Success Through Small Steps

I am a dancer.  I love to dance.  No matter how I’m feeling, if I dance full-out for even just two minutes I find I am calm, grounded in myself and my abilities, happy.  I have danced all my life: tap, jazz, ballroom, ballet, Irish step dancing.  A few years ago I lost touch with my inner-dancer and I am on a mission to get her back.

In an effort to find my inner-dancer,  I decided to try something new.  I took what I thought was a basic modern dance class.  The teacher was amazing, her approach was inspiring, the other students were friendly…and I nearly broke down in tears and left.  Now mind you, a thirty second television commercial or a touching greeting card can easily bring me to tears so crying isn’t such an unusual response for me but I really was on the verge.  The vocabulary of modern dance felt so foreign to my body I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  I had trouble remembering the steps never mind dancing with intention.  I felt stupid, inadequate; I wanted to hide.  I’m a dancer.  Yeah, right.  I’m a failure.

So I sought out a really basic modern dance class.  The instructor moved slowly and  taught in small bits.  She consistently checked in for questions and did it all with a smile and sense of humor.  I got through the class and never once even came close to crying!  I had a feeling of success, of accomplishment, of competency.  Then, I returned the next week and the teacher used some of the same moves she had used the previous week as she added new ones.  After 4 or 5 classes I finally felt like I was dancing again.  Ah, the sweetness of success.

It was then I had my ah-ha moment.  There are children out there who feel the way I did in my first modern dance class every single day!  They never quite catch on before the teacher has moved on to the next point, leaving them feeling stupid, inadequate.  They feel like failures.

My experience drove home the importance of really being in touch with my students and where they feel they are performing on the “failure to success” continuum.  It reminded me that art-making requires some level of vulnerability and risk-taking; that I need to gage each child’s comfort level and remember not all discomfort manifests in the same way.  It is so important to be cognizant and respectful of where our students are no matter what the subject.  It is vital that we be sure to allow even a small success for every child every day.  Success provides a foundation and desire for learning.  It emboldens a child to push a little harder, reach a little higher.

All educators know this and many do this but it’s not always as easy to do as it is to say.  Because many of us are not beginners in many situations anymore we can forget just how scary and frustrating it can be.  Whenever I feel the urge to push on and drag my students with me, whenever I catch myself teaching the lesson and not the students, I vow to tap into the place where my first modern dance class memory lives.  I will stop what I’m doing, take a deep breath and reconnect.  I will find a way to allow some success for every child.  After all, I know firsthand it can make all the difference.