years, she says, “My students are my main inspiration. I have had some dancers in my adult classes for more than 12 years now. I care about their progression and have developed a close relationship with them.” In the fall faculty meeting at Danceworks, Johnson says, all teachers share their current inspiration and goals for the year. There is power in sharing within a group and in hearing from colleagues. Teachers who work together push themselves to keep questioning and exploring.

It’s eternally valuable for a teacher to place herself in the position of student.

Danceworks management encourages the studio faculty to connect outside of the faculty meetings by observing each other and taking each other’s classes. Johnson herself takes a ballet class before she teaches her own, she says, “To be reminded why I chose to dance in the first place.” It’s eternally valuable for a teacher to place herself in the position of student.

Judy Williams Henry founded Movement Laboratory 49 years ago. Like Johnson, Henry speaks of the importance of inspiration to her own longtime teaching career. Henry ambitiously teaches every child at her school each year—both new students and those who have achieved the highest levels of ballet. “If not, we lose the thread,” she says. “What keeps me going is, number one, the love of the form, and number two, seeing the potential and the journey ahead for each new child.” Ultimately, Henry says, “You have to decide as a teacher that every day is new. Inspiration has to come from the students. That’s what keeps me going.”

Kechelle Jackson and other Creative Dance Center teachers share ideas and inspiration in regular meetings.
Photo by Terry Goetz

“That shift from teacher as all-knowing to this idea of students and teachers learning and discovering together takes the load off the teacher,” Goetz says. “It is such a beautiful way to teach when there is this give and take.”

 

Honor and recognition

Last, a simple but valuable gesture of verbal recognition at the annual performance can acknowledge teachers as they mark 10, 15, 20, and more years in the profession. You can also highlight these teachers through your website, newsletter, and social media. For whatever format you choose, capture quotes from current students and alumni and take the time to photograph the teachers in action.

Don’t overlook this concept. Veteran teachers are the backbone of your studio. They provide history and integrity, and are models of longevity that students, parents, and colleagues should admire and respect. Gratitude and recognition can keep veteran teachers doing the good work that keeps your studio strong.

 


Jill Randall is a San Francisco Bay Area dancer and artistic director of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. She directs the blog Life as a Modern Dancer.