What Salsa and Storytelling Taught Me about Teaching (or Why Teachers Have to Be Constant Learners)

About five months ago I took my wife on a date to a salsa dancing class. I like to dance at weddings or parties, but I would never list dancing as a hobby and certainly not a skill. But there I was, because of a deep love for my wife and a willingness to try something new.

The class took place in a small room of a church not far from Columbia University. I had hoped the class would be filled with people so I could just blend in, but I had no such luck. There were four other students in the class that Saturday — three women around my mom’s age and a man who looked to be in his seventies.

With no crowd to disappear into, I frantically worked to follow the young female instructor’s teaching. We started with a basic eight-count step and gradually built up to more and more complex moves. The whole time I was probably one to two counts off. Over the hour I worked up a sweat while smiling sheepishly and somewhat apologetically to my wife, the instructor and the other students.

This week I will attend my fourth storytelling class at The Story Studio. I signed up hoping the skills would transfer well to my classroom, but also out of a personal interest as someone who enjoys listening to stories from The Moth and This American Life.

So far, I’ve been struck by how many of the storytelling techniques are skills I teach to my third graders as well — showing instead of telling, using dialogue, stretching out a small moment. Still, I am learning to pull out interesting details of stories, to use my voice to build suspense or excitement and to find appropriate closings to my stories. Although I feel much more comfortable storytelling than salsa dancing, I still find myself challenged as I explore this new skill.

Both the thrill-laced anxiety of salsa dancing and my foray into storytelling have taught me a lot about myself as a student, and therefore have been invaluable experiences to my growth as a teacher.
From salsa dancing I reflected a lot on the experience of taking risks. I thought about how hard it was to keep up as the instructor increased the level of complexity after each song. I thought of my feelings of embarrassment and frustration when it seemed as if all the other students in the class understood what I could not. I was able to find the fun in the situation, but the experience taught me a lot of empathy for my students who struggle to grasp the skills I teach in my classroom. In the course of the hour I found myself taking extra water breaks and watching the clock closely. These habits aren’t unfamiliar to our students.

In my storytelling class, I am struck by how different it feels when I am learning a skill that feels interesting to me and also easy to apply in multiple scenarios. I imagine myself using storytelling (or at least certain storytelling techniques)in my classroom as well as to entertain friends or family members. I also feel myself standing on firmer footing, building on what I know as someone who likes to write, than I did when attempting salsa dancing with no prior experience.

One of the many ironies of education is that teachers’ learning receives some of the least attention from policymakers, school leaders and teachers themselves. The best professional development can sometimes help teachers see themselves as learners, but unfortunately this is few and far between. Furthermore, this is different than the intellectual experience of pursuing our own interests.

This ends up as a deep loss for our selves and our students. Besides the simple fact that pursuing our interests outside of school time could make teachers happier and more complete human beings, it also provides perspective on the student experience.

My storytelling class will end in a few weeks, but the experience of being a student is one I hope to replicate at least once next year as well. It’s raised a few simple (perhaps obvious) questions about myself as a learner, that I hope might impact my teaching.

  • What do I enjoy learning? What do I find boring?
  • How do I learn best? Do I do best listening to someone explain directions or watch a model?
  • What makes me uncomfortable? How do I overcome feelings of anxiety or discomfort?
  • How do I get better at something I struggle with?

Some of the best teachers I know are those who struggled as students. Still, the farther we get from our experiences as students, the more valuable opportunities to reconnect with them become. I hope I can continue trying out new learning experiences that will help me grow in and out of the classroom.

This post is cross-posted at The Educator's Room


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