It has been said that art imitates life. For me, that has certainly been the case.
A dancer since the age of two, I learned early on to express my emotions through movement. Growing up in the 90’s, I had a plethora of upbeat pop music to move to. My childhood was filled with smiling movements. In fact, at school I was teased for smiling too much. This smiling was a result of a set of phenomenal parents who supported me in every avenue I attempted, gave me freedom to make my own choices, and sacrificed their happiness for mine. I understood that I had a childhood different from so many others and it felt incredibly special.
Not shockingly, as I proceeded through life, I continued to dance happily. Primarily focusing on tap dancing, I learned a variety of rhythms and patterns.
In high school and college, I was a cheerleader. When you think of the extraordinarily peppy cheerleader, that was me. My face was often filled with an overly intense smile and my movements had a little too much spunk, even for an excited crowd.
As I entered the workforce in my early 20’s, I hadn’t really had a defining moment. Adversity at that time was transferring colleges and changing majors. Not that those weren’t real challenges, they were, but I was able to overcome those setbacks quickly and move forward with my life. It was no wonder that as I entered the profession of teaching, I was incredibly positive that I would be able to reach every child through high expectations and precise lessons. Every morning as I entered school, I smiled ear to ear and considered my job trajectory to be predictable and easy. Have a clear learning target and my students would meet it. Smile and say hi, and my students would love mathematics.
When I think of the dance equivalent of this phase, it would be best exemplified with the song Happy by Pharrell Williams. The main dance move people do as they listen to this song is the bop and clap. It is nearly impossible to avoid singing and dancing along. Even the most rhythmically challenged individuals can clap to the beat. And there is a never-ending smile that results from marinating in the message of celebrating happiness. It feels optimistic, uplifting and hopeful. However, it is filled with a sense of being naive, lacking challenging experiences that are counterintuitive to the song’s message.
At some point, the happy song ends as one’s job and life become more complex. For me, this was my second year teaching. As a newlywed, I moved to a new school and began teaching elementary school. This meant teaching all subjects. I was overwhelmed. Me teaching reading and writing? I was a math teacher at heart and felt discouraged by how much I felt I was letting my students down. Realizing I didn’t have the necessary aptitude to teach my students appropriately, I looked outside the classroom for further resources and support. Thankfully, our school had an instructional coach who kindly took over my classroom for six weeks, mentoring me, so I could learn the art of teaching reading. I was relieved. I had no idea what instruction looked like and now had an exemplary model from which I could successfully implement.
It was as if the cha-cha slide suddenly came on the radio. The narrator of the song tells you exactly what to do so that as you react, your movement hits right on beat. You don’t have to think too hard when dancing to the cha-cha slide because someone else is telling you what to do. It is nice to fit in with the crowd for there is little risk in standing out in any adverse way. However, when you are dancing in such a prescriptive way, you feel little connection to your movement. Your mind, body, and soul don’t move together. It is hard to feel the emotion of the music. Though it is wonderful to finally be able to dance successfully, you realize that you must also find your own moves too.
With success and experience, I now entered a stage with newfound freedom and increased motivation to find my own moves. Though exciting, this stage brought great uncertainty. I had an assumption that I should be somewhere that I currently wasn’t and that was discouraging. Realizing this gap existed, my work ethic went into overdrive. Rather than reflect and think deeply, I poured myself into the job, working countless hours until I would fall asleep while planning the next lesson. I grew up knowing very well that what set me apart from others was my work ethic and I intended that to define me in this arena too.
This stage reminds me of 80’s pop dancing. Turn on the song Maniac and feel the beat. It is intense, powerful, passionate, quick and has a sense of proving your self-worth to others and yourself. 80’s Jazz was filled with strong tempos and big movements. The beats were prominent and the movements were sharp. The problem with 80’s style movements is they are exhausting. No one can deny that Jane Fonda helped a lot of people get in shape, but the enlarged and acute movements were enough to wear anyone out, mentally and physically.
