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The K-12 Teaching Environment

Stage photo of three dancers doing a center split leap, and other dancers moving around them with a blue back drop wearing white skirts and white or black leotards.

If you are interested in becoming a K-12 dance educator, it is important to realize that there are differences between teaching in a school environment and teaching in a typical dance studio setting. While every K-12 school dance program and dance studio is different, those interested in a career as a K-12 dance educator should be aware of the ways that K-12 and studio programs can differ in terms of class content, assessment, student population, and learning goals.

 

If you are interested in teaching in a K-12 school, Kristin Blatzheim, Dance Teacher at ISD 196, a public high school in Minnesota, offers the following advice:

“I would spend time shadowing current school dance teachers. Find out if you are invested in students’ overall education and not just wanting to teach technique. You will encounter a broad array of students from all sorts of backgrounds and skill levels in the public schools and this can be a unique challenge. Do you want the studio experience or do you want the public school experience? I wanted to be a teacher almost more than I wanted to be a dance teacher so it was the right move for me.”

Class Structure and Content of Dance Classes in K-12 Education

Kathleen posing with a model skeleton with a group of students

Dance technique in specific genres is the primary focus of most dance classes in a typical independent sector dance studio environment. Classes tend to run about an hour, with all of that time dedicated to the study of a single dance technique and choreography in that genre. Class structure will vary depending on the genre being studied, age of the students, and teaching style of the educator. However, a class will generally consist of a warm-up, conditioning and stretching, progressions and technique exercises, a combination or choreography, and perhaps a creative exploration.

In K-12 dance programs, however, the curriculum and class structure can be quite different. Classes may be shorter, about 45 minutes, and part of that time may need to be set aside for students to change before and after class. This requires teachers to be creative in their lesson planning, perhaps adapting traditional class structures for a condensed format. Additionally, in the K-12 setting, dance educators often need to be able to incorporate dance history, cultural context, anatomy, dance composition, and more into their classes. Amber Corriston, Director of Dance at Harrisonburg High School, a public high school in Virginia, notes that dance teachers in the K-12 setting need to consider aspects of dance that go far beyond technique.

“Teaching K-12 dance is so much more than what we think of if we've grown up in a traditional studio setting. You'll be teaching the history of each form of dance and composition. You'll be studying videos so that the dancers are exposed to more than just moving their own bodies. You are teaching dance appreciation. Yes, you teach the technique of various genres, but it's so much more.”

In a typical independent sector dance studio environment, classes are delineated by genre, and the students study a single dance genre per class for the entire term or session. Many K-12 dance programs, however, are designed to introduce students to a range of dance styles within a single semester or year-long course. This means that K-12 dance educators need to be well-versed in many different dance styles, as Emily Enloe, Dance Teacher at Oakbrook Middle School, a public middle school in South Carolina advises:

“Take time to study any and every style you can. This is extremely beneficial in the K-12 setting since you never know the population you may be working with. It is, of course, important to have strong foundations in basic movement principles and you may have one or two styles that you have studied in depth, which is also helpful. However, understanding of various styles, and even areas related to dance like theatre, musical theatre, dance team, and marching band, make you a stronger candidate for a school district.”

To present a diverse curriculum to their students, K-12 teachers will also need to develop teaching strategies that compensate for gaps in their knowledge, as Corriston explains:

“You will want to expose your students to dance forms that you're not well-versed in, so you'll need to find tools to do that respectfully and in culturally appropriate ways.”

Photo of a young dancer in black leggins and a blue tank top doing a split jump with her arms in a v shape.

This might include fostering relationships with local guest artists, swapping classes with teachers who specialize in different genres, using videos and primary source material, or empowering students to facilitate learning experiences for their peers using dance forms from their cultural backgrounds.

