The growth of a teacher is a fascinating process to witness. Having observed many teachers, I’ve noticed some common trends in the way teachers progress in their practice. For simplicity and the sake of this article, I have divided the growth process into 4 phases.
Phase I: Beginning
Where they are:
The brand new teacher may format classes a bit randomly at first. Warm-ups might not connect to the goal for the day, and there may not even be a theme. A teacher who is new to either the material or the process of teaching may hesitate to be an authority figure, or they may try to teach things they really don’t understand in an effort to impress. They gradually become aware that becoming a strong teacher is a long process. It involves observing, assisting, practicing on one’s own, cueing colleagues through sequences, studying each skill in-depth, and teaching a ton.
How to move forward:
A teacher in this phase needs structure. They should take and observe more classes, and pay attention to how other teachers structure the learning experience, cue, and respond to students’ needs. It’s important to realize that teaching is a completely different skill set from having a large aerial vocabulary. Teaching involves understanding the body, mind, and heart.
Phase II: Emerging
Where they are:
This teacher may have been teaching for a short while, and is still getting the hang of things in terms of goals and theming. They may have a clear beginning, middle and end in their classes, but feel like they are only one step ahead of their students. Sometimes, stepping into the role of authority figure results in dogmatism (this way is the only right way). An emerging teacher might expect students to perform all skills in exactly the same way, and not understand why their small batch of cues don’t work for everyone. They might also expect every student to learn in the same way. This teacher’s cues are usually based on personal experience of each skill, but they may not necessarily see each student as a unique body/being just yet.
How to move forward:
A teacher in phase II needs to observe many, many different bodies moving in the air. Even people-watching at malls and airports can be enlightening. It’s important to recognize that different bodies require different alignment, cueing, and so forth. Learn to treat each student as a unique individual not just in their movement, but also in their mental processing and emotional landscape (while still maintaining clear boundaries). This teacher should search for new ways to teaching old stuff. Studying anatomy, kinesiology, and even educational psychology can also help. Finally, collecting images and cues from other knowledgable instructors will support this teacher’s ability to work with diverse movers and learners.
Phase III: Expanding
Where they are:
This teacher has likely been teaching movement for an extended period of time. They modify and adjust class content based on the unique bodies and minds in the room. They can easily focus on proper alignment because of their knowledge of the body and their ability to move around the room while cueing and spotting. It’s possible that this teacher is getting bored or burnt out because they have a consistent routine, and they don’t know how to grow from here.
How to move forward:
A teacher in phase III could explore new teaching methods that are outside of their norm (i.e. using global methods, puzzles, etc. instead of always teaching linearly). They might benefit from a deeper study of anatomy, kinesiology, developmental movement, and other movement practices to carry new information back into the aerial studio. Learning to cross-pollinate aerial classes with other movement forms can provide a breath of fresh air if classes are becoming stale. Advancing one’s technique and vocabulary as far as possible is a great goal, but studying the theory behind aerial work may be even more powerful because it leads to invention. And if the teacher understands how skills are invented, then that process can be taught to students also. Then every class will bring out something new and unique.
Phase IV: Innovating
Where they are:
This teacher is evolving the form through experimentation with various teaching methods and the invention of skills. They carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of different movement training systems, and make appropriate choices based on their findings. This teacher focuses on efficient movement patterning (working smarter, not harder) by emphasizing proper alignment, movement phrasing, initiation and follow-through. They appropriately challenge their students, but also encourage rest when it is needed.
How to move forward:
If the phase IV teacher has become caught up in training elite level aerialists, they should remember what it’s like to be a beginner. This teacher could find ways of viewing the most basic skills in a completely different (or deeper) way for a change in perspective. Or, this teacher might finally pursue the pet project they’ve always wanted to but never had time before. Studying another movement form or enlisting a teacher for oneself can also be powerful at this stage. Most importantly, this teacher must remember why they teach in order to sustain their career.
I like to quote movies in my aerial teaching that reveal brilliant life lessons. As a child I could quote The Princess Bride from beginning to end, (anybody want a peanut?) but that’s a story for another time.
While re-watching the Harry Potter series, I found several quotes that apply to aerial teaching. I'll admit it - I have a one-track mind! My favorite character besides Harry is headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore. A great teacher in his own right, Dumbledore (written by J.K. Rowling) is full of wisdom. Here is one of my favorites:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
– Dumbledore, The Chamber of Secrets
Which is more valuable…talent, or character?
Our culture frequently values talent over character. Growing up as a dancer I was complimented for being gifted, not for being a hard worker. I did work very hard, by the way! Through my dance and aerial training I have learned the opposite is true - hard work gets you so much farther than talent.
How does this play out in the aerial studio?
I think it can be easy to give more attention to the talented students. Showering them with praise on their beautiful lines, strength, and so on may send a mixed message that ability is more valuable than grit.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t point out students’ strengths. Everyone has strengths that should be shared because it helps us appreciate and learn from one another. But strength in aerial training involves far more than learning sequences or mastering difficult skills.
An aerialist’s strength is not just what’s on the outside, but also what’s on the inside.
Have you noticed anyone being brave lately? Think of the student who works hard, showing up multiple days per week to overcome their challenges. Or the student who keeps working on the one skill that frightens them the most. Have you noticed students encouraging one another? Or students volunteering to help with set-up or clean-up in the studio? These people show what it means to work like an adult. They know their choices have an impact reaching far beyond themselves.
How can teachers acknowledge the inner strength in students?
When I see a student take an expressive risk (i.e. dancing on the ground before moving into the air), I say, "I appreciate your bravery - keep going!" They may not be aware they are doing something worthwhile until someone else acknowledges it. When a student overcomes a challenging or scary move, I celebrate with them. When a student goes out of their way to be encouraging or help out at the studio, I thank them. Our words can be simple, yet powerful.
