This one’s about dance (and burn-out)

The story of teacher burn-out isn’t new; the first few years of any career are often the hardest. Legend has it, half of teachers quit within their first five years on the job. I haven’t dug into the data to confirm or deny this claim… but last semester, I suspected that I would shortly become a statistic.

It wasn’t anything specific – no straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t my students; quite the opposite, I felt lucky to be teaching the lot of them. Not my colleagues, either, who have only been kind, helpful, and supportive since the start of my career. But by the last two months of the school year, I was just… tired. I was still working until 10pm nearly every night, and still felt like I wasn’t doing enough to be the Good Teacher that I desperately wanted to be. Suddenly, a lesson that didn’t go well was no longer a learning opportunity (and an expected outcome of working with humans, who don’t always respond the way that you expect), but instead would feel like proof that I wasn’t cut out for the job. I stopped connecting with other educators on Twitter – what used to be a source of inspiration now made me feel inadequate. I was an impostor and a fraud. Add to this the emotional toll of witnessing some of my students’ pain, which sometimes felt like it would consume me, long after I left the building. Primal instincts kicked in, and I thought about running away – to another career, another city, another life. I wish I could admit that I’m being melodramatic, but over the course of a month, I booked three appointments with academic advisors at my alma mater (all subsequently cancelled a day or two before).

As I said, it’s hard to put your finger on the cause of a slow-burning problem. One day, you feel lucky to be paid to do something you love and the next, you’ve forgotten why you loved it in the first place. It can be even harder to put your finger on a solution. I turned to dance.

I had wanted to dance as long as I can remember. I loved to draw, too, and my old sketchbooks – really, any paper I could get my hands on – were filled with pointe shoes and ballerinas. In Ukraine, I danced in school in the first grade, but when our family moved to Canada (I was eight), the cost of lessons became prohibitive, at least until it felt like it was too late. More and more, I focused on studying. By the time that I finished my second undergraduate degree, I had peeled away almost everything in my life other than school. And then I got a job.

I’m skimming over a lot of details. I loved being a student, I was passionate about education, and I loved (and love) teaching. It’s just that until recently, I thought that passion for the work was self-sustaining, and that work was enough to sustain me. When both turned out to be untrue just two years into my career, I desperately searched for a space to escape. In previous years, I had coped through stress in unhealthy ways (maybe, or maybe not, a story for another time); this time, I stumbled (again, I want to avoid the illusion of a tidy story of cause and effect) into a contemporary dance class.

It was hard, for someone as inexperienced as me. Ballet, which I joined shortly after, was harder. But there was joy in the movement, and the studio turned out to be the space I needed to refresh and reset after a long day. I picked up more classes and, to my surprise, often found that I could finish my lesson planning more efficiently the less time that I had. As summer approached, I searched for more opportunities to dance and found a week-long intensive program at Harbour Dance Centre in Vancouver (there are three levels, ranging from Beginner to Advanced; I attended the beginner level classes). 5 days, 5+ hours a day. I barely thought twice before booking a ticket and packing my bags.

If you’re still reading, I’m sorry – I hadn’t planned on writing any of the above. (Funny how writing sometimes seems to have a mind of its own.) I just wanted to share some observations on teaching and learning that I picked up during my time at HDC. But it all seems to be connected, because while I went mostly as a temporary escape from the work that had started to consume me, I left with a renewed appreciation for great teachers and an enthusiasm for teaching and learning that, I hope, will help to carry me through the next school year and beyond.

So here it is, finally:

What I’ve learned (so far) about teaching and learning (mathematics) in dance class.

Don’t underestimate the importance of routine. Almost without fail, dance instructors begin class with a warm-up routine that engage dancers’ bodies and minds in preparation for the work ahead. At HDC, most instructors kept the warm-up routine more-or-less similar from one day to the next, although new movements might be added (and some left behind) as the class gained proficiency. E.g., in ballet, a barre exercise might be repeated but with new arm movements, or with a relevé balance to finish. Of course, warm-ups are particularly important in dance because they help to prevent injury, but I found that having a common thread from class to class was valuable in other ways: notably, it gave me repeated opportunities to learn and improve the movements / pathways / exercises which, in turn, gave me the opportunity to develop my confidence as a dancer. Seeing my improvement from day to day encouraged me to continue, and experiencing small successes at the start of class offset the occasional frustration of learning new movements and combinations later on in the lesson. Not to mention, slowing down to practice movements in isolation meant that I could perform them with more ease and fluidity when it came to using them in choreography or in improvisation.

