Where my dance teachers went wrong and what that taught me about teaching beginners

“And 5… 5, 6, 7, 8!” More than 15 years after I had my first lessons, I decided to take up ballroom dancing again. My Better Half dutifully tagged along, but the difference was he was a true beginner. Three months later, we quit, feeling like complete and utter failures. We still want to learn how to dance, but probably not with those teachers.

“Why did you quit?,” I hear you ask. Well, maybe it’s true that we teachers are the most difficult learners. Or maybe it’s just me. All I know is that, as we left the dance school, I was awash with ideas about how the teachers and the school could have avoided dropouts. Most of the strategies I came up with are staples in teacher training courses, others might be peculiarities of hubby and me as learners.

Either way, here’s what I think what my dance teachers could have done differently to keep their adult beginners*.

1.       Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.

First class we came to, the group was dancing country separately as a warm-up. We were about to leave the room, thinking we were in the wrong classroom. Teacher came to us, as one should, and explained the purpose. “Ah!” And we stayed.

A few months down the line, they added salsa to the mix. I was furious. Better Half (henceforth BH) was struggling with 4 music genres, and they wanted to add a 5th? I felt they were adding insult to injury. “We’re not adding it,” the teacher explained when I asked, “it’s just to help you loosen up.” “Ah!”

We’re adults. We can understand! We want to! Don’t wait for the question; explain the rationale behind your actions.

 

2.       Don’t overdo the warmers/games/extras. Especially if they are not working.

The country thing would last for 10, 15 minutes in a ninety-minute long lesson. The salsa? Most of a lesson and a third of the other. (And I suspect they cut the segment short because they saw I was fuming…)

Not only were they unnecessarily long in my point of view, these warmers/extras were also stressing out the slower learners. Better Half would often sit the country out, as he simply could not follow the steps. Synonyms of the word “impossible” were bandied about. By the time the real lesson started, BH was saying things like “I’ll never learn how to dance.” Now there’s a sense of achievement you don’t want in your classroom. (And that you won’t have for long… as your student will likely quit.)

 

3.       Read the signs.

I’ll repeat: BH and I were opting out of some of the tasks. People would comment they were not following. BH and I asked the secretary if there were new beginner groups “because we were slowing down the group we were in.” Tardiness and absenteeism became issues. We were going to every class and extras at first, and then we suddenly changed. Going to dance class was simply not a pleasure any more. Why, oh why, didn’t the instructors come to talk to us?

 

4.       Seek feedback and pay attention to it.

I lie. The teachers did come to talk to us. Once, when they saw our beaming smiles after a great lesson they delivered. Noticing they were rightfully proud of the lesson, and considering we were in the foyer with other people, we highlighted everything they did right. Then in hushed tones and soft words we pointed out how that contrasted to what they had been doing. Their response was to revel in the compliments we paid to the lesson… and never again to repeat the strategies that led to its success. How not to receive feedback, 101.

Seriously, I was saying “NO, not really!” when the teachers asked, “Do you understand?” That’s a dead giveaway, and they’d laugh it off. Chaaaange strategies already!

 

5.       Don’t talk too much. Yes, the good ol’ “cut down on TTT”.

The lesson that made us smile was one in which the teacher didn’t talk much and had us practice, practice, practice. By the end of the lesson, we could do many steps we couldn’t previously, including whatever they were recycling from previous lessons. Magic or teaching technique?

Reducing Teacher Talking Time (TTT) is such a mantra that people have begun to criticize it. I agree there are many good uses of TTT.  Attempts to scrape it off will lead to exaggerations such as a trainer who once told me to whisper so a student would repeat the instruction aloud and hence I wouldn’t have said it.  Yeah, right.

However, enough is enough. If you’ve got the gift of the gab, you need to take it easy, esp. with beginners. A rule of thumb: if your students are spending more time listening to you than working on the tasks or lesson objectives, you’re way past the TTT threshold.

 

6. Pitch the lesson to the right level.

That’s easier said than done, I’ll concede to that. So let me exemplify: sometimes the teacher would say so many things beyond our level, that all I could think of was, “Haven’t understood a word.”  And it was my mother tongue, mind you.

Interestingly enough, one of the things I considered beyond our level was offering too many options: “so here’s the basic step, but you can do it like this, like that, or add this spring to it, etc.” At the end of that lengthy explanation, BH and I didn’t know the basic step, let alone the variations. That’s along the lines of what Penny Ur (2012) says about teaching vocabulary: it’s preferable to teach the synonym or antonym when the student already knows the original word. If you teach both words together, students tend not to learn either.

We’re basic students. We might be able to understand nuances, but we won’t be able to actually put them in practice. So don’t spend time with things we won’t learn. Focus on what we must learn and, once we do, expand on it.

 

7.       Monitor.

Again, the basics: to go around the class and pay attention to your students are doing. There we were struggling, doing things wrong or plain just standing there looking lost, and the instructor was looking at the mirror dancing with himself. Don’t. Not ever.

 

8.       Recycle. Everything. As much and as often as possible.

Beginners will forget. Or they might still remember what you said, but their legs (or tongues in the case of language learning) won’t do what their brains tell them to. Declarative, rather than procedural knowledge. So factor in a lot of time to practice what has already been taught. Because being taught and being learned are completely different things.

 

In conclusion, BH and I failed ballroom dancing, but at least it served the purpose of putting us in our students’ shoes. Teachers have a lot to learn from experiencing first hand the joys and struggles of being a beginner, be it in a different language or in a completely different skill. I once heard a major author in ELT (I’ll be damned if I can remember his name) say he kept having bagpipe lessons precisely because he was terrible at it, so he could identify with the slow learners in his groups. Boy, can I relate now!

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*As the point here is learning from other teachers’ mistakes, I won’t be mentioning everything my teachers did right, which was of course more than what they did wrong. But hey, I’m a disgruntled student. Let me whine.

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Reference

Ur, P. (2012). Vocabulary activities. Cambridge: CUP.

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

4 Comments
  • Ricardo Barros
    Ricardo Barros
    Posted at 23:22h, 06 outubro Responder

    Very interesting post, Natália. Two quick things it made me think of:
    1. I have often found teaching lower level students more challenging than higher levels. It’s harder to get away with stuff that is not well planned at lower levels and (it seems to me) having sound teaching techniques becomes even more important.
    2. I started having swimming lessons again this year and even though I’m not a beginner I constantly think what I would do differently if I was the teacher or how he could improve his rapport and other things. Comes with the territory, I suppose.

    • Natalia Guerreiro
      Natalia Guerreiro
      Posted at 08:27h, 07 outubro Responder

      Thanks for the comment, Ricardo. We teachers never do switch off, right?

  • Juliana Alves Mota
    Posted at 16:41h, 08 outubro Responder

    I loved your post, Natália. Thank you!
    One thing came up to my mind: Some teachers don’t like/get the hang of teaching beginners. They must be excellent professionals, but when it comes to teaching beginners, they are not that good. They prefer advanced ones, so that things go “easy”. Yes, I’m talking about English teachers as well!

    • Natália Guerreiro
      Natália Guerreiro
      Posted at 16:49h, 08 outubro Responder

      Thanks for dropping by, Juliana. 🙂 Personally, I find each level presents its challenges, but I’ve also heard of teachers who prefer advanced students claiming they’re easier. Perhaps it is indeed easier to get away with slacking in the advanced levels because students already have some proficiency, I don’t know, whereas beginners’ lack of progress is almost tangible.

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