The Hard Conversations

by Aslahan

As teachers, it is our responsibility to guide our students not just in technique and expression, but in etiquette and professionalism. It is our responsibility to create a good learning environment for everyone in class. Sometimes, these responsibilities mean initiating conversations that may make an individual student uncomfortable. These conversations are uncomfortable for us, too (who wants to embarrass a student or quash her enthusiasm?), but are necessary to protect the student herself, the rest of the class, the teacher, the community, and the art of belly dance.

I think most instructors feel this responsibility, but often these hard conversations never happen, not because the teacher isn't aware of the problem, but because the teacher just doesn't know what to say. My approach is to identify why the student's behavior is a problem, and present it to them privately and compassionately, with the assumption that they truly are not aware of the damage they are causing.

It helps to think ahead of time about what you will say to start the conversation. Rather than generalities, here are some specific examples of issues you may find yourself needing to address with a student, precisely *why* they are an issue, and a suggested "script" for what to say to your student.


ISSUE:
The student is taking on paid gigs before she is ready.

PROBLEM:
This reflects badly on belly dance (someone without the skills representing professional dance), and also on you as a teacher.

SCRIPT:
"I know how excited you are about this, but I just don't think you're at that level yet. Taking professional gigs before you're ready reflects on me as your teacher, and also misrepresents professional belly dance as a whole. I need to ask you to stop."


ISSUE:
The student is taking on paid gigs and isn't charging enough.

PROBLEM:
Undercutting affects the whole community as prices go lower and lower.

SCRIPT:
"I need to talk to you about the rates you're charging. The going rate in the community is X, and when you charge less than that you bring down prices for everybody. As a professional dancer you should be charging X at a minimum."


ISSUE:
The student has an inappropriate costume.

PROBLEM:
Even at a hafla, a student's costume (too revealing, obviously a lingerie bra with sequins added, etc) can reflect badly on belly dance as an art, and you as a teacher.  

SCRIPT:
"I need to talk to you about your costume. I know you love it/are excited about it/have performed in it before, but it really needs to be altered so that it shows less leg/shows less breast/covers your underwear/doesn't show your panties when you spin/is less obviously a covered lingerie bra. Perhaps you could wear a vest/wear a bolero top/add harem pants/wear something different for this show."


ISSUE:
The student has started teaching before she is ready.

PROBLEM:
Again, this reflects badly on the art of belly dance, and on you as the student's teacher. Additionally, the student is almost guaranteed to turn out students of her own with sublevel skills and standards, and may even hurt someone.

SCRIPT:
"I know how excited you are about this, but it's too soon for you to be teaching. You put your students at a disadvantage by not being ready as a teacher, and your actions reflect on me as your instructor, and on belly dance itself. I need to ask you to stop."


ISSUE:
The student talks too much in class.

PROBLEM:
Everyone's time is being taken up on something other than what you are teaching. Other students may become frustrated and discouraged.

SCRIPT:
"I need to ask you to limit your comments in class a bit more. It's distracting to my other students, and I want everyone to feel that their time is being used effectively. Can you save your comments for before or after class?"


ISSUE:
The student tries to answer other students' questions.

PROBLEM:
The student may be giving incorrect information. The student may have a different answer than you do, which confuses the class (your class is about YOUR philosophy and approach; that's why your students come to you). The student is using up people's time with unsolicited answers. Other students may stop asking questions if they know it will trigger this student to respond.

SCRIPT:
"I appreciate your enthusiasm and I know you just want to help, but I need to ask you to let *me* answer any questions that come up in class. Having multiple 'teachers' is too confusing for the other students."


ISSUE:
The student brings gossip, conflict, or all their personal problems ("drama") to class.

PROBLEM:
Even if this is occurring before or after class time, it creates extra stress and unpleasantness for the other students.

SCRIPT:
"I know you feel a strong bond with the other students, but many of them come to class to get away from the problems of work and social pressures. I need to protect that, so I have to ask you to leave your problems outside when you come to class. It's just not the right place to vent."


ISSUE:
The student frequently corrects the teacher in class.

PROBLEM:
Again, the student is taking up the time of everyone in the class. The student may be flat out wrong, or (this is often the case) is trying to expand on something you've given a simple explanation for, which confuses the other students and loses the focus you were trying to achieve.

SCRIPT:
"I appreciate your enthusiasm and I know you just want to help, but if you're concerned that something I've said is incorrect could you ask me about it after class? These discussions in class take up everyone's time and can be confusing for the other students."


ISSUE:
The student wears too much perfume.

PROBLEM:
This can be overwhelming and unpleasant for both you and the other students in your class. Additionally, some of other students may have chemical sensitivities that make this a health issue.

SCRIPT:
"I need to talk to you about your perfume. It's lovely, but it's just too strong for the class environment. I need to ask you apply it more lightly/refrain from wearing it to class."


ISSUE:
The student has body odor. (NOTE - of all the topics in this list, this one has the most potential to humiliate a student, and should be handled with delicacy, privacy, and a little face-saving spin.)

PROBLEM:
This is unpleasant for the other students in your class, as well as you. Your other students may leave and not return.

SCRIPT:
"I'm embarrassed to bring this up, but I've noticed you have some body odor in class - maybe you are coming here from another workout? Would it be possible to change clothes in between?"


An embarrassed or disappointed student may try to draw you into a debate:

    "But no one's complained about my costume before."
    "But I don't feel right charging as much as a dancer who has ten years of experience."
    "But I have a music degree, and oversimplified information drives me crazy."


Getting drawn into an argument won't help things. You can stay out of the debate by saying something like: "I understand how you feel, but" and then restate the problem as outlined above. Or just "I understand how you feel, but my concern still stands."

Often the student is simply embarrassed to have made a mistake, and will appreciate the guidance after her embarrassment has subsided. Have patience.

Every once in a while, you'll find yourself with a student who will not make the changes you ask. That brings us to one of the hardest conversations, if you choose to have it:


ISSUE:
The student needs to be asked to find a new teacher.

PROBLEM:
The student is continuing to disrupt your class and/or negatively affect your reputation. This can lose you students or gigs, and possibly hurt the dance community as a whole.

SCRIPT:
"I'm really sorry, but I've talked to you about [insert issue here] and you don't seem to be willing to change. It isn't fair to my other students/affects my reputation in the dance community. I have to ask you to find a new teacher."


Most of the time, students mean well. They are unaware of how they come across, or unaware of the issues they might be causing in the belly dance community. These conversations are never comfortable, but they nearly always solve much more trouble than they cause.