I know a thing or two about professional teaching and about educational theory (*cough* Post Graduate Certificate in Education, with Distinction *cough*). Following the years I spent teaching for a living in Secondary School (or High School for my North American readers) I moved back into education myself and these last three years have seen me become a student in many areas of life – academically, professionally and in my leisure time. I’ve been overawed by some of the amazing teachers who have taught me in the last few years, and taken note of those teachers I felt “could do better”.

I’ve recently been reflecting on these years of learning and decided I would put down in writing some tips and thoughts for teachers, both for my own edification and also because I think that they might just possibly be helpful for others. There’s no particular order to this list, it’s simply the order that they popped into my head. But the last one is the most important one.

1) Be aware of your own power

When you are in the position of teacher you have a great deal of power. Even when there is no exam, even when the class is just for fun, you have power. You know something that the people in front of you are hoping to learn. They have given you their time in the hope that they will get something of worth to them back from it. They may have given you money. Remember that. And remember that everyone, everyone, is vulnerable. That is particularly true when they are in the position of ‘student’.

You have the power to make people feel stupid, no good, to feel worthless. You have the power to make them feel clever, talented, full of value. You have the power make people feel bad about themselves or to feel good about themselves. And no matter how technically brilliant your explanations and insights may be, your students will remember most of all how you made them feel. Be aware of that immense power and use it wisely. Praise publically and criticise privately. Or better yet offer constructive feedback, and still do it privately. And pay attention to everyone, even the people hiding at the back right hand corner of the room (that’s typically where the really shy people navigate to). They may well be shy, but they still want and deserve attention – even just a bit of eye contact, a nod and a smile.

2) Empower your students

If your teaching is worthwhile you will be giving your students the opportunity to change something. This change might be in expanding their knowledge, it might be teaching their body to do something new. Change has consequences. Let them know what they are, and give them the choice.

I always remember when I first started learning Geology, back in the dim and distant. In the first lecture we were told that this class would change the way we viewed scenery and landscapes. And it was true. By the end of it I couldn’t just look at a landscape and think “Aww, that’s pretty”. No, I would look and see the faults and folds, I would theorise about the geological events that had caused the land to look the way it did. And because I was forewarned, I felt like the change was at least somewhat within my power – it was not ‘done to me’, I felt that I had done it to myself.

Another example is from a workshop I took with Ansuya where she taught floorwork. At one point during the workshop she stopped and talked to us about “acceptable pain”. About the bruises, cuts, scrapes and the pain that she and many other performers were prepared to accept as part of their work. She explained that what she was about to teach next was sore, particularly if we did it repeatedly. In doing so she offered us the opportunity to participate or not, depending on our individual attitudes to pain and bruising. That was empowering because I didn’t just go into it blindly and then feel resentful afterwards for the pain I’d suffered.

Dancing connects you more firmly with your own body. For many people this is welcome, but for others it might not be (I’m thinking particularly of people with chronic pain, as an example). If people are new to dance they might not be aware of this consequence of learning your dance form – let them know. Let them know if there’s a good chance they will ache afterwards or even bruise. You don’t know their plans – they might be going to a wedding the next day, or modelling and those bruises may not be okay for them to have. Give them the power to choose by giving them enough information to make the choice. Never assume that they will know, and certainly do not assume that they will be okay with it.

3) Know your limits

Be aware of where your knowledge and competence stops and be okay with that. No-one knows everything, no-one is competent at everything, and it’s alright to learn from others even when you yourself are a teacher. In fact it’s more than alright, I would argue it’s necessary that you keep learning – both to broaden your knowledge/competence base and to remind you of what it’s like to be a student.

Be prepared to admit when you don’t know something or how to do something. You will have far more integrity if you own your own ignorance. In doing so you make it okay for your students to not know things too, and you avoid straying into the potentially dangerous (and perhaps even litigious) areas of making things up because you are ashamed that you don’t know, or making your students feel stupid for asking by giving a defensive response that hides your ignorance. When you acknowledge your own limits you create an environment where not knowing is fine, where it is acceptable. This is the fertile ground where learning occurs best.

4) Learn how you teach

Everyone teaches differently. Different is fine. But be aware of how you teach. There may be rough bits in your way of teaching that you’d be better off trying to fix. Or perhaps you have mannerisms that you don’t even know about. Tape yourself. Voice recorders or video recorders are everywhere now – your phone may even have one. Tape yourself, and listen/watch it back. It’ll be horribly embarrassing, so listen or watch it back alone. Take notes, decide what you like about how you teach, and what you’d like to do differently.

If you’re really brave ask a peer to attend your class and give you feedback afterwards. Perhaps let them know if there are particular areas you’d like them to focus on. Ask your students – though be careful how you do that. They’ve already given you their time during class, and possibly their money too. However you consult them bear in mind that you are asking them for something. Short, anonymous, feedback forms – tick box with a space for any comments – are a quick and straightforward way to gather feedback. You can do it with bits of paper, or if you feel like it, you can do online ones (surveymonkey has a free option though sign-up with them is required).

5) Remember that everyone is different

How you learn is not how everyone learns. Some people like to know the lesson plan right at the start, in fact they need it in order to relax into the lesson and not be constantly thinking “what’s happening next?”. Other people don’t like the big picture, and need information to be presented in little chunks so as to not be overwhelmed. In practice this means that to catch the widest amount of people that you need to do both – give the big picture at the start and then give little chunks throughout the lesson – explaining what’s coming next as you go along.

The way you learn is generally the style of learning that you teach to, so be aware of that and takes steps to mediate against that. It’s reckoned that about one third of people prefer visual styles of learning (reading/writing), one third prefer auditory styles (listening/talking) and the final third prefer sensory methods (doing/feeling)– if you teach only to your preferred style you will be making it harder for about two thirds of your students. Take the time to think about how you can give your teaching in multiple ways, or at least mix it up from class to class. Also remember that some people pick things up very quickly and others need time to mull it over and try things out either physically or in their head.

6) Never forget this: If a student does not understand you, it is your responsibility to fix that.

I was given this advice early on in my teacher-training and it’s stuck with me ever since. No matter how clever I think my explanation has been, if the student doesn’t get it that’s my fault and it’s my job to try some other way of explaining it until they do get it. It’s not their fault for being distracted, or tired, or for being ‘stupid’ (anyone remember being called that at school?). As the teacher, the burden is mine to make myself understood; it is not the students’ burden to understand. Chances are they are actually trying their best.

And if you only take one thing away from this list, let it be the last one.