Dance Education is (sort of) like a Voucher System

I’ve noticed a few parallels between the dance world that I walk in (my all time favorite hobby to date, with watching reruns of A-Team a close, close second) and the education world that I used to inhabit. School vouchers are a hot topic in education these days. And I see in the dance world an example of self-interest directed education that I think is an applicable comparison to public schools and what the practice of free choice does for society. So I wanted to lay a few thoughts out there for consideration.

First, the regarding the world I’ve spent slightly longer observing: dance.

I’ve encountered four [basic] types of people in dance-

1) People who do it socially to meet people, date, have fun, wiggle on the dance floor. Usually once they find someone to date/marry/whatever, they drop to an occasional dance habit. Like social smoking or knitting.

2) People who do it socially to meet people, then figure out they like learning and start to take workshops and travel to do it as much as possible. It becomes their hobby for its own sake. Like DragonCon, but with less cumbersome costumes.

3) People who do it socially to meet people, then do it enough to get really good at it (see #2), and are the type of personalities who need to know where they rank. These people are usually the ones you see in all the competitions. It’s a slightly different drive from the people who get their kicks from social dancing only. The buzz comes from a different place.

4) People who do it socially to meet people, stick with it long enough to become really good and to teach it, and (if they’re lucky and the dance world is in the right place at the right time for a trend to explode) get to spend a few magical, hard working years toiling in the dubious ranks of “Rock-stardom.” Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

(There’s an unofficial 5th type, the type of person who equates dance-ability with level-of pure-awesomeness-as-a-human, but that is for a different, slightly more pessimistic blog. That will come later, sometime late at night after some wine and a lot of Ray LaMontagne songs.)

Each type has a place and a function in the dance world, and I’m sort of fine with that. As per human nature, each type relates more naturally to others within their group. Okay.

Where am I going with this?

I’ve given a lot of thought recently to how my own dance education has evolved (I’m a #2, by the way). How I’ve chosen to learn, where I’ve chosen to travel, how I practice, etc. Getting all meta-cognitive on my path in dance has brought some things to light- some parallels that I’d not noticed before about the debated practice of school vouchers and the completely elective practice of learning to dance.

Each of the groups I mentioned gets the dance education that they seek. No more, no less. They’re not mandated to start in a certain class and follow a certain school of training. They might want to be the best- oh, they might dream of being a rockstar (usually cause they don’t know what being a rockstar actually entails), but they seek out and receive the quality of dance instruction that they are capable of receiving. You can put them in a class that might greatly help their swing out, but if they think they don’t need the help or know how to take the instructor’s advice, then you can’t make them. They learn what they’re ready and capable of learning. Like toddlers, you can’t force us. We’re in it for the fun.

Now to tie this in to the education world, which is where my professional training lies, if not my current efforts.

As a general rule of our race, once we think we’ve achieved a goal, it’s very hard to get humans to continue to push themselves.  Maybe that’s why grades first popped up. That competitive spirit is a great motivator- for some people. But grades are a symptom, an indicator. And most people in dance confuse the indicator for the goal. Same with education. And tests.

Not a startlingly new revelation, I’ll grant you. But the parallel between modern education and dance- the ways that humans sabotage themselves, their progress, and the things they say they want to achieve- is worth some deep thinking. Too often we lack that. We don’t take the time as a culture to look at cause and effect and correct course based on our real-time observations. We just plow on ahead, trying the same things again and again, waiting for the time when it will suddenly start working.

Where this relates to the title of this blog is that I’ve watched the education industry in this country debate the merits of the voucher system for years now. For some it’s the magic bullet, just waiting to be used. For others, it a deep betrayal of the core ideas behind public education. Personally, I think it’s focusing on the wrong thing to ask these types of questions. Will it work or will it not? Looking at human nature, does anyone really think it’s going to be that simple either way? Any teacher will tell you there’s no magic bullet.You have to factor in human nature, and human nature is that you will learn what your brain thinks it is pertinent to learn. Whether it’s dance or algebra, your brain will take to it, be interested in it…or it won’t. You can force it to a degree, but you can’t artificially create the desire to learn. For that reason alone, voucher systems for schools will never be either a cure-all for our school system or a fatal blow to public education. You have to factor in human motivation, and you can’t predict the consequences of that addition to the formula.

Looking at the dance community, which is 100% a voucher system of education (in a way; I know it doesn’t involve tax money, but flow with me to the conclusion of the thought), you can see that allocating the money yourself does not guarantee a certain type of result. Some people are good at getting the education they need regardless of the circumstances- and those people usually work outside of (or in spite of) the system. The system is not designed for efficiency. It is designed to serve a need. To instruct. It will do so inasmuch as the people within it are able to take in what is offered. Beyond that, it’s still a system designed for and by humans, with all our imperfections and quirks.

So don’t blame the system for being operated by humans. So is every other system on earth, and we don’t usually expect perfection from most of them. We know better.

Do you see my point? We get frustrated and blame systems for the faults of the moving parts in the system. For variables that are beyond our control. It’s a red herring to focus on vouchers. They won’t fix anything. The dance world proves that. The human part of the equation will always throw us off, in any system we make. So when I look at dancers, I see them for a mass of conflicting motivations and skill levels. They’ll get the education they’re capable of receiving, and I think that concept really needs to seep into the higher echelons of educational administrations. If it’s reflected in our systemic expectations for education, maybe we could develop some more realistic responses to the challenges we face.


