From time to time, NDEO features guest blog posts, written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a contribution by Gina Spears, Dance Educator at Portage Park Elementary in Chicago. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please visit this link.
We All Need a "Dance Squad"
Gina Spears, Dance Educator, Portage Park Elementary
Calling my first years of teaching in Chicago Public Schools a baptism by fire is probably an understatement. I had trouble connecting with the middle school students and found them to be disrespectful. My car was broken into three times. One afternoon, an angry parent was waiting by my car with a baseball bat because I sent his son to the office for spitting at me. The littlest dancers loved my class, though, and I had two after school clubs filled with motivated students. Still, I felt as though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Worse yet, I had nobody to talk to about teaching dance in a public school. I was alone....very alone.
Over the years, I started to figure things out through trial and error, professional development, and networking. I met other dance teachers at arts conferences. One was a veteran teacher who I will never forget. I clearly remember sitting in the Chicago Cultural Center between professional development sessions, soaking in all of her brilliant advice, thinking to myself, “I want to be her when I grow up.” She had a well established program, a school dance company, a real dance studio space, and an annual performance. It was impressive and inspiring. The dance world can be so competitive, but this amazing woman was more than happy to answer my questions, give me advice, and share her knowledge and resources with me. I never forgot her generosity. Over the years, when I met other dance teachers at events, I made it a point to say, “We should be friends. We should stay in touch. We could learn from each other.”
Fast forward about 10 years, and there are now about 20-25 dance teachers at the elementary school level in Chicago Public Schools. I started leading some professional development through The Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance and through Chicago Public Schools, and I am beginning to develop more leadership skills that I am using to serve our community. I was awarded a grant to coach a study group for dance educators. As a coach, I am considered a mentor to the other educators in the group, but I learn as much from them as they do from me. This is what I was hoping for when I first met those dance educators so many years ago!
Time passes. The dance teachers from the study group keep meeting, learning, and sharing. Over time, we become more than colleagues; we become friends. We start to meet socially as well as professionally. We attend Broadway In Chicago performances, such as CATS. We see dance movies together, such as Singing in the Rain and (again) CATS. We see performances together - three of us even got to meet Twyla Tharp!
A couple years ago, I saw an advertisement for shirts that say DANCE TEACHER SQUAD: I’ll Be There for You, in the font used in the logo for the TV show Friends. I showed the shirt to the study group members, and a bunch of us ordered them. Now we lovingly refer to ourselves as the “Dance Squad.” We have helped each other through unfair teacher evaluations, lost teaching positions, divorces, and heartache. We have celebrated each other’s new babies, new teaching positions, successful performances and promotions. Every year, we welcome more dance educators into our squad. We even have some members from suburban school districts.
When the pandemic closed our schools last March, we were all lost. None of us knew what to do or how to do it. We could no longer rely on the veteran teachers who knew all the answers, or newbies with all the new ideas. Most of us were panicking. I emailed the entire squad and offered to hold virtual meetings so we could talk. I made a digital folder where we could share our lessons, resources, videos, or ideas. It started as a lifeline so we would have each other to talk to, but soon it became a wealth of ideas. When a strategy worked for one teacher, they shared it with the squad at our weekly meeting. When someone learned a new technology tool, such as FlipGrid or DanceMaker, they taught the squad how to use it. Little by little, through the support of our Dance Squad, we made it to summer. Over the summer, we stayed in touch. We brought in guest educators to speak to our group about integrating dance and SEL. We shared things we were learning in professional development workshops. Several squad members modeled ways to make our curriculums culturally relevant and antiracist. We prepared for the new school year...together.
Throughout the new school year, we have continued to support one another. We share self-care strategies. We have an online forum where we keep in touch throughout the week. A squad member can ask a question on the forum and several of us will answer and try to help with whatever is challenging them. We share success stories. We share links to websites that have inspired our students. We collaborate. We vent. We share. We encourage.
As I look back over my career teaching dance in CPS, and I consider where I started, I am incredibly grateful to have found my Dance Squad. Every dance teacher needs a group of people who understand and appreciate what we do, and who can see us through the highs and lows of teaching. I truly believe that I would not have made it through 2020 and continuing into 2021 without this amazing group of educators to support me. Like Friends theme song says, “When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, I’ll be there for you....Cause you’re there for me too.”
Gina Spears has been a dance educator in Chicago Public Schools for over twenty years. She is starting a dance program at Portage Park Elementary School, a PreK through eighth grade school. She serves the district as a Framework Specialist, developing arts education resources, professional development, and mentoring new arts teachers through the lens of the Danielson model of teacher development. She is also an Arts Instruction Specialist, co-leading a Dance Community of Practice, professional development workshops for dance teachers, and opening her classroom as a space for dance teachers to observe, discuss, and grow.
First photo by Kristin Heinichen. Other photos courtesy of the author.