Belly dance teachers need to build a persona, set limits and communicate their expectations of behavior. They need to be approachable, yet commanding, friendly, but the group leader - and of course educators!
In this post I would like to offer other belly dance teachers a few tried and tested ways of dealing with a student who is not fitting in with your class.
- Decide if they are a danger, disruptive or if it is just a personality clash. Understand what the problem is and how disruptive it is to your classes. Is the problem student putting themselves or others at risk? Do they constantly spill food, trip others or get angry? Perhaps they are just too talkative, find everything funny or bring their bad mood to the sessions. Or finally, do they get along with others, but not with you, the teacher? If they are a danger to others, you must solve the problem immediately and if necessary remove them from the teaching space. If they are disruptive, you may be able to talk to them or present the group with a set of class rules that will help. If you find that the problem is a personality clash, then you can either moderate your behavior/expectations/mood or simply accept that the two of you will never get on and build a solid teacher/student relationship that you can both respect.
- Be consistent in your behavior. Create your teacher persona and bring that persona to every lesson. Inconsistency is a recipe for disaster in class. If you always start class on time, students cannot complain if you start without them. If you are always focused during the drills, but have fun with the veil free dancing - students will have expectations and will adapt their behavior to fit in with the tone of each section of the class. By leading the mood of your classes you give non verbal clues to others on how they should behave. In the longer term other students will follow your lead, adding to the expected atmosphere.
- Lead with good practice and examples. Always run through your good practice at the start of a new session (start times, dates, fire exit, expected behavior, other costs, posture, first aid supplies), and do a short update at the beginning of each lesson (fire exits, good posture). Be aware of all of your students, all of the time. Correct those who are doing something dangerous immediately. For example, if you see a dancer trying to do a figure 8 with their knees turned in, move to them quietly, and verbally make the correction. If all your students know that you are watching and correcting them, then they will support you should a classmate ask for unnecessary corrections, or worse still, accuse you of causing an injury.
- Remember it's only one hour! You don't have to love every student that attends your classes, but you do have to teach them to belly dance. Put your shoulders back, lift your chin and get on with your job.
- Keep to a timetable. You only have to give your students the time you want, once class is over. If you chat after class, pick a time when the chatting has to stop. They have bought an hour of your time, and you may want to give them an extra 10 minutes for free, but beyond that you have to pack up your bags, turn off the lights and walk away. Do you talk to your students in the car park, on email, on the phone? Know your limits and don’t be afraid to point these out to your students. You can set boundaries "I answer emails about belly dance every Sunday morning, so if you message me after class, expect your reply sometime on Sunday." You can even say "no"! If a student is very excited about belly dance and wants to talk about it all day, every day, suggest a regular private lesson, to limit your conversations to times that are acceptable to you.
- Draw a line between students/classmates/friends and try to keep that even handed. I'm so sorry, but you can not be friends with your students. You can like them, be buddies, you can go out for drinks or invite them to your birthday party, but there will always be a student/teacher relationship that takes priority. They will look to you for leadership, to create a plan and to make decisions. If you are good friends with some of your students, but not all, then there will be favoritism and unrest. The most harmonious class groups are those where everyone feels they have a similar relationship to their teacher as the others.
- Be the teacher everywhere that your students gather. If you provide on-line space for your students to chat, or organize social events, you will need to be "on duty" as their teacher. Set your students rules on how to behave at events, such as limiting negative talk, not getting drunk or disrupting the changing areas. You will also have to set boundaries in on-line forums, to avoid arguments or bullying. A good teacher can stop difficult situations with a glance or a quick reminder, but you have to be present and aware. If that is too hard or time consuming, then shut down the opportunities for your students to socialize - you don't have to provide weekly drinks parties or an on-line chat group.
- Accept that some people won’t like you no matter what you do. Often disruptive students are angry because the class has not turned out to meet their expectations. Perhaps they wanted to burn calories, while you like to talk about history and culture (or vice versa). They may find you annoying as you sing along, or count to 8 1,000 times a lesson. Perhaps they thought it would be more like Zumba, or their kids' ballet class or there would be free parking nearby. You can not please everyone, so work on being exceptionally good at what you do and accept that some people will not want what you offer.
- Know your boss and contact them first with any problems. If you are an employee, always approach your direct boss with any problems, no matter how small. Small problems will either disappear or grow. Either way, talk to your boss. If you are self employed, talk to a trusted friend, mentor or partner. While we all hope for the best, should the worst happen, then someone already knew about the problem.
- Stay safe. Disruption comes from boredom, anger or frustration. If you feel that someone doesn't understand your class rules or respect you as a teacher, it may be time for them to move on. If you feel unsafe in their company, avoid being on your own with them. Sometimes you have to ask your boss or a trusted friend to attend a meeting with you, where you explain that their time in your class has come to an end.
In my book "Teaching Belly Dance" I wrote a chapter called "Meet Your Class". It's a very light-hearted look at the students you will meet during your teaching career, some of the problems they bring and includes suggestions on how to get the very best out of them. It also includes lots of other information about understanding your student’s aims, organizing your own events and troupe, setting up successful classes, and teaching learning styles, providing useful critique and promoting yourself as a teacher. Teaching Belly Dance is available on Amazon.
The first page of the chapter "Meet your class" in Teaching Belly Dance.
Sara Shrapnell is a belly dance writer, teacher and performer.
She has taught more than 5,000 belly dance classes, both in the UK and US. She now teaches in Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore in the SF bay area, as well as workshops world wide. Her classes are known for their humor, detailed breakdowns and cultural context. Students who have studied with Sara have gone on to teach and perform in all styles of belly dance and many have made their living through performance or teaching.
Sara’s first book “Teaching Belly Dance” was published in 2014. Her second "Becoming a Belly Dancer: From Student to Stage", co- written with Dawn Devine, Alisha Westerfeld and Poppy Maya, is a stagecraft handbook for belly dancers of all styles and levels. Both are available on Amazon.
Sara also teaches through the Belly Dance Business Academy. This online resource includes lessons, classes and workshops for belly dance professionals. Check out her most recent workshop "52 Lesson Plans - And How to Write 5,000 More."