An accomplishment worth noting….


It took me 25 years, but I finally did it.

A bit of background- when I was a kid, I enjoyed being in my body. Running, spinning, riding….it was such a joy to see what my body could do. I’ve always been conscious of my physical body in that way. And my Type-A-ness has a firm root in my childhood. Without prodding, I used to wake myself up at 6 am- when I was in elementary school– to watch and do an exercise show called Mickey Mousercise.  I would lay out a bath towel on the den floor and do the moves along with Kellyn (yes, that’s how she spelled it) before anyone else was up. I had that drive. Some call it crazy. I like my particular style of crazy. Most of the time anyway.

So I exercised. And towards the end of the program, Mickey Mouse always came out to do a few moves with us. You want to talk about magical- it was like Santa himself had appeared. You know, if Santa actually exercised.

At the cool-down part of each episode, we’d sit down and stretch. What I most wanted to be able to do in the whole world, was a beautiful, graceful split, just like Kellyn. So easy and relaxing. I tried and tried for years, but my pelvis always said “no.” Thank you for playing, but no split. My little 7-year-old heart kept trying. I never gave up. My goal with daily stretching (for years) has been that desire- that 7-year-old’s-wish- to do a split.

Last night at Decatur Hot Yoga, while in Cheryl’s Hot Core Power Yoga class, I looked up during one of the stretches to realize that I was doing a split.

I promptly fell over.

Finally, finally I had gotten it. I had done it. Any pose we did after that was a blur. All I could think about was Kellyn and Mickey and how I had finally achieved what I’d been trying to achieve all those years. I’d done a split.

Check one off the bucket list.

BTW, if you’ve never seen it, Mickey’s Mousercise is a blast from the 80’s that is totally worth the viewing. And if you don’t remember the 80’s you missed some fabulous hair. And the start of some massive holes in the ozone layer. I’m just saying.

I miss it and I don’t- after one year away from the profession, my thoughts on teaching

Almost one year ago, my teaching contract with a terribly inefficient local school system was allowed to lapse (translation: I wasn’t fired, but they didn’t have to renew the contact so they didn’t), and I was left for the third time in three years without a job. At the time, I was devastated. I’d worked for three solid years for this county, scraping for a new job every year due to budget cuts. I’d done everything I was supposed to do and then some- but the county still didn’t seem to have room for me. Moreover, after helping out two principals in tight spots by taking on a class mid-year and being under-supported, I was scapegoated for the performance of the class at the end of the year.

Never mind that some of my students spoke a dozen words in English, or couldn’t even read or write in their first language, or were homeless and slept on a shelter cot at night, or hadn’t had a decent meal since lunch the day before, or had 2 years of formal schooling in their entire lives. I must have failed them somewhere if their test scores didn’t reach a certain level. (For the record, this is not just one child I’m talking about here.)

So after three long, difficult years, I walked away from a profession that drove me absolutely crazy. I wasn’t helping my students, I wasn’t helping myself, and I wasn’t happy.

I’ve had a year to adjust to a new ‘job’ as an entrepreneur, and see how I deal with a change of pace. To a large extent, it’s been wonderful.

I don’t miss:

1) The schedule

2) The blame

3) The inefficient, unprofessional management teams

4) The time-wasting ‘professional development’ meetings

5) The constant illnesses

6) The financial investment it takes to maintain a classroom

7) Grading papers on nights and weekends

8 ) Creating lesson plans on nights and weekends

9) Being treated unprofessionally and watching administrators treat dedicated teachers like errant teenagers who have to prove why they should get to stay out past curfew.

10) Calling parents in the car on the way home from work, just to multi-task a bit more so that I might get to bed 15 minutes earlier.

11) Dealing with parents who think I’m racist because I insist their child follow the behavioral rules of my classroom. (There was more than one of those.)

I do miss:

1) My students

(crickets chirping……)

Looking back , I think the profession of teaching is in the worst state I’ve ever seen. The ENTIRE YEAR is focused on the Big Test that they have to take. The meddling of the politicians and businesspeople has made it worse, not better, and the expectation that the ‘system is broken’ like a car is broken is corroding one of the most noble things a society can aspire to do- prepare its next generation for life. I could go on and on, but enough people talk about this topic and disconnect their heads from their intuition. The change we need at this point can only come from a total paradigm shift- and I honestly don’t know that mass society is up for that yet. That’s okay, millions of people are taking the initiative to home-school their kids or deliberately fighting back against the system. I wish you well.

I miss one thing about teaching- my kids- and I miss them terribly. But the job itself is not worth making myself miserable. So I refuse it. I’ll make a different way.

Looking back, I’m so, so, so very happy that I’m not teaching right now. I’m not ruling it out in the future….maybe once I move to Austin, Tx, I’ll try their system and see if it’s any better out there. But for now, I’m the master of my own ship, and I’m not willing to go back to the system that so abused me while hamstringing my ability to help my students.

Fool me once….