Top priorities to refresh and rebuild your WCS teaching after COVID (Part 2 of 3)

This article is Part 2 of a 3-part series for teachers wondering what they can do in this forced down-time to prepare their teaching practice so that as restrictions get lifted, they can come back to dance stronger than ever.

 In Part 1: How Smart WCS Teachers Can Prepare Now for Post-COVID, we talked about how this is the perfect time to analyze your teaching systems because having a system is a determining factor of your students’ success and your job satisfaction.

Now that we’ve established the need for a system, let's look at 3 of the top priority elements to an effective teaching system and how we built ours as a model.

The quest for a System

When I first discovered West Coast Swing, I was already a qualified teacher and a career coach, so it was a very easy transition, but I knew I would need a system to teach West Coast Swing. And I knew from experience what to look for.

So I went on a hunt, a quest, as any responsible new teacher would, to study the methods of the most successful teachers (not necessarily most successful dancers) I could find, and find a system to follow and implement. 

While there are many elements that teachers should have in their teaching system, there are 3 that stand out as making the biggest difference to students (which of course should be your top priority, right?)

  1. Current content
  2. Progressive Skill Development
  3. Pedagogical best practices

I'll share what I found (and didn't find). See if you can relate:

1. Hunting for Content 

When I was shopping for what WCS content to teach, it was there but I had to hunt for it.  

It wasn’t all in one place. There were loads of patterns, but they weren’t organized or even labelled consistently. Like WCS music, there was a huge range of styles and interpretations - lots of discrepancy between “old school” and “modern” movement. 

 The best teachers had a continuous flow of relevant and practical content to teach: 

  • Practical, as in moves and skills that students need and can use at whatever stage they are at. If the content is inappropriate for their stage of development, it is not useful, no matter how impressive it is. This is a hard one for many teachers to wrap their heads around, because they feel intense pressure to entertain and entice dancers with flashy moves. The best teachers I observed made sure to deliver content (patterns or skills) in the students "stretch zone", not their "stress zone".
  • Relevant, as in applicable to the needs of the students in your classes today.  The best teachers I observed emphasized and modelled the value of knowing the roots of WCS, but were chameleons that could just as expertly demo and breakdown a modern move with equal proficiency. Versatility wins.

As much as I found awesome role models for current content, I had a hard time finding role models for skills. Technique was rare and buried among mounds of patterns, it often conflicted and required deeper analysis. 

Luckily, I already had loads of formal training in movement analysis so I was able to do this easily and efficiently. I processed hundreds of workshops and videos to create hypotheses, test them, make adjustments, and find correlations which revealed the "source code" - the primary, fundamental movement skills that the majority of quality teachers were using when they danced…

...but they weren't teaching it. They were teaching patterns (moves). 

Some teachers were more organized than others - they had systems of patterns. And any systems I did find were only for patterns. But I was looking for more…

2. Hunting for Skills

All of my partner dancing had been taught using the same formula you can likely relate to: steps, then patterns. No matter where I looked, I saw this traditional method being taught by teachers of all levels: from local to pro.

And the results were... ok...

Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of great teachers out there and they helped build Champions! But I also saw masses of dancers struggling - confused, awkward, frustrated with their lack of progress, The traditional method was working well enough for the talented 10%, and for another 10% who were motivated enough to work a little harder to get it.

But for the remaining 80% of students, this method was failing, evidenced by their continued struggle, attrition, or apathy. But this fact got overshadowed by the 20% success rate, which I observed get chalked up to “WCS is hard to learn”, or “Some people just have what it takes”, or “Some people just aren’t willing to work for it”, and other fixed-mindset myths.

My academic training and life experience and as a coach and educator couldn't make sense of this.  Every other sport is taught using progressive skill development, why not dance?

With progressive skill development:

  • You can help students who struggle to implement what they were taught so you can move on
  • You can keep students hooked long enough to finish their lesson series and take more.
  • You can keep students motivated to practice by giving them a sense of schievement
  • You can easily detect student errors and prescribe the appropriate sequence for correcting them

So I wondered, why don’t we use progressive skill development in WCS? Why not use a method that does work for 80% of students?

I never did find a system for skill development in WCS. Technique was only hinted at or omitted from almost every dance class I observed. A few teachers mentioned that there was "more technique to be learned in private lessons" and such.

Many teachers told me they were omitting technical instruction in group classes and workshops on purpose, for the sake of keeping students entertained - they had the impression that students would be bored by technique and stop coming to class: “Only the committed ones have the patience to handle technique.” 

I'm not judging here, just reporting my findings.

