I don't always get to know a lot about my students. I don't mean that I'm not interested, or that I don't ask questions. Because I am… and I do. What I mean is that, as a dance teacher who sees students weekly, I'm not usually filled in on what's going on in their lives outside the classroom. It seems that, especially when those students are children, collecting background info becomes secondary to, well, focusing on class.
Sometimes I think it would be really useful to know certain things - like if a kid has any learning differences or developmental delays, or if there's something going on at home (divorce or illness or death of a family member), or at school (bullying, going to a new school, best friend moving away).
But over the years I've found that knowing those things is not necessarily crucial to doing my job well. I consider it my job to welcome children into the classroom and create a safe space for them to explore their creativity, strengthen their courage, and develop kind and compassionate connections to themselves and classmates.
There are times when a parent fills me in on key info and it's super helpful. There are times when I'm having trouble figuring out how to help a student have the best learning experience, and then I ask a parent for suggestions. Communication is great, and I appreciate having honest relationships with the parents of my students.
I'm not saying that I'm glad when parents don't tell me these things. What I am saying, is that most of the time, the not knowing, forces me to be incredibly present in each moment of class. When a situation comes up and a student is upset or misbehaving or having a hard time, I can look at that student and see her/him for the individual s/he is. Without pre-judgement or labels. Without assumptions that what's going on is related to something else or how they should be treated (because sometimes it really is just about not getting a purple ribbon to dance with.) And then we work it out. Together.
One time, at the beginning of a creative movement class for preschoolers, a child ran past me into the classroom as dad asked to speak with me for a moment. He filled me in that the boy's mom had died the day before, but he wanted to come to class, so here they were. Dad wasn't sure if his son would mention it during class, but he wanted to make sure I knew, just in case it came up. I remember the feeling of my heart breaking for this bouncing, joyful 5 year old. No one had even told me his mom was sick. I was filled with sadness for him and was overwhelmed with emotion for how this loss would shape and change his life. I was getting totally wrapped up in my feelings about the situation.
And then I stopped myself. I thought he does not need me to push my feelings about this onto him. The last thing I want is to make him feel like he needs to take care of my feelings right now. My job is to treat him as a whole person.
So we started class, as usual. And at some point, while I was getting music ready for the next activity, the kids started to talk amongst themselves. When I turned my focus from the music to their conversation I heard My mom had a sickness that got so big that she had to die. That sickness was called… cancer. Cancer. He had almost whispered that last word.
I held my breath, not sure what to do. After a beat another student said My grandma died which was followed by a few questions, some more sharing of family members and pets who had passed away. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the conversation was over. Everyone was silent. That was my cue. It was time to dance.
I think of all the times I've walked into a dance class, stressed or sad or broken hearted, and walked out free, joyful… healed. I'm so grateful that my dance teachers created a space where I could go and instead of being asked questions, or given suggestions, or looked at/treated differently because of what was going on in my life outside the studio - I could dance it out or forget about it for a while or find a way to let it go. And now it's my turn to do the same.