The AUDACITY TO LEARN
I thought my patience as a teacher was exceptional until the day I took on a diverse and extraordinary class. Then the real test began.
I received a phone call from a lady who was looking for a private dance tutor to work with a young girl with developmental disabilities. The girl, I was told, had rhythm and loved music. I was a dance teacher with absolutely no training in working with people who were disabled, but something in me felt challenged and I responded with a yes. I would soon discover teaching can take you down paths you never imagined traveling.
One-on-one classes really deplete the energy of both teacher and student so it didn’t take long for me to realize I’d made a mistake and knew I needed to terminate the classes. I rang up the guardian of my student, intending to bow out gracefully, “you are right, she does have rhythm but I feel she would do much better in a group setting.”
I had no idea of the determination and tenacity of these caregivers. Within a day, they returned my call, "Okay, we have three more students for you!"
In a short time, I had thirty students. These were teens and adults up to the age of 40, all with developmental disabilities. A dance instructor with no experience working with people who had disabilities, I was the one feeling a bit handicapped. I approached a colleague at the college where I was teaching and suggested I sign up for classes to learn more about disabilities.
His response was both revealing and surprising "No, I wouldn't do that if I were you!” He said, "If you come to my classes I am going to tell you all the things these individuals can not do. But if you go forward and attempt to teach them what you know, in your own area of expertise, with an expectation for them to do it, many of them will succeed. "
Since he was the expert, I decided to go forward without special classes. I soon came to realize that my students were like other new dancers. They had their own personalities, skills and abilities. Each was unique. I had students who learned quickly and others who had “two left feet.” There were some who challenged me with a vengeance to utilize my creative side.
When I didn't achieve progress with one method I searched for new approaches. With Sara I needed to make a comparison with something familiar. Sara spent more time looking at her feet than anywhere in the room and it took a number of classes encouraging Sara to trust me. I could see she loved the music we were working with yet nothing I did seemed to help her. On one occasion I had demonstrated the movement of an arm and Sara looked up at me quite puzzled. I knew she wanted to move yet it was as if I was speaking in a foreign tongue and Sara was afraid to make a mistake so she remained motionless.
"Sara, the movement is like a propeller on a small airplane." I told her.
Sara knew airplanes and as she connected the idea of a propeller with her arms she looked at me and slowly a grin started. She became animated. Her arms moved and her feet followed. My grin matched Sara’s as Sara began to dance.
The students cheered one another with each small success so each new move learned was a victory for all of us. I think we all felt the emotion of Sara’s success and then Stuart's.
Stuart was spirited and enthusiastic from his first day but putting two moves together frustrated him because as hard as he tried, things seemed to get confused between his feet and his desire. Stuart would repeat the dance steps out loud with me as if his feet would be more encouraged by the sound of his voice. When most of the class moved to the right, Stuart looked alone and startled to be moving to the left. On a grapevine step where it calls for the student to step behind and then in front, Stuart became tangled and fell. The entire class hushed and there was deflated feeling about the room as everyone felt Stuart’s disappointment.
The first time Stuart tasted success was a special moment. "I did it, I did it, I did it," he gleefully chanted over and over, rejoicing to himself and all his classmates. With tears in his eyes and a huge leap, Stuart provided a Kodak moment for everyone.
Michael presented an entirely different quandary. He had been in class for three months and never participated. In all that time he never spoke. He did not appear at all interested in what was going on around him. On one particular day I had been teaching a partner dance to the class. We worked on it for weeks and that day I said my usual, "Okay, everybody choose a partner." I was startled to see Michael suddenly in front of me his arms outstretched to me. I said incredulously, "Michael, you want to dance with me?"
Not only did Michael respond with the word yes, he knew every move. I rejoiced upon hearing him speak and then seeing him proudly opposite me, performing every step. During all those weeks when I thought Michael had been wasting his time on the sidelines he had been learning, in his own way, to the beat of his own drum. His actions reminded me once again we all learn differently.
My students taught me patience and I loved the camaraderie and support within the group. Our relationship developed over the time we were together I discovered that sometimes one small achievement is really a most wondrous feat. And with Andrew I learned that things are not always as they seem.
When it came to Andrew I felt like a failure as a teacher. I searched for ways to reach him, to see some indication that he was receiving the instruction or that he liked something about the class. I didn't think I was succeeding. The pathways in Andrew’s brain do not always lead him to the same conclusions as others. He did not communicate with me verbally. He never gave me eye contact nor did he give me any indication that he knew I was alive. He seemed to have little understanding he was in a class and there were expectations. Mostly he sat and nodded his head, making humming noises.
One-day Andrew's parents met me downtown and told me they were so grateful I was teaching the class at the College. They said our class was the high point of their son's week. I was confused. How on earth could they tell Andrew liked the class? I believed they were merely being courteous. I continued to feel I had failed their son.
A week later, a blizzard held me up and I arrived later than usual. As I stepped out of my vehicle, I noticed Andrew and his worker just getting out of their car.
For the first time I saw ebullience in Andrew's face. He was beaming and his body language indicated his anticipation. Finally I could see what his parents saw- an animated Andrew! He ran toward the building with eagerness. Because Andrew didn’t generally display his emotions in the same way as others I had jumped to a conclusion and that led me to berate myself.
He never danced but I finally knew without a doubt
there was something about the class that brought joy into Andrew's life
and I knew that snowy night, as tears and snowflakes gathered on my cheeks that Andrew's joy became my joy.
I'm so glad no one told me years earlier that my students could not learn more and would never learn to dance. Because of one colleagues advice I never gave up believing that I could reach Sara and Michael and Stuart and Andrew and all the others who have come since. In accepting that first challenge many years ago I opened a door into a new world. Bringing the joys of dance and movement to my students has blessed my life beyond measure.
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Today, Ellie designs programs for both adults and children. She presents workshops in Creative Movement and Creative Dance for kindergarten teachers and she enjoys her hobby, writing. Ellie presents talks on angels, heavenly intervention and more!