It’s October. I’m a month into the school year and my teacher hat is firmly affixed to my head. I’d say it was a rough start because, well, COVID. But to be honest, it has really been a pleasure. Not the mask-wearing, or administrative nonsense that always rears it’s ugly head every school year of course, but standing in front of a classroom of adolescents has brought me back to where I was two years ago. Almost.
Not to say that things haven’t changed – they have. Other than the masks, my classes feel more…compliant. I’ve always had great classes in the past, but now there’s a little more sense of being a tighter ship, so to speak. I think there’s a few reasons for that.
To start, my dance classes now have assigned floor spots. I’ve never had them sit in specific spots in the past, because I always felt my students should feel like they could move to a different place in class if they wanted to. Sometimes, they get a little braver and want to move closer to the mirror. Sometimes, they want to fall back for a while. But this year, we were told that we had to create seating charts so the school would be able to “track” who is standing next to whom in case contact tracing becomes necessary. Of course in a dance class, where people are moving around as par for the course, I’m not sure that can be accurately parsed out, but I guess we will worry about that when we have to.
Floor spots have helped in two ways:
1. Students have a specific place to go at the beginning of class. “Okay everyone, take your shoes off, drop your stuff and go find your spot!” There’s no guess work – the expectation is they have a specific place to go, no questions asked. There’s a rhythm and flow to the class that I like very much; there’s no question or argument about who goes where. There is an inherent organization and knowledge of protocol from the moment they walk in. They sit down, I take attendance, announce what we are working on, and GO. I can pivot if I want to, but the familiar rollout of each class gets them ready and anticipating what’s happening next.
2. Seating charts means I can cheat a little, just in case I can’t remember someone when I look at them. I used to learn who all of my students are in a few weeks. Now, as I’m inching towards 50, the Swiss cheese holes in my brain keep getting bigger. Because of last year’s pandemic, I now have at least two brand new classes of kids who I have never seen face to face. I feel a bit behind the eight ball. It’s sad, really, because I really try and want to learn everyone’s name as fast as possible. I like to call people by their names. I even write notes next to their names – physical attributes or interesting bits that might help jog my memory. Who do they talk to? Do they play an instrument/sport/video game? I acknowledge that I have to adapt to a growing weakness, so something I would have scoffed at in the past is something I embrace now.
Aside from the floor spots, I’m sure there’s a lingering effect that last year’s isolation has had on them. I think maybe they are just happy to be somewhere other than their homes, in their bedrooms sitting by themselves or amongst four other people all vying for bandwidth and quiet space. Being in the classroom is like a tacit gift. I’m not sure how long this affection for the school building will last, but for now, I will take full advantage of it to make a great experience happen every day for them.
If there is one thing I take pride in, it is that my students know my expectations early on: pay attention, work hard, make mistakes, and keep trying. From there, they are comfortable enough with whatever new thing I have for them, that if they stumble, they know they are safe. They can be a little vulnerable and survive.
I look in the eyes above the masks of the students in the halls and in the classroom. Most of my kids do not speak English as their first language. Many of them don’t speak much English at all. To compensate for the fact that I am not a comfortable Spanish speaker, I slow my speech, use my hands and my eyes, and check to see that there’s some connection being made. I have helpful kids translate when I have a lot to say. I speak a few words in broken Spanish to let them know I care about who they are and that I want them to learn what I have to teach them. It’s not enough, but it’s something. Mostly, I demonstrate and look to see if they are trying what I am showing them. Herd mentality is real and is helpful – kids want to feel like they belong, so if most of the class is participating, the ones who are confused will at least give something we are doing a try, even if they don’t fully grasp the initial concept I’m trying to present. Learning happens on many levels in the dance studio. I’m grateful that we are all together to make it happen.
I’m hoping that I am setting some good momentum for the rest of the school year. I really hope that we don’t get another viral surge which shuts us down. We all really need to stay in school, feel productive and keep trying new things. Though I hate wearing the mask, I will continue to do so until this ridiculous virus is under control. I will continue to look in my students’ eyes and keep them connected. I’ll probably keep the floor spots too – my brain could use the assist.