Monday, May 07, 2007

Being a student again

As I've mentioned, I've been taking ballet since January. The first term ended a few weeks ago - it was fifteen weeks long - and we've (slightly) progressed to the next level.

Though I raised my eyebrows about the teacher's approach the first night of class, I soon saw that there is a (very good) method to her madness. She is a gem. An astoundingly gifted teacher - and she has won awards for her teaching, I found out. I am a *huge* fan of hers - she is young, and has a sparkling, an effervescent personality that incarnates fun for the class, but she is also really skilled at explaining technical things. It's really a pleasure to spend my Monday evenings there.

That said, I have been really attuned, especially over the last few weeks, to what it means to be a student again. (What Now has written about this issue of returning to the classroom as a student -- much more thoughtfully than I am about to.) It started when the teacher - let's call her G - was teaching us a comparatively difficult step one night. I was frustrated; I tend to berate myself when learning any physical activity - it is a fault of mine. So G was teaching us this step and it just felt awkward and weird, to most of us, I think. She asked us to move back to the barre to start it over again, and then she playfully called out - still in her lovely, happy, sing-songy voice - "Ooh, we're getting some attitude. I saw someone roll their eyes there..." And she laughed and brushed it off and that was that.

When she said that, I realized that it had quite possibly been me that she had seen rolling my eyes; I felt as if my eyes had just done something, at any rate. And it had nothing to do with her, not at all. It was just my frustration - I wasn't liking the feeling of this thing we were doing, and didn't want to do it. But I was mortified that I had been seen, had been read like that. Had rolled my eyes at all. I thought of myself as a teacher, of how hurtful that kind of response would be. I fretted about it all week, and then at next Monday's class, I went up to G and apologized, saying it was quite possibly me she had seen rolling my eyes and assuring her that it had had nothing to do with her.

G didn't even remember the incident, but it led to a good conversation about what we perceive, as teachers. She is working on an MFA right now, and says that being a student again, after being a dance teacher, has made her alert to things she wasn't aware of, the first time she was a student.

It is very much the same for me. In the wake of the eye-rolling incident, I am newly aware of my presence in that ballet class. I tend to be overly serious and hard on myself, when I learn things like this. I realize that I often have a sullenness about me that must be quite unnerving, quite unpleasant, from a teacher's perspective. Hell, if I had me in the classroom, I don't know if I'd like me much! So I've been making a conscious effort to catch myself and snap out of my opaque, heavy presence.

It makes me think about my students and the energy they bring to class. How I read them, sometimes, as disengaged or hostile - when they may truly not be. It suggests that I might stop always referring everything back to myself, as an instructor. Stop thinking every reaction, every mood, every face, is about me. At the same time, it makes me want to have a frank conversation with the students about urge them to be aware of the presence they establish in the classroom.


What Now? said...

Interesting post. I'm sure that I was a frustrating student to have this past year, especially in the spring, in part because as a student I found myself much less patient with my fellow students than I would be as a teacher. As a teacher, my role is to keep an eye on everyone's learning, to facilitate conversation that includes everyone, to make the same point in multiple ways for students with different learning styles. As a student, I was (I'm embarrassed to say) really annoyed at repetition and frustrated when we went more slowly than I'd like; I wanted everyone else to keep up with me so that we could charge ahead. That experience has helped me understand one potential reason for student annoyance and eye-rolling that I don't think I had recognized before.

jb said...

Oh, I totally relate to your reading every student reaction as a comment on yourself. Oddly enough, I don't particularly care when students are visibly falling asleep in class--I remember all too vividly how hard I found it to stay awake even in some interesting classes, some days--but when they laugh, oh God, when they laugh.... It's just awful. I'm sure that it usually has NOTHING TO DO WITH ME, but all the same I go all hot and fearful and start checking my fly and other embarrassing things. It's awful, and some day I'll have to get over it.

Texter said...

Great post. I have been learning to not assume anything of my students anymore. I had a hugely annoying habit of thinking I could read their minds, and thought every negative gesture or eye movement they made was about me or my teaching. It's not. Alot of us are taught to be self-conscious in our work (or we have a predilection for self-consciousness already) but this can be crippling in the classroom, I think. It's good to be observant or try to use one's intuition to read dynamics, but.... it can be taken to the extreme