But for the majority of teachers I observed, it appeared that they actually didn't know that there was a deeper level of primary, essential, universal movement skills that students need before they attempt to learn all these patterns.

But it's understandable that they wouldn't know - because the great teachers that mentored them also didn't know. Dance has been taught for generations like this. It may seem to be working fine in the moment, but as an outsider with a trained eye, I was baffled. Without progressive skill development, there is a limit to how fast or how far students can improve. So "working fine", is relative.

3. Hunting for Pedagogy

In case this is a new word for you, pedagogy is the science of teaching. Technically it refers to children and andragogy refers to adults, but since pedagogical principles apply quite universally, it is common practice to use “pedagogy” to refer to both.

Having an already extensive database of pedagogical best practices from school and sport, I naively went looking for the WCS version so I could compare, contrast, and adapt my skills to the WCS world.

In my quest, I never found formal pedagogy for WCS teachers. There were of course the occasional teachers' workshops taught by highly respectable teachers - a few hours to talk about how to teach a whip, how to cue partner rotation in class, how to count while students practice to music, etc.

But there was an entire body of science - pedagogy - that was missing from dance teachers' development opportunities. Teachers never got a chance to be formally trained in critical pedagogy skills that would directly benefit their students - not the "what to teach", but "how teaching works best".

  • How to prioritize and sequence skills in an efficient way to help their students learn faster and easier.
  • How to build skills *before* the patterns they would need them for.
  • How to get students to appreciate technique and not just patterns
  • How to analyze, troubleshoot, and compassionately correct students’ movement
  • How to help students organize and integrate all the great content they learn.
  • How to coach students how to learn better, no matter the source they are learning from.

(These topics might have been mentioned occasionally in teachers’ workshops, but there was no cohesive system for them (until now...)

As an educator in school and career coach in sports, these topics were taught to new teachers/instructors/coaches from day 1. They were second nature to me. I was bewildered how so many amazing teachers were doing their best despite never having gotten an opportunity to learn these core principles of teaching a physical skill.

Let me be clear: effectiveness is more about the method than it is about the teacher. There are many amazing WCS teachers out there, but the methods they use ultimately will determine the limits of their effectiveness. Progressive skill development is not a method that is obvious or easy to implement - it takes training.

As I explained in Part 1, my swimming coach, Taimi, was an educated teacher and coach using well-trained, proven pedagogical best practices to deliver progressive skill development.

But even an amazing teacher, like Taimi, is limited in her teaching effectiveness without a system.

The results of my quest

The results of my hunt made me realize that since there was no complete system in West Coast Swing that I could follow for teaching my classes, I would need to put my academic certifications and decade of experience in teaching and coaching to good use and create my own system. 

So, I decided to instead follow my instincts. We took the industry standard WCS-specific content that we mined from decoding top WCS teachers and analyzing great WCS dancers, and taught it using the pedagogical best practices I had been trained to use, then added the special sauce of progressive skill development.

And this formula worked. Consistently.

Students learned faster. They got unstuck and were finally able to progress forward. They developed a thirst for skills and got over their pattern-obsession.

I wanted to make it easier for people to fall in love with West Coast Swing. And I knew I could use my decades of formal training to develop this system and coach more teachers to use it to help students learn WCS smarter, faster, and easier.

So for the past decade, we have been training WCS teachers all over the world how to establish or upgrade their teaching system, regardless of their chosen style.

What to upgrade now, and how

So, whether you are considering a system to use for teaching WCS, or assessing your own so you can do some spring cleaning and decide what to purge and upgrade, you might consider many factors of your WCS teaching:

  • Safety protocols
  • Levels & access
  • Scheduling & Venue
  • Marketing & Promotion
  • Class Procedures
  • Inclusion & AntiRacism
  • Role balance & rotation
  • etc

Don’t get me wrong - these are important operational elements that every WCS teacher needs to consider.

But the top priority elements of an effective teaching system - those that make the biggest difference to your students are:

  1. Current content (beyond patterns)
  2. Pedagogical best practices
  3. Progressive Skill Development

Which is why they are our top training priority.

Want to learn how you can start to build or upgrade your teaching system by addressing these 3 key elements now, during COVID, so you can come back stronger than ever?

You're ready for Part 3!

If you'd like to learn how you can best implement these 3 key elements into your own system, or if you don't have a system but want to learn how you can build one that naturally has these 3 elements already in it, we'll be showing you how during PART 3: How to Return to WCS Teaching Stronger Than Ever, which includes a 60-min Facebook Live to explain how, by prioritizing these 3 key elements, any WCS teacher can deliver their own content more effectively, so you can come back to teaching stronger than ever after COVID.

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