Make Friends with the Janitor; And Other Tips for Working in Schools

By Sarah Sass

November 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

For dance teaching artists who teach in school settings, this is usually a busy time of year. School classes have begun and although kids have settled into their daily school routine, school is still relatively new. It’s around this time that classroom teachers and/or parents may be asking questions about what exactly their children are learning in dance classes, your own curriculum questions usually begin surfacing and any sort of unresolved classroom management issues can become glaringly problematic. It’s the perfect time to seek out support and find solutions to some of these issues. When I started teaching in the public schools, I would have loved to have had some practical advice. Below you’ll find a few tips for teaching dance in a school setting.

Become friends with the janitor. This is a strategic move because he/she is ultimately the keeper of the general school spaces. If you need the multi-purpose room (which is often the same room as the cafeteria) mopped before your dance class, the janitor could be your hero. If you know their name, and have already said hello a dozen times, they will be more likely to help you clean up the trash before you have those five year olds slither on the floor.

Introduce yourself to the principal or site director. Both principals and site directors are bombarded with requests and manage an absurd amount of details. In spite of being extremely busy individuals, they love being able to witness children learning in action. If you invite them to observe one of your classes, for the rest of the year, they will be surprisingly vocal dance advocates. Continue to establish a good working relationship with your classroom teachers. It helps to think of them as your allies instead of a critical eye. Classroom teachers love children, otherwise they wouldn’t be working in such an underpaid and under-appreciated field. They also usually like the concept of arts learning; often they just need help getting used to the chaos of it all. If you haven’t already, find ways to communicate your curriculum and curriculum goals to your classroom teachers. A few of the ways that I do this include setting up a weekly check-in to address any of their questions, giving them a copy of my unit plan and weekly lesson plans, giving them ideas for reflective activities to do after dance class, helping them find ways to review the concepts covered, and encouraging them to designate a dance vocabulary bulletin board.

Think about ways to make the learning visible for the parents and teachers. This documentation work is time-consuming but will benefit your teaching in the long run. If you are pro-active in sharing what dance learning is and what it looks like, then you aren’t as likely to be in a place of defending what you’re doing. In the school setting, there are many ways to do this in conjunction with the classroom teacher.

Find inexpensive ways to create and continually expand your music library. If you don’t, you will soon be sick of all of the music that is really perfect and exciting right now. I’d recommend using friends shamelessly as well as frequenting the public library.

Find colleagues who are doing similar work. This is crucial to maintaining your morale and keeping your curriculum both fresh and inspired throughout the remainder of the school year. Check out National Dance Education Organization—this is currently the only national organization for dance educators. You might also join California Dance Education, a state affiliate of NDEO, they are a state level organization that actively lobbies in Sacramento to further the dance education field.

I am the first to admit how challenging it is to work in school settings. I openly admit to being frequently discouraged. I am often dismayed at not only what the children are being taught, but also how they are expected to learn and act. I have problems with authority and the current state of our education system. Even just walking into a classroom feels repressive to me. But I love being the dance teacher because I get to instigate a dynamic shift. In a school, pushing back the desks to dance is a revolutionary act and the kids know it. Kids love to move and it is thrilling to me to observe them being so powerfully and physically present. Kids dance with everything they’ve got, I owe it to them to teach the same way.

Sarah Sass has been honing her teaching skills as a dance teaching artist for six years and working for Luna Kids Dance for the past five years. She creates her own choreographic work and directs peck peck dance ensemble in collaboration with Sean McMahon. peck peck dance ensemble shows new work May 8-9, 2009 at CounterPULSE in San Francisco.