As a future educator, I often worry about whether I will be able to give my future students everything they deserve. School always came naturally to me. I liked it, I understood it, and I was good at it. But I know that this isn’t the case for all students. Some students are English language learners who are learning the content at the same time as the language; some have learning disabilities; some have to work hard to understand what comes easy to others. These students all deserve an effective teacher who can understand what they are going through, appreciate their hard work, and help get them to where they need and want to be. I used to worry that because I never personally experienced a lot of difficulty learning, my good intentions alone might not be enough for me to be that teacher and to connect with those students in the way that they deserve. And then, I took ballet.
Before the ballet PDP (Physical Development Program) I am taking this semester, I had never taken a dance class. I have no sense of rhythm and I’m not very graceful. To add to this list, I’ve never taken French and am not that familiar with the muscular anatomy of my body. Although it is only beginner’s ballet, I get lost a lot and it can get frustrating. From the first day of class, my instructor has referred to everything we do by its proper term—relevé, plié, glissade, jeté, échappé. At the beginning of the semester, being told to relevé in the first position meant nothing to me—I didn’t even know what the first position was. Although I’ve learned the foot positions, there are still a lot of words and steps I struggle to remember. My instructor calls out the steps as we’re doing them in order to guide us. Only, I can’t remember what the words mean so listening to her call them out doesn’t help me at all. The only way I am able to follow along with what we are doing is by mimicking her actions or those of my classmates. Sometimes I have the steps right but need to improve my form. When this happens, my instructor will refer to the specific muscles that I should be using to preform each action. This might be helpful if I knew any of the muscles she refers to.
Sometimes I think I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be and exactly what everyone else is until my instructor corrects me on something, telling me to straighten my leg or point my toes. I thought that’s what I was doing. To further complicate matters, we are dancing on an 8-count (whatever that means). I know that this elusive count that I can’t decipher is supposed to tell me when to do each step. Knowing that I’m supposed to jeté on four and relevé on six doesn’t help me if I have no idea when four or six are occurring, which I don’t. Again, I have to mimic the movements of the class and just hope that I have the timing right. Through my mimicry, I slowly figure things out and can eventually do them on my own and put an action to the word. But sometimes we move on to the next, more difficult step before I can master the first. When this happens, I don’t have the appropriate foundation or background knowledge to learn the new step and find myself feeling frustrated—why can’t I just understand it as quickly as everyone else? Is there something wrong with me?
Over the course of this semester I have learned a lot about ballet and even though it is still difficult sometimes, I definitely know a lot more than when I started. But more importantly, I have unexpectedly learned a lot about those students who sit in the back of the classroom and use every ounce of energy they have trying to figure it out only to be told that they still aren’t doing it right. Those students who feel lost and like the class is moving too fast and who wonder to themselves, why can’t I just understand it as quickly as everyone else? Is there something wrong with me? Despite the fact that ballet can be frustrating for me and I’m not very good at it, I like it anyway because it’s a low stakes activity—it doesn’t matter if I’m good or not. Unfortunately this isn’t the case for those students who are putting everything they have into being able to continue on to the next grade level or to get into college. School for these students can be both frustrating and high stakes and because of this they often grow to resent it, to decide to not even try at all.
As educators, we have to prevent this burn out. We have to check for understanding and make sure we aren’t leaving students behind and that we aren’t make assumptions about the language or outside references that our students understand. We have to rephrase things and use different sources of input. We have to understand and appreciate what hard effort looks like and celebrate when our students do well. We have to work as hard as these students are to make sure that they get to where they need to be. We have to make sure that we send our students the message that no, there is nothing wrong with you.