Likewise, teaching so intensely and spending every waking moment devoted toward your career is likely to have sizeable student gains. However, at some point, there is a crash, a burnout of sorts, that results in decreased enthusiasm toward the job and your future as a teacher.
With occupational success, but emotional failure, I began to look inward. I can remember one of the first times I confronted the idea that I was afraid to listen to my own beliefs. I was at a math conference and became frustrated when the presenter wouldn’t tell me if my solution was correct or incorrect. How was I to know I was correct if she didn’t validate my response? There was no smile for my hard work and dedication. She just said that I was to interpret the problems as I understood them. In that moment, I realized that I was unable to validate my voice and instincts. I was so worried about pleasing others, that I had forgotten to please myself. I was dreadfully unhappy and I knew this was going to permeate my life. All at once, my life was clear. I could see how I was living a life full of accolades and wealth but inauthentic. My heart hurt. I understood that I must make choices that, though counter to what the world expected of me, allowed me to find my own voice.
The style of dance that exudes emotion and feeling is called lyrical. Every moment connects to a feeling. The flexing of a foot, the stretch of a finger, the turn of a head all bring about a personal emotion as it connects to the music. Often lyrical is raw in emotion and speaks to personal/societal struggles or internal passions. As you watch a lyrical dancer, you often watch her face and then connect the moves, solving a puzzle of the distinct emotions she is expressing. Though beautiful, lyrical dances are emotional and display great vulnerability.
As I confronted my own realities, and began understanding how I was afraid to listen to my own instincts and voice, my struggle began impacting my professional life. Experiencing a complete redirection of my personal story, as my family went through a transformation, I could no longer be the perfect teacher. I couldn’t dance to someone else’s song or even find that happy dance again. I was paralyzed from grief and felt as if time was passing but I was trailing further behind. I was exhausted, in survival mode and began questioning every aspect of my life.
Now in my 30’s, I had lived long enough to know that seasons do in fact change… And as such so did my story.
Starting over in my personal life had unintended consequence professionally. I got to redefine who I was and what my passions were (are). As I redefined my philosophy, to one focused on encouraging student voice, I became more confident in who I was. I found my own voice too. My ability to speak up against policies or procedures I disagreed with increased. I found a new support network and began collaborating with various groups in the world of education. Sure, uncertainty became my new norm, but this also allowed me to take new risks, live in the moment and listen to my ever evolving viewpoints.
As a teacher, I had found my own dance; my own movements. Sure, often they were stylized from others that had impacted me along the way, but the movements spoke to who I was at my core.
Now as I dance an impromptu dance routine, I take risks with my movements. Sometimes I develop a new move while other times I reuse an old move, to a new beat. The outcome for me, is defined as I reflect and not in the success of the move itself. My teaching is creative, innovative and experimental. Experience has brought forth so many moves, that whatever beat comes on, I have a few moves at the ready. When I don’t, I create something new and feel empowered enough to implement it, knowing very well it could fail miserably, and valuing it just the same.
What I have learned is not how to be a good teacher, my personal efficacy is still a personal
Struggle. I have learned that my success is demonstrated in simply continuing to dance. Sure there will be times when I follow someone else’s moves, but I now have experience that tells me I must learn how to make it my own. I will work too hard, feet running as if completing a football drill, but I will know that the future of education begins with the mental health of teachers and I will work to dance in a more fluid manner. I will get emotional, reach for help and redefine who I am again and I now know this is normal and necessary. And there will be moments of utter happiness as I feel carefree and void of worries, but i have experience to know these have an expiration date thus, will enjoy them greatly. In the end, I will just keep dancing. Though the beat may change and my moves will evolve, the movements will reflect my individual personality and spirit.
As much as I thought I entered teaching to teach others, my career as an educator has more often been about me being the learner. Teaching helped me find myself, value my beliefs/opinions and create my own moves to my own beat.