Imagine a class where everyone is working hard, the energy of the room pulses, and achievement hangs in the air. I’d guess it’s a major reason why we all dance—those good classes that are so good they are almost transcendent. You finish class filled with gratitude, drive, and connection, primed for success for the rest of your day.
These classes aren’t accidents; they are a result of motivational teaching, thoughtful planning, and an intentional classroom climate.
The saying goes:
tone is top down.
As the teacher in any given situation, you may be the top decision maker, or you may be somewhere in the chain of command. But wherever you are, creating the climate for your classroom is your responsibility.
Since the 1980s, the term climate, or sometimes environment or atmosphere, has been used to evaluate the experience of students on a campus or in a classroom. The term often comes up when considering the experience of underrepresented students on a campus: the experience of first-generation college students, or students of color, or women. There is a lot of reading you can do if you are interested, but I’ll cut to the chase when it comes to how a teacher can foster a productive, inclusive classroom climate.
Interrogate your materials and examples.
Set clear expectations
Have respectful interaction (Source link)
When working in a community setting, the climate is particularly important because there can be more variation in the setting, group, experience levels, and content. Creating a positive climate enhances student learning across the board and in a community setting, you may be working to set the climate in each class.
Wait, why the snowflake image? Think of it this way, the snowflake is both cold and cozy. Being in snow without winter gear is awful and dangerous but romping in boots, snow pants, a parka and a hat—is joyful. Think of the snow gear as the scaffolding you provide your students: clear expectations, clear content, clear procedures.
One contributor to student performance is the generally unseen element of climate, the psychological phenomenon stereotype threat. The term coined by social psychologist Claude Steele demonstrates how internalized stereotypes of groups affect individuals. Basically, deep in your brain, you know the stereotypes others have of you in a given situation and those affect your performance. I highly recommend Whistling Vivaldi for all dance teachers.
How many of you have accomplished something while teaching, that you can't do as a student? Demonstrating a triple pirouette or flying across the room when showing students how to take up space?
That’s a positive example of stereotype threat. You've internalized your position as the teacher and it impacts your performance.
But there are lots of negative ones. Some of the most famous from Steele's body of work is the outcomes on test performance when students are subtly reminded of stereotypes before taking a standardized math or verbal test. But there are physical studies too, including golf putting.
The point is, the expectations you and society have of your students affect their performance. The good news is you can create a group culture explicitly. You say “This is how we do things here” by modeling strong behaviors and expecting your students to too.
The week I was writing this, I experienced unintentionally hostile classroom climate. I took a yoga class and at the start the teacher said “There’s no right or wrong today. Just do what your body needs.” Not halfway through the first sun salutation, the teacher says: “What in the world are you doing?” then minutes later “You all have your butts sticking out” then “I am seeing all sorts of wrong arms.” Now, I am a pretty experienced yoga student, but even I had this hot wash of shame worrying that I was doing something wrong. The room stiffened, everyone started looking around more, comparing themselves to others to try and be right. We didn’t know what to expect. She was not having a very self aware teaching day. but it’s a great example of climate because the room stiffened.
In order not to tense up our classrooms, let's look more closely at the three principles listed above.
Interrogate your materials
Check your movement materials and your music selections. Take a look at what you are leaving out. Look at the race, class, and gender of your examples. Consider the genres of dance you present. You always have a balance between being authentic and teaching what you know and being inclusive of parts of dance history and dance. You might think, oh, in a studio class I don't really have materials. But you do: Think about your music, what videos you show, what repertory you teach, even what movement content you include.
Brains love control. I'm reading a great book called The Influential Mind in it, the author Tali Sharot discusses the importance of feeling in control even when that control is crafted by a system. You can help your students feel a sense of control in your classroom by creating expectations together and keeping them posted on a wall. You can also build choice into your class structure: "Anyone who wants to can dance this one more time. Others, come be the audience."
Have respectful interactions
I'm pretty confident that you plan to be respectful of your students. I know you know the basics: Old people don't like baby talk, Teenagers don't like when you try and fit in with them, and English-language learners don't like extra loud speaking. But one area that I see teachers be accidentally or incidentally disrespectful is with others outside of the space, whether it's badmouthing other teachers, the space you are in, others in a non-profit, or even the parents of your students. I'm not saying you should never vent--but vent to your peers off site/off hours, never to your students.
Learn to feel the space
One skill you will develop is the ability to feel the space. It’s a talent and it takes time—so don’t worry if at first you look at your students faces and have no idea if they are having fun or are hating you from the depth of their souls. Take note of how willing students are to participate.
Try things out: If you start with an improvisation and unlike last week, students seem tentative and meek, switch to a set pattern and see if you get a better response.
Just ask: If you ask a question and everyone glances nervously at each other instead of responding to you, say “Is there something I should know?”
Take a body poll: If you sense that everyone is wiped out, move the students into a stretch and then say: “If you need more energy to push through the next 15 minutes, roll to your back, if you want more calm, roll into child’s pose.
There are many types of climates, I’ve brainstormed a few. You’ll see that some of the climate markers are verbal and some are behavioral.
Ways to create a warm climate:
Greet students by name
State a theme for the class
Teach material you know the students can master
Compliment each student at one point in the class
Ways to create a light climate:
Crack a joke about the weather
Use popular music
Quickly transition from exercise to exercise
Ways to create a purposeful climate:
Talk excitedly about the topic of class
Repeat exercises with another layer of information for each round
Follow up on corrections, letting students know what they have improved and what they still could improve.
Ways to create a toxic climate
Look at the students like they are irritating you
Check your phone
Make a joke about what a student is wearing
Give an exercise that is too hard for the students
Use a student as an example of what not to do
Talk about two teachers who are both fantastic but whose classes differ greatly. What are the differences? What are the things they do that are similar?