Focusing on choice reinforces a studio culture of creating your own destiny and overcoming the odds. Like Harry Potter, we realize it is our choices (not talents) that make us heroes of our own lives.
What stories do you have about overcoming the odds through aerial training?
Please share in the comment section below!
About the Author:
Julianna Hane traded life on a cotton farm to become a dancer and aerialist. She is the author of the Aerial Teacher's Handbook and Director of Training for Born to Fly Productions.
Growing up in the dance field, I remember teachers talking about the difference between giving class and teaching class. I think this idea can be applied to aerial teaching as well. Here is the difference according to dance educators:
When giving class, the teacher guides students through planned sequences so they can follow along. The teacher may somewhat tailor the class to the students, but only to a certain degree since this type of class is usually a master class (a one-time class with a guest instructor).
In the aerial arts, giving class works well for workshop instructors who travel around and teach a wide variety of populations. It also works well when teaching a brand new group of students you have not worked with before (as in a new session or drop-in class).
Workshops and master classes allow students to experience a different teacher’s point of view. It also requires less planning time on the part of the teacher since they usually teach the same workshop in different cities. (After all, how can a workshop teacher plan specifically for students they have never met?) I picture the teacher as the driver and students as passengers along for the ride.
Teaching class, on the other hand, is a different animal. While teachers may still follow a class plan in this situation, the plan is tailored to the specific students who show up to that class week after week. The teacher also offers modifications and variations, and isn’t afraid to change course altogether based on the needs in the room that particular day.
In the aerial arts. teaching class (instead of giving class) is more possible when the same students attend class over a longer period of time. In this situation, I imagine the teacher in conversation with the students at a dinner table. The teacher offers information, the students respond, the teacher answers back, and so on.
Is one better than the other?
Since both giving class and teaching class are effective formats, it is a completely personal choice as to which one you prefer. Some teachers find their niche as workshop teachers since they know how to give a really great class and reach a broad base of students in a short period of time. While I enjoy teaching workshops and meeting new people, my favorite is teaching class because of the back-and-forth conversation that occurs over a longer period of time.
Do you notice a difference between workshop and weekly class teaching? Which do you prefer and why? Do you have any strategies that help you navigate classes versus workshops?
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!
Have you ever noticed how certain teachers have a magic about them, an energy that radiates through the room and invites every student into their world? Some students “get it” instantly; they are motivated to follow the teacher's guidance into the unknown. Others know there is something more there, but not quite sure what. In either case, everyone is engaged, alert, and suddenly curious.
I have been lucky enough to work with teachers like this. My modern dance professors at the University of Utah certainly had that “thing” all teachers hope to have. That magic. That light. That drive. Chatting in the hallways with classmates, I realized I wasn’t the only one amazed by our professors. I have always wanted to be like them, to teach dance in a way that is more meaningful, going beyond the steps into something much deeper. But what is that special “thing” these teachers have? What makes a class “great” and keeps people coming back for more?
I believe it has something to do with the soul of a class, or what my professors called the “why.”
“Why did you choose those exercises? Why are you dancing, or “aerial-ing”?” The why points to motivation: Why do we learn? Why do we teach? I’ll put it another way: What is it you are ACTUALLY teaching?
In my mind, it’s actually NOT dance, aerial arts, or conditioning. It is so much deeper than that. Back in those beautiful mountain view dance studios in Salt Lake City, I learned that:
The “why” is always greater than the “what.”
So why do people move? We move to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. We move to experience joy, sorrow, and all aspects of the human experience. We move to express ourselves, to share our spirit with others. We move to just be. It is so much more than memorizing steps.
We move because it means something to us, and it makes us feel alive.
The same is true in the aerial arts. The moment we finally conquer a new skill, or finish a performance, is a moment we feel truly connected and alive. We feel stronger, brighter, and more aware. We feel fulfilled, even for just a moment. So how do we bring that soul, that feeling of being alive, that “why” into our classes?
Like my dance professors taught me, the why goes deeper than learning the steps. After all, there are only so many things the human body can do. And every teacher will eventually run out of new moves to teach.
The why is about engaging curiosity and creativity...engaging the soul of the learner.
The why allows students take ownership of their learning, making it personally meaningful to them. And then they discover who they are. They have the opportunity to become leaders in their own lives. For some, a new conditioning challenge excites them. For others, figuring out how to work with a cumbersome costume is interesting. In either case, curiosity goes beyond reproducing what a teacher offers, and leads to exploration and invention.
We are pattern seekers and meaning makers. We like to solve puzzles and create. The puzzle might be figuring out how to do a pull-up after a pregnancy, or discovering a wild route into good ole “lion in a tree.” It might involve developing a new character, exploring a new apparatus, or building an entire performance piece using a towel as a prop. When you engage curiosity, you empower students to make discoveries for themselves. They become aware of their incredible potential. They seek it, find it, and own it.
They find the magic in themselves, and you get to watch the lights come on.
And that is the best kind of magic. The kind that is given away, and then reflected all around in the lives of others. So remember, when in doubt:
Capture your students’ curiosity. The why is more meaningful than the what.
Give them a logic puzzle, or a creative assignment. Acknowledge that soul, that spirit, that personal uniqueness they bring to the community. Because the real soul of a class is not in the teacher’s outgoing personality or intricate sequences. It’s in the teacher’s ability to see their students’ uniqueness, and challenge them to go deeper into their own personal why.
I wish you lots of curiosity, creativity, and “Aha!” moments in the New Year. Happy 2016, and Happy Flying!
Our authors include our Master Teacher Trainers as well as Born to Fly™ Certified Teachers.