How to develop great teaching assistants
Joshua Brooksher teaching class
Using students as teaching assistants seems like a win-win: You have extra hands to help with younger dancers, and the assistants get a taste of what it’s like to be at the head of the classroom. But how can you prepare these potential teachers for the chal- lenges and responsibilities they’ll face? And if a student shows genuine interest in teaching, how can you help her learn more about pedagogy? Refer to the advice from these professionals before letting your students take the lead.
Selecting the right students to begin teacher training is important. Sometimes teachers pick the most proficient students in terms of technique, but they aren’t always the right choice; the danc- ers might excel without an understanding of what they are doing. “The student should have a critical eye, so she can aug- ment the teacher,” says Tom Ralabate, chair of the department of theater and dance at SUNY Buffalo and national chair of education strategy for Dance Masters of America. “Somebody who is able to demonstrate but is also articulate can help with teaching effectiveness.”
Begin by making sure your teaching assistants are familiar with your syllabus. Joshua Brooksher, artistic director of Southwest Classical Dance Institute, has his teaching assistants study the first five years of his syllabus at the start of the process. “Then they’ll ‘intern’ for a year,” he explains. “They’ll observe and see how I relate to the kids.” His interns also attend faculty meetings, where they discuss ways to better implement the
goals designed for each class.
And before young assistants step into the classroom, emphasize that teaching is not just showing the steps, as some dancers who enter the teaching world tend to do. “Assistants need to be aware of the creative process and the pedagogi- cal process,” says Elsa Posey, president/ director of National Registry of Dance Educators and director of the Posey School of Dance on Long Island.” Or else they’re just showing the class that they can do it. They’re not teaching anything.”
Learning the Rules
Before students assist in class, they should know the studio’s policies and procedures. What should they do if a student refuses to stop talking in class? How should they deal with disruptive students? If time allows, address these issues in a short seminar. Trainees can create mock scenarios, improvising problems and solutions. “If you videotape the seminar session,” Ralabate explains, “it becomes a tool, allowing studio assistants to see themselves as other people see them in the situation.”
In the Classroom
It can be tempting to leave a teaching assistant alone with a class. But these dancers are inexperienced and need professional guidance. “They can be giving the wrong information,” says Ralabate, “making corrections and not going about it the right way, which will reinforce bad habits.” The absence of an adult in the room also creates a liability issue. Teaching assistants need supervision until they are qualified to lead a class on their own.
It’s a good idea to have students assist with younger levels first. If they work with students closer to their own age, it can be difficult for them to establish a sense of authority. Brooksher requires at least a six-year age difference between assistants and students. “It’s much harder for a 15-year-old to take class from someone who’s 17,” he says. “It’s too easy for them to become buddies and breach the teacher/student barrier.”
If a talented student assistant expresses interest in learning more about pedagogy, suggest that she enroll in a university or college teacher training program. At these programs, students learn about special topics such as wellness, choreography and improvisation. Many offer courses in anatomy and kinesiology, so students can see how movement works in another body. Some even dip into areas of psychology and child behavior. Safety issues are also addressed. “How you work within the space you have, what the floor is like, what the lighting is like and how to work the heat and air-conditioning: All those things are the responsibility of the teacher,” says Posey.
If your teaching assistants aren’t able to enter a university or college program, they can also supplement their studio training with individual academic classes or intensives. The key is to have them gain as much information as possible before they step to the front of the class and assume more responsibility. “It’s about fostering the creative process,” Posey says, “and enabling students to understand teaching as an artistic field.” DT
Julie Diana is a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet.
* Avoid using the phrase “student teacher,” which isn’t appropriate for a young dancer who is still learning. Instead, use the title “student assistant” or just “assistant.”
* How should you compensate teaching assistants? That’s up to you. Many are considered interns, so they are unpaid but benefit from hands-on experience. Other assistants are paid by the hour or receive free tuition for the classes they take themselves.
Teacher Training Programs
To learn more about pedagogy, consider these (and other) respected sources:
American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum certification program: abt.org/education/teachercertification.asp
Chicago National Association of Dance Masters’ Teacher Training School: cnadm.com/teacher-training.php
Dance Masters of America Teachers Training School: dma-national.org/pages/tts/805
Dance Teachers’ Club of Boston Dance Education Training Course: danceteachersclubofboston.com/id7.html
Photo: Joshua Brooksher teaching class, courtesy of Joshua Brooksher