Overall, the best way to understand the differences between teaching dance in K-12 school and teaching in other environments is to experience them firsthand. Every program is different, and spending some time learning about the goals and priorities of a program can be a helpful way to discern whether you want to become a K-12 dance educator. “Gain some experience teaching before jumping into the classroom, even if that is volunteering to help out with other types of classes,” says Ann Robideaux, Theater/Dance Coordinator, Teacher, and Choreographer at Princeton Day School, a private combined grades school in New Jersey, “because a school's goals are typically different than those of a dance studio. For example, they may be more interested in getting a student through math class than devoting extra time to rehearsing for dance concerts.”

Gabrielle Cook, a Dance Teacher in a public high school in New Jersey, summarizes what she considers to be the differences between teaching in a K-12 program and teaching in a dance studio in this way: “Teaching dance in the K12 environment requires approaching the content from an academic and artistic viewpoint. You have to be ready to teach diverse content from multiple perspectives.”

Assessment in K-12 Dance Education

Headshot of Gerri, a hispanic woman with brown hair and dark eyes, wearing a gray turtle neck

Dance teachers in every sector are constantly assessing their students in different ways. In a typical independent sector dance studio environment, those assessments might happen during auditions for a performance company or competition team, or when deciding whether or not to move a student up to the next level. In the K-12 setting, assessment happens more regularly, and often through formal graded student evaluations and projects. Dance teachers in K-12 schools must determine how they will evaluate their students’ progress and learning, and turn that evaluation into a grade. They must be able to assess participation and engagement, written assignments, dance compositions, oral or mixed-media projects, performance exams, and more. Niki Thuman, Teacher at L'Anse Creuse Public School, a public high school in Michigan recommends that all K-12 dance teachers create their own plan for assessment. “Make sure you have a grading procedure in place and stick to it,” she says, “Participation should be the biggest part of the grade, but is the hardest part to grade. Decide how you're going to manage that.” Heather Almanza, Dance Teacher at Mission Hills High School in California advises dance educators to give a variety of category assessments, such as technique tests, vocabulary quizzes, and artistic dance literacy essays. “This allows multiple opportunities for students to succeed, even if they are not the best dancer!”

Involving students in the assessment process can be beneficial for their education, as Gerri Barreras (pictured above), Performing Arts Chair and Dance Director, Gulliver Preparatory High School in Florida notes. “The more student-centered your work is the more invested your students will be,” she says. “For example, if skill acquisition is what you are aiming for, I recommend skill assessments that are video taped and have the students grade themselves too. ”

Additional Duties and Responsibilities of Dance Teachers in K-12 Schools

A group of dancers posing in a clump in various colorful costumes, on stage with a muted rainbow backdrop

Dance educators in the K-12 setting are responsible for more than just teaching classes. In many dance programs, teachers are also required to:

  • Produce dance concerts, including casting, lighting and costume design or coordination, stage management, budgeting, and marketing.
  • Create choreography and advise student choreographers for dance productions. 
  • Coach dance teams, direct after school dance clubs, or sponsor a Chapter of the National Honor Society for Dance Arts.
  • Conduct administrative duties, such as scheduling, curriculum design, budgeting, studio upkeep, and school duties like lunch or carpool monitoring.
  • Market their programs and promote their classes within the school and the community

Hannah Jones, Dance Director at Richlands High School, a public high school in North Carolina, shares her experience with the myriad job duties associated with a career as a K-12 dance teacher:

“When I attended college and decided to pursue K-12 dance education, I had not ever experienced dance in school myself but saw the value of increased access to dance within the school setting. My advice to anyone considering a career in K-12 dance education is to make sure that you are actively feeding your own creativity first. When you are teaching in the K-12 setting, you are taking on a variety of roles: teacher, choreographer, stage manager, sound/light technician, arts administrator, etc. It is important to be able to navigate and delegate accordingly.”

Student Population of K-12 Dance Programs

In K-12 dance education, teachers have the opportunity to work with a diverse group of students, all of whom come to dance classes for different reasons. Some students will love dance and genuinely want to be in dance classes. Other students may find themselves in dance class only because it is required or because they didn’t get their first choice of electives.

