Can our students’ mistakes trigger our own insecurities?
I was watching old choreographies and came across an old class video of mine. I felt so embarrassed listening to it. Not because of the dance or the music or the students, but because of me!
I was so disappointed with what I was saying to the students. Saying things like:
“You should know better.”
”I am not happy with this.”
“All of your steps were off. That’s not ok.”
I was shaming them, confusing them, belittling them. And to think they were hearing those words over and over again as they watched this video to practice. Seeing ourselves through our children’s eyes is hard work. Not only for parents but for teachers too. Had I the ability to put myself in these kids shoes back then, I would have felt the shame. I would have noticed kids doing their best and feeling disoriented because their teacher was only noticing their mistakes.
My knee-jerk reaction was to delete this video so no one else can see this side of me. But I don’t want to pretend like that didn’t exist. This was my old self. And as embarrassed as I may feel listening to my old self, I have mad respect for her. Because she helped me get to where I am today.
This voice that’s accusing her students of not working hard enough was scared and insecure. She was insecure of her own ability as a teacher, trapped by her subconscious fear of failure.
She wasn’t witnessing her students efforts through the freedom and curiosity of presence. She was watching them from the judgmental and critical eyes of others - an autopilot way of evaluating our worth that has been ingrained in all of us for generations.
I have had many wonderful teachers but to be honest, I never had a dance teacher as conscious as I am now. It’s much harder to model someone you haven’t experienced before. Knowing this gives me perspective to see my failures with compassion and understanding. There’s no vanity here - just confident humility.
Such mistakes have transformed my not-so-proud teaching moments into strong principles and values. Here are some of them:
I prioritize the joy of the experience for my dancers more than the perfection of the performance.
I provide feedback in private confidence with each student instead of shaming them in front of their peers because I know the value of personal accountability versus public humiliation.
I give important feedback in videos with respect and patience instead of fear and blame.
I trust the slow process instead of trying to control a quick outcome.
And when I lose these virtues because of the inevitable ego, I catch it and check myself. I apologize. I do better. Instead of resisting, I open up. And that’s when my creativity kicks in, because I get to CREATE a better version of myself than I could have ever imagined.
My ego still wishes I had known all this before. But I remind myself that I did my best for who I was and what I knew at that time… and who knows maybe one day in the future, I will read this blog and find a list of new mistakes that I was unaware of.
So, to any dance teachers reading this, here’s how you can avoid repeating my mistakes:
Observe your communication style - either via old videos or through reflection.
Put yourself in their shoes. Try to remember being their age.
Challenge your current response to your students’ mistakes and failures. For example, imagine being an 11 year old girl, who is trying to keep up with her academic, social, emotional and physical life and then coming to your dance class. She is nervous because she’s forgetting her steps. She knows that she has failed to meet your expectations with every imperfect step. Is she publicly humiliated by you or is she privately empowered through respectful accountability?
Get curious with your students.
Ask them questions.
Apologize to them when you mess up.
Give them the language to speak up for themselves.
You will be surprised by the respect you receive and the work ethic they show up with. The down side is that you won’t see results immediately and your performances may not be perfectly synchronized. But the up side is that the habits you are nurturing in these little humans will last a lifetime and eventually their performances will bring tears to your eyes.
In case your ego is curious, here’s the video I referenced in this blog of my old-self:
(This was close to recital time)
Here’s a more recent video of my work-in-progress-self:
(I tried to find a similar moment close to recital time to make sure it is comparable in which I definitely need to give real feedback)