Appreciating students – the good, the bad and the talkers
Photo: The group photo depicted portrays my students from the Rochester JCC where I taught until 2009 when I moved back to Syracuse to care for my mom. I sure do miss them!
Leaving winter behind once and for all. I moved to Florida in December of 2012. Shortly after arriving, I started teaching classes in my new hometown. It is never easy being the new kid on the block. Whatever the students have experienced is what they think is right. The talkers, the complainers, the equipment abusers – yes it was time to introduce them to Mark's Rules. But what happened over the next few months made me reflect on what it really means to appreciate your students.
Here is a fact that many people may not know. I actually started with AEA as a contributing author – a.k.a. writing for free in the hope that it would further my career. Many years ago I wrote a series of website articles for AEA called Lighthearted Leadership with Mark. Not sure if anyone actually read my articles, but if you did, you may recall this one.
For some, low attendance in a class is met with a shrug of the shoulders, but for others, a small turn out is like a knife in the heart. Why do some instructors happily teach to four people while others recoil in horror? Are we just prima donnas, or is it more?
Small Class Phobia (2001)
Yes, I spilled my guts in this article about my insecurities and dread of small classes. Fast forward to the summer of 2013, Mark's first summer teaching in Florida. Classes go from feast during tourist season, to famine in the summer. Not only are the classes painfully small in the summer, the weather is painfully hot to teach in.
My first class on Tuesday mornings, a shallow water class, took a nosedive in attendance. There were consistently below five people after Memorial Day, usually four. A small class becomes even more dreadful to teach when one of the four people is doing their own workout and another is twenty feet away in deep water. And yes it was sweltering hot and I was totally baked by the end of the class.
Since I specialize in whining, I delivered an academy award performance in the aquatic director's office, lamenting about my pain and suffering over teaching this small class. The director was heading out on vacation for a month and gave me the option of canceling the class until season started up again in October. My face lit up and I said, "Really? I can cancel it?"
And so each Tuesday I showed up prepared to deliver my cancellation speech and each Tuesday I chickened out. I couldn't do it; I could not disappoint these people. It may have been just four people, but those four people genuinely enjoyed the class and they made great efforts to show up each week. And that is when it occurred to be that a cosmic shift had occurred over the years. I was finally thinking of someone else's efforts and disappointment instead of my own. By the end of July, I abandoned plans to cancel and instead planted a smile on my face and happily baked myself for the sake of doing the right thing.
Once I became all that and more as a group fitness instructor, or so I thought, that deadly sin called pride prevented me from accepting criticism lightly. In other words, I would get really ticked off when someone complained about me, my class or my music. I even wrote about it. Anyone remember this article?
Personally, I have found that the less I try to solicit approval, the better. As the instructor, I am the expert and I come prepared to deliver a well-planned routine, sticking to it despite the occasional unhappy student who goes out of their way to pout and roll their eyes. My favorite is when the malcontent student starts whispering to others around them, hoping to instigate a mutiny. Invariably, the other students move away, forcing the floating nag to swim off into silent exile.
Mean Students (2004)
Fast forward to March 2013. Remember that Tuesday morning shallow water class? Well, one of the students made a point of cornering me on the deck and started venting, "I go to a lot of classes in the studio and in the pool and you are the only instructor I can't follow. Your transitions are too fast and you teach like a drill sergeant. Your class is too hard. Group fitness classes should be fun and not exhausting."
There were two big surprises here. Number One: I was gracious and smiled while she blew my hair back. Number Two: I acknowledged her criticism and I understood what she was saying. To some degree she was right. IAFC and spring events were closing in and I was frantically rehearsing my new workshop, Aqua Add-It. (Yes, my students are always my test subjects for new workshops.) Unfortunately, I had only been teaching this class for a month and these students simply were not ready for Primetime Mark.
At the end of her vent, I apologized to her and said that I would work on simplifying my instruction. And I did. Instead of forcing the established routine on them, I increased the repetitions of the combinations so that the transitions weren't so quick. The class responded favorably. And how about the complainer? She was one of those four students who faithfully showed up every week during the summer.
Something pretty shocking occurred here. Not only did I graciously handle a complaint; I changed my class programming to make the experience more doable for the participants. The old Mark would have blamed the students for being uncoordinated and would have refused to "dummy down" his choreography. Yes, my angels were lighting fireworks over this one.
For the most part, I have had little problem with talkers. I learned early on that the more you choreographed, the less they talked. But when people did talk, I had zero tolerance.
My stance on this softened over the last few years. As my mom's primary caregiver during her battle with cancer, I witnessed firsthand the reality of an elderly person when they spend much of their time alone. When I got my mom out of the house, I observed how animated she became and how important it was for her to have that social connection. Consequently, I now see my students in a new light. Many are widowed, many are lonely and many of them just need to connect with another human.
Yes, the students in Florida love to talk just as much as anywhere else. But as long as they aren't distracting other participants, I try to ignore the talkers. However, if they talk loud enough to interfere with my ability to hear the music I put a quick kibosh on their chitchat.
In New York, I never used equipment in my classes because I couldn't bear the site of 30-40 people plunging foam dumbbells into oblivion. Fast forward to February 2013. Despite my instructions that I would not be teaching with equipment, my new students continued to defy me week after week – protesting with dumbbells glued to their hands.
The old Mark would have gotten sarcastic and annoyed over the fact that the students were not following his directives. The new Mark made efforts every week to politely announce that the equipment being used was "the water" and that if you chose to use hand held devices please refrain from following the arm patterns being instructed. And then I disowned the equipment abusers with a silent blessing…”Dear God, please don't let them dislocate their shoulder joints."
Mind you, I have nothing against equipment. I just wanted to expose them to something different. It took weeks of these announcements but the result has been positive. The students are now enjoying the results of a "water" workout.
OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER
Throughout the years, the perfect class for me was a class where everyone moved in formation, arms and legs flawlessly synched. I even wrote about my battle with this disorder and my determination to find a cure.
The perfect class is watching our students working hard and improving their fitness level by fully participating in the moves that we create. If our moves are so amazing and intricate that only half the students can fully participate, then they aren't so amazing after all. When we finally realize that our class is more about moving people, than it is about the moves, then we will experience more perfect classes.
The Perfect Class (2003)
Now fast forward to my new "deep-water" class. Despite the fact that the class is called Deep Water Cardio Boot Camp on the schedule, more than half of the class plunks themselves in the shallow end. The old Mark would have dismissed the people in the shallow end by pretending they weren't there. He would have defended his actions by pointing to the schedule and proclaiming, "It says DEEP WATER on the schedule!"
The new Mark has decided that when life gives you lemons make lemonade. Hence, I have created two workshops dedicated to simultaneous deep and shallow instruction - Aqua 2 for 1 and Deep Triads.
Reflecting back, I don't regret the person I was; but I rejoice in the soul I have become. We learn from mistakes. In my heart, I think I always wanted to do the right thing. As a new aquatic fitness instructor, I even shared my struggles and hopes with AEA readers in an article that started it all – the column, Light Hearted Leadership with Mark and my career with AEA.
As I begin my career in the pool, I hope I never forget the joy on the student's faces and the fun they are having. God willing, I never replace those smiles with frozen stares as they try to figure out the next complex pattern.
Confessions of a Choreography Monster (2001)
Please take sometime to reflect on the joy you give and the rewards you reap.