Carmel Gabriel, Dance Director at La Quinta High School, a public high school in California, notes that it is important to make an effort to create relationships with all of your students, and to keep your passion for dance at the forefront of those relationships. “Students have varying levels of interest and experience with dance but if you share your love of the craft, their love will grow as well,” she says.

Selfie of Anglea, a woman with grayish hair, wearing a white top and blue scarf, with glasses on top of her head.

As a K-12 dance educator, your classes might be inclusive of students with different needs, physically, emotionally, and academically. You will need to develop teaching strategies to accommodate these students, and work with professionals in your school or district who can help you. Sarah Roney, Performing Arts Department Chair and Teaching Fellows Coordinator at Holton- Arms School, a combined grades private school in Washington, D.C., puts it this way: “Consider the neurodiversity of your students. How will you need to differentiate lessons to meet everyone's needs? What creative approaches may you need to take to get everyone invested in the learning? How can you diversify your assessment tools to maximize student output and learning?”

Angela Criscimagna (pictured right), Dance Director at Great Oak High School, a public high school in California, notes: “It's important for you to keep in mind that the focus will be on your abilities as an educator, to teach and reach all students, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.”

Teachers in K-12 Education Provide More than Dance Training

A common theme that emerged from the responses we received from our members is that like all dance teachers, in the K-12 sector dance educators have an impact that goes far beyond teaching steps. Dance teachers in all sectors can become mentors, advisors, and role models for their students. In K-12 education, dance classes often take on a special place for students. Caroline Brackett, Dance Educator, West Genesee High School, a public high school in New York, describes, “In a public high school much of your job might be to have a safe space for the students. It should be the place they want to go when they need a friend, or some quiet time, or to talk or to chill. It is very good to be able to teach/offer yoga and meditation to give the kids a break from the pressure of school.”

NDEO members shared some of their experiences about the impact they have had on their students as K-12 dance educators:

School photo of Rebecca, a white woman with dark from hair, smiling wear a red shirt.

“I have always in my heart wanted to be a dance teacher. It is a selfless job - a job that inspires, motivates, builds confidence, creates relationships, cultivates creativity and new perspectives. Dance gives students freedom. Freedom to express, let go, be themselves. Follow your heart. Dance provides endless opportunities for growth, learning, connections,and lifelong happiness. You could be the gift that a student needs in their life.” - Rebecca McGregor (pictured left), Dance Teacher, Arts and Mentor Chair at the Lyndon Institute, a private high school in Vermont

“Lead from the heart as your passion for dance will reflect in all you as you give your students valuable tools they will always use. These tools include dedication, determination, collaboration, problem solving, respect and responsibility.” - Gerri Barreras, Performing Arts Chair and Dance Director, Gulliver Preparatory High School in Florida

“If you are passionate about dance and want to inspire students, do it! Public school dance programs are dwindling if not already scarce. The majority of students that pass through my beginner-level courses say they truly enjoyed learning to dance and did not expect to learn about the healing and rejuvenating capabilities the class can offer. As someone who graduated from a dance program, it truly prepared me for the collegiate dance experience. My favorite time of year is concerts, watching my students perform, and thinking about how much they have grown in a short amount of time makes the job worth it.” - Ashley Zardus, Dance Director/Teacher at a public high school in the Novi Community School District in Michigan

Photo Credits (in order of appearance): Stage photo courtesy of Hillside High School Dance Company by Century FX Photography, Allen Photoworks by Paul Allen, photo courtesy of Kathleen Dominiak Treasure of students at Morton High School, courtesy of Liberty High School by Jayden Hurt, headshot courtesy of Gerri Barreras, stage shot courtesy of Champs Charter High School, headshot courtesy of Angela Criscimagna, headshot courtesy of Rebecca McGregor

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