What Makes a Great Teacher?


Whether you are building a career or teaching part-time, being a great teacher means understanding your learners, cultivating your expertise, and finding your unique voice.

I have been teaching movement since 1995. At one point in my life, I was the youngest certified coach of rhythmic gymnastics in Western Canada. I was raised by two school teachers (one of whom insisted on being called “Dr. Dad” after receiving his PhD in Education), and throughout my childhood I was always surrounded by people who dedicated their lives to teaching.

I learned a lot from these people about how to be a teacher, certainly more than from any of the training or certification programs I have taken. In 22 years of teaching, I am still working on myself and my craft, in the hopes that some day I might be a “great teacher”, like some of the teachers I have had the pleasure to learn from.

In this blog post, I’d like to cover a few important things that I believe make good instructors in to great teachers.

There is an art to teaching adults how to move, and in many teacher training programs this art isn’t covered as much as it should be. So much of how we find success as teachers is in the trial & error of trying out ideas as we learn how to effectively communicate our curriculum, and react to the students in front of us. That means that a lot of what makes a great teacher just simply can’t be taught. The art of great teaching develops over time, with the study of your students, your area of expertise, and your authentic self.

Great Teacher

Among A Thousand Instructors, There Are A Few Teachers

The difficulty with teaching movement is that many of the training and certification programs out there focus mainly on the “what” of teaching – essentially, just the curriculum/format. Unfortunately, the “how” is a little harder to nail down in many of the 20-200 hour basic training programs that cover popular movement disciplines.

Ever wonder why there seem to be so many teachers out there, but few really good ones?

In over 2 decades of teaching, I have determined that there are 2 kinds of educators – Instructors, and Teachers. Instructors take the information given to them by their format, and pass it along in a specific way. Think of an aerobics class – the Instructor will demonstrate, shout out the moves, and everyone does their best to follow along. Rarely do Instructors go around the room to answer questions, help people with poor coordination, or talk about their theory on an effective step-touch. But they don’t need to – Instructors provide instructions, and participants either keep up, or they don’t.

Someone who gives the same instructions, but also has many methods with which to communicate them, an overall plan for effective growth, an ability to recognize when a modified method of transmission is needed for individual students, a dedication to their own continued learning, and a unique voice that takes their set of instructions from regurgitation to illumination – that is a Teacher.

A Teacher has the ability to tailor a learning experience to a student effectively so that their maximum potential has the opportunity to surface. A Teacher has the ability to answer questions with thoughtful informed answers based on deep study and experience, not just memorized information. A Teacher has enough of an understanding of what they are teaching that they can turn a set of instructions into a detailed landscape of information, and inspire the students to explore.

What Makes A Belly Dance Teacher Qualified?

When it comes to belly dance, there are few teacher training programs out there, no regulations or board of standards to determine the quality of these courses and their content, and not much more than a registration fee to qualify trainees for their teaching certificate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good belly dance teacher training programs out there, just that they are the exception, rather than the rule. With so few teacher training programs offered and no one to ensure that anyone teaching belly dance has some kind of formal qualification to teach movement, few belly dance teachers have much more than their own study of the dance to inform their teaching.

So if many belly dance teachers out there only have their expertise as a basis for becoming a teacher, shouldn’t they be… well, experts?

I’m not sure whether we can say that someone must be the definitive voice on a subject in order to be qualified to teach it, especially when there is no universally agreed upon standard for “experts” to meet. Being a fitness instructor who took 2 years of belly dance classes doesn’t necessarily qualify you to teach belly dance – you might be able to teach safe movement, but you probably haven’t learned enough about the dance or it’s origins to represent it ethically or effectively. You may have taken 10 years of classes and dedicated your personal style to being a “belly dancer”, but that won’t make you a belly dance teacher any more than living in a house will make you an architect.

The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to teach belly dance – or really any subject – is this: You don’t have to be an “expert”, but don’t teach what you haven’t studied extensively. Do your homework, and invest the time it takes to truly know something well enough to teach it. Being a teacher means being a solid resource of information, and no matter how enthusiastic you are about sharing, you need to be well educated before you can educate others.

The art of teaching comes with experience, so I am not suggesting that you must be “perfect” before you start, but it’s important to really know what you are talking about before becoming a leader on any subject. If you don’t consider yourself a leader on a subject – why are you leading a class on it? Why make yourself responsible for leading others into a topic that you don’t have a deep understanding of?

Humble yourself, respect the sheer size & history of the dance that you are attempting to represent, and become so knowledgeable about your chosen subject(s) that you are in a position to genuinely teach other people from a truly informed and experienced position. Educate, don’t regurgitate. People will notice the difference, and you can become one of those “great” teachers.

Great Teacher

Find Your Voice, Be Yourself

Finding your unique or authentic voice as a teacher is not simple branding. Being the “insert label here” teacher might seem like a great bit of schtick at first, and it might even help you sell a few extra spots in your first session of classes as you stand out from the crowd, but students – and your local dance community – are smarter than you think. People clue in pretty quickly when schtick is the substitute for a well-informed delivery that comes from an authentic place.

There are many different areas that teachers can lean towards under that big “Belly Dance” umbrella. Some teachers are known for their folk styles, others for creative fusion, and others for performance prep. Some students take classes with teachers they know they can learn the “home” styles from, some students gravitate towards teachers who show proficiency with certain props. Sometimes students take classes with certain teachers because there is a kind of bond that forms among the regular attendees. Every teacher has something different to offer, whether it’s skill, support, or something else.

Just as it is important to move beyond simple regurgitation of subjects we don’t have a deep understanding of, it’s also important to find our own authentic personality as teachers. Are you teaching something because you love it, or because you think it will be good for your brand?

It is tempting to emulate the style of successful belly dancers out there, and we certainly see that a lot in the performance world. The teaching world is no different. When a teacher gains a reputation for having a unique and effective teaching style, that style/method/format system will be emulated almost immediately by others, either consciously or unconsciously.

To develop your own unique voice, hone your skills and play to your strengths. Recognize where your expertise really is, and develop that. What part of your teaching is authentically you, and what part of it are you wearing like a costume? Do you find yourself emulating someone else’s teaching because they are successful, or do you have something unique of your own that makes you stand out?

Who you are as a teacher has a lot to do with why people will study with you, and your teaching methodology can help you stand out just as much as the subjects you teach. Look honestly at what you have to offer and what you truly want to give. You will find so much more satisfaction in sharing what you truly love, instead of what you think people will buy. Be yourself. Your students deserve to have a confident teacher, and you deserve to be appreciated for who you truly are.

In Short…

Studying this dance form is the easy part – teaching it is a huge responsibility. The education required to teach the movements is one thing, but belly dance is so much more than just a set of movements. It’s got a long history, it’s own musical traditions, cultural nuances, and a lot of ethical considerations that need to be explored and experienced. A great teacher knows they can’t be everything to everyone. They recognize their own strengths, and focus their brand on what they are best at. They know how to recognize the strengths in others, and how to approach areas that need further development. A great teacher is fluent in many styles of communication, and has the experience necessary to provide support for multiple learning styles. A great teacher isn’t just knowledgeable, they are good at helping others learn.

Most importantly, a great teacher knows that being great takes time and experience. If we have respect for the art of teaching, we must be patient and consistent in our attempt to master it.

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