Dance is not about the choreography. Early in the week, one of my instructors at HDC cut the music just before we began our routine to say: “Stop. Why are you here? If music is playing in dance class, you dance.” And he insisted that we did, even if it felt awkward at first. Later, referring to a complicated move: “Listen, I’m not gonna teach you that shit. You can learn it on the internet. This is dance class.”
More than any dance instructor I’ve ever had, he emphasized that dance isn’t about the choreography. Choreography, which is a sequence of memorized movements, will be quickly forgotten. A more valuable outcome of dance class is increased confidence and joy in responding with movement to music. Of course, an additional benefit of dance lessons is picking up new steps or pathways, but the value of these is not that you can perform them in a specific sequence, but rather that you can go on to combine and remix them in endless ways, in addition to creating your own. In fact, most of the dance instructors regularly set aside time during class for improvisation – even in ballet, which is generally regarded as the most rigid of the dance styles.
The connection to math class, I think, almost goes without saying: formulas, procedures, algorithms are our version of choreography. Of course, it can be fun to learn and execute the moves. There’s a great sense of accomplishment in accurately performing a complicated routine. But the main outcome of math class shouldn’t be a memorized sequence of steps; more important, I think, is increased confidence and persistence when facing new problems (the analogue of improvisation, or developing your own routine), maybe with a few more tools to tackle them.
Note that I don’t feel that there is a clash between routine (c.f. above), choreography, and improvisation – all have their place and their value. All parts of the elephant, as they say. Lest I stretch the metaphor past its usefulness, I will stop here, but the idea of dancing as problem solving (and problem solving as dancing) is something I’d really like to keep exploring.

A teacher learns. A dance studio can be a prime location to study how great teachers differentiate and adapt instruction to meet their students’ needs. Especially in adult beginner dance classes, students tend to be very diverse in their abilities and previous experiences. While some really are starting from scratch, many are dancers returning after a long break, and still others are trying a new style but have extensive experience in another. At HDC, it was instructive to watch how teachers adapted their plans for the week as they learned more about their students, as well as how they provided options in the moment for dancers with different levels of experience (“for now, just focus on the feet,” or “try lifting your hands off the bar if you’d like a challenge”).
On the flip side, the experience of being a student again was also invaluable. As teachers, we know that the struggle of learning something for the first time can be quickly forgotten, replaced by the illusion that it was easy all along. Forgetting is all the more likely when you teach the same course semester after semester, year after year. And maybe the quickest way to dismantle this illusion is to put on a pair of ballet slippers and a leotard and step into a mirrored room full of strangers who all seem to know what they’re doing while you’re still struggling to remember the difference between a frappé and a fondu and to balance with both feet on the ground. Even with the most encouraging of teachers, I sometimes found myself afraid to ask for help, hiding in the back when I felt lost, and even fighting the urge to escape to the bathroom when I started to get overwhelmed. Pushing through the frustration of just not getting it and the fear that I just never will, especially when it feels like everyone else does, can take tremendous effort. And a teacher who – in addition to providing focused feedback – takes time to remind the class that it’s okay to feel lost sometimes, that being on the verge of this is too hard is just where you’re supposed to be, can make all the difference between choosing to stay home tomorrow and showing up to try again.

I left the program feeling refreshed and rejuvenated (and sore, so sore), full of empathy for my students and reminded of the great difference a teacher can make. As JP had predicted, I’m already starting to forget the choreography, but I remember how the instructors welcomed, supported, encouraged, and challenged us, all in their own ways. I remember leaving feeling more confident and ready to face the challenge of learning to dance – and learning to teach. It’s funny how inspiration often strikes precisely when you’re not actively willing it to come. Teachers, take care of yourselves, and it gets better… I think.


6 Replies to “This one’s about dance (and burn-out)”

  1. Hey,
    I’m not a teacher and can’t offer any wisdom about burn out. But you’re great on twitter and I hope you reconnect with your passion for teaching over the next year.
    Good Luck


  2. Thanks, Benjamin! I’m not ready to give up. I am starting to learn, though, that separating yourself from the work is sometimes just what you need to reconnect with it. I’m looking forward to having a new perspective next school year while still pushing myself to grow.


  3. I read in my devotion yesterday that we all need rest. Further, rest looks different for everyone. Some of us rest by running, exercising, gardening, enjoying the outdoors, playing a video game etc. Even God rested on the 7th day. Great share. You are obviously a dedicated, caring teacher. Now, more than ever we need more people like you in the profession. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the Twitter universe when you are feeling down and for sure don’t forget to rest.


    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Kelly! It’s so nice to have a support network. I’m looking forward to reengaging with you and other educators on Twitter.


  4. Hi Ilona,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog. Your feelings of burn out echoed so strongly with me. I have just finished my 4th year of teaching mathematics. I have had the best classes ever this year and have a fabulous, supportive department and school. However I felt broken at the end of this year and really couldn’t see how I could carry out another year of teaching. My work has become all consuming and my relationships with friends and family are suffering.

    This summer I went back to Egypt and fell in love again with snorkelling and swimming. Since coming home I have signed up to a swimming club and hope that this will help me switch off from teaching and keep me in the profession.

    Thank you for helping me realise I am not alone in these feeling and good luck for this academic year.


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