Mentoring Student Teachers: Role Models Who Bridge the Gap between Concept and Practice

By Straus, Rachel | Dance Magazine, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Mentoring Student Teachers: Role Models Who Bridge the Gap between Concept and Practice


Straus, Rachel, Dance Magazine


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Not long ago only a couple of hundred dance studios, college dance departments, and public school dance classes existed in this country. Today there are thousands. Attendant to the boom in dance popularity, it seems increasingly that anyone with chutzpah can call themselves a dance teacher. Too often novices teach without proper training in classroom management skills and age-appropriate lesson planning. Worst of all, they often work with young children, putting this most vulnerable age group at physical and emotional risk.

"This is a major problem," says Elsa Posey of the Posey School in Long Island. She studied with Doris Humphrey at the 92nd Street Y in New York City and remembers Humphrey saying, "Always look for a mentor. Don't go off on your own." Today Posey and other experienced educators assiduously serve as mentors to the next generation of teachers. They guide a select group of graduate and undergraduate students, who they call student teachers, by giving them opportunities to serve--under supervision--as instructors.

"I think it's really important to get a formal education that includes teaching methodology, child development, and psychology," says Posey, who founded the National Registry of Dance Educators. "You don't learn everything you need to know about teaching in a performing arts situation." But, she says, taking pedagogy classes alone isn't enough to develop as a good teacher. Posey is in her third decade of bridging the gap between academic learning and the realities of facing students in the classroom or studio, by mentoring student teachers at her Long Island school. In 2004, the National Dance Education Organization established the Elsa Posey Student Scholarship Fund, for her proteges to attend NDEO member colleges, including Temple University and New York University's Steinhardt School of Education.

"First you have to be dancer. Secondly you have to become a teacher. Both are studies that continue for a lifetime," Posey says. "The dance education profession has been harmed," she says, by dancers "who think they have learned it all in the studio and who consequently open their own school of dance without receiving further education."

Freddie-Lee Heath's teaching career in North Carolina recently reached the quarter century mark. A graduate of East Carolina University, he was mentored by former Agnes de Mille dancer, Mavis Ray. In turn, Heath now mentors dance majors from his alma mater. He invites them to Raleigh's Ligon GT Magnet Middle School, where he is a full-time faculty member.

His student teachers are in for "some big shocks," he says. "First, not everyone is passionate about dance; they have to learn how to deal with that." Then they discover that public school dance teachers are always working, not just by giving classes and choreographing for school productions, but "serving as the lighting designer, program designer, and costume finder, and as a psychologist, guidance counselor, and disciplinarian," he says. And third, they encounter public school dance facilities that are often lousy.

Heath's mentoring program is thorough. Student teachers take notes while observing him in the trenches for a semester before they ever step in front of a class. When they begin to give class, they start with one and increase to up to five classes per day. Heath says he expects his student teachers "to make goofs" while teaching, "but I do not give them the fix." He counsels them to document everything that happens in the classroom, especially if it's something controversial.

A staunch advocate for maintaining boundaries between teacher and student, Heath insists students address him and his student teacher by their surnames. "Students will ask female teachers, 'Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Where do you live?'" Don't answer, he counsels.

"When you go into the public schools, the students are going to test you. …

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