When the Biggest Barrier to Learning is the Teacher

ballet-108698_640Clearly, not everyone is meant to be a teacher. There are still many in the world who believe that teaching simply consists of a knowledgeable individual standing in front of a group of students, imparting knowledge onto them. Not only is this kind of thinking incorrect, it’s also dangerously detrimental to the students and their learning processes.

Yesterday, this was brought vividly to light for me as I attended my second ever classic ballet class. Although I have barely scratched the surface of this amazing art form, having a strong background in teaching both adults and children has made me unusually sensitive to the teaching techniques of other instructors, especially when I happen to be on the receiving end of their instruction. In fact, so important it is to me, that my Master’s degree took almost six months longer than it should have because I would rather drop a course rather than deal with a sub-par professor who clearly was doing it only for the remuneration, had zero interest in the success of their students, and whose teaching skills were particularly bad.

Digressions aside, I was at my ballet class where I met the new teacher – a male instructor who I hadn’t met yet, as the previous week we had someone different. As the evening and 90-minute lesson progressed, it became very obvious to me that a) this man was an INCREDIBLY talented dancer and who would look amazing on stage; without a doubt I would pay good money to see him perform; b) he had NO business TEACHING the same ballet he himself could do so well!

Why not? Well, quite simply, he was incapable of tailoring his teaching style to accommodate a variety of learners, and he was not attentive enough to see and realize that it wasn’t just ME, the complete beginner who was having difficulties, but the rest of the dancers too. Perhaps it would be easier if I just contrasted his style to that of the instructor from the previous week.

Last week’s lesson was great! The teacher’s pace was very conducive to a beginner being able to learn, but it was still sufficiently quick to keep the class moving and the more experienced students from becoming bored or disinterested. Next, she demonstrated each movement at the same speed she expected us to do them, and when it came time to do the movements and routines, she did them with us, providing a constant example of how it should be done.

On the other hand, last night’s instructor tailored his class to only the most talented, senior dancer who already knew all the moves and had everything just about memorized. He would demonstrate the movements and routines quicker than we would be doing, almost as a reminder rather than actual instruction. Then, he would sit on a stool, turn on the CD, and expect all the students to just do their thing. When our timing got off-pace he would just start clapping to the beat of the music and calling out instructions. I wasn’t able to follow nearly as well as I was last week, because the girls on either side of me weren’t instructor material, so when they hesitated or made mistakes with their footwork, I became completely unable to follow or repeat the movements. Then, he had the dancers take a few minutes to do their own stretching… At this time he took the time to ask me whether I could do the splits, and when he found I couldn’t, he just smirked a little and said nothing, which of course made me feel about an inch tall. What a way to instill confidence in a new, beginner student. And a male dancer to boot! He of all people should understand how unusual and difficult it is for men to enter into the ballet world.

Finally, the last part of the class was spent “learning” a routine that would be performed by all the students at a performance in summer. He simply just demonstrated the entire routine at full-speed, once, then as he did before, sat down and expected everyone to repeat his movements. By this point I had already given up and was standing in the back of the class, simply just watching. I felt so demotivated, I wasn’t even willing to TRY to struggle through the movements any more. Why not? Well, the girls around me were absolutely no help, because they were also lost and could not get the steps right. So the instructor would turn on the music, the girls would start dancing, start making mistakes about 10 seconds into the routine, at which point he would shut the music off, re-demonstrate the entire routine again at full speed, and then repeat.

WHY, for the love of Pete, he didn’t just break it down and slow it down is beyond me. If he had only broken down the movements and worked on each component separately before putting it all together. If only he had slowed each movement down to give the dancers a chance to absorb the sequence properly. If only he had gotten his lazy butt off the stool and done the routine WITH the class (slowly) but also at full-speed too… As I stood in the back of the class, watching the girls struggle over and over and over, I could see how completely out-of-touch with the students AND the art of teaching this instructor really was. Now, I know I’m not exactly Baryshnikov here, but I’m no klutz either. I think that’s also the case nine times out of ten for most students who aren’t succeeding… They’re not dummies, but they need an instructor that can relate to them, understand what they are going through, and be willing to experiment with different teaching techniques and modalities in order to reach them.

Above all, the most important part in being a teacher is for us NOT to be the barrier that impedes progress. In the corporate learning and development world, teachers of adults are often referred to as facilitators. If you’re not facilitating – you’re hindering.

How NOT to hinder your students.

It’s probably good to at least learn from the mistakes of others, and in this case, my ballet teacher is a perfect candidate. Here are a few simple, practical ways to avoid becoming a barrier to your students’ learning and otherwise impeding their progress.

  1. Teaching involves doing anything it takes to help a student learn. If it requires breaking down a process down to individual steps, do so. If it requires explaining each step, do so. If it requires being unconventional or breaking norms (within the realm of social and legal acceptability) – do it!
  2. Demonstrating what you mean is FAR more powerful than simply explaining it.
  3. Realize that not all students learn the same way. Some students are more visual and will benefit from having a diagram shown to them, while others are auditory learners who benefit from listening to information, and others yet are tactile, and need to have the opportunity to physically manipulate, try out, and work with the information in order to make sense out of it. The more modalities you can include in your lesson, the better the chance you will reach more of your students, and the better the chance that they will remember what you taught them.
  4. Be in-tune with your students. Watch for signs of confusion and non-understanding.
  5. Ask questions… Not just: “Do you understand?” But ask comprehension questions… Like: Why do you suppose we would want to place “A” next to “B” instead of “C”?
  6. If you KNOW a student isn’t getting something, ask them what they need – would they like you to repeat something? Break something down? Show it in an example? Rephrase it a different way?
  7. Don’t teach to “the ones who get it,” but conversely, don’t just teach to the ones who don’t. Don’t teach to the upper 10 percent of the class, or the bottom. Try to teach to the middle, which is where most students are going to be.
  8. Give students the opportunity to ask you questions and give you feedback on how YOU are performing as a teacher. And be willing to accept their suggestions and criticisms. They aren’t personal – they’re telling you what THEY need to succeed.
  9. Teaching is NOT a passive process. You absolutely cannot ever sit down and expect the students to do what you ask while you just wait over them. When appropriate, you should be doing it with them in order to model the proper way of doing it. When not appropriate, you should be moving around the students and/or groups, offering assistance if needed, checking comprehension, asking and challenging those who have “gotten it” to expand on their knowledge even further.
  10. Don’t EVER give up on your students, belittle them, make them feel like they SHOULD understand something when they don’t, or discourage them from trying again. (Hint: NOT actively encouraging them is tantamount to discouragement). Try to remember what it was like for you when the material was new to you, awkward, and didn’t make much sense.

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