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Teachers, first do no harm.

Imagine you're a teenage girl. Ballet is your life, and you've been training for years at a small community dance school. You've been singled out for special attention--your teachers have given you a full scholarship, choice roles, heaps of encouragement and praise, Pilates classes, a pet name, even trips to the ice cream store. But then you decide that you need more than this school can offer, and you audition, successfully, for a top-rated company's professional school. When you tell your teachers, one cuts you off with an icy e-mail. Another sends you a venomous letter filled with accusations of laziness, poor attitude, and manipulative behavior. Never mind that as long as you pledged devotion to their school, no such criticisms were made--in fact, you were clearly a prized student. You had every reason to believe that your teachers cared about you, and not just because you were the best thing to bourree across their studios in years.

OK, stop imagining. That's a true story and, though more extreme than most, not an isolated one. I've heard about enough similar incidents to make me wonder what's happened to the concept of professionalism among some dance teachers in community schools. Sure, company-affiliated schools can be possessive too, but I haven't heard any horror stories about them. It's when a school's understandable need for self-preservation crosses the line into dysfunction, when teachers victimize students with cruel, punitive behavior, that professionalism is undermined.

It's hard to let gifted students go, especially when you think they're making the wrong decision. But part of your responsibility as a dance teacher is to ensure that all students get optimal training, and for some of them, you may not be the one who can provide it. Not all schools--or teachers--are created equal, and every student has the right to seek the training she thinks is best for her. It's unconscionable for teachers to allow their own limitations to impair a student's progress. Recognizing what you're capable of takes self-awareness and knowledge of the current training demands for pre-professional dancers. It's also unconscionable to attempt to scare students away from large professional schools by warning them of supposed dire consequences: They'll be forced to sink or swim, become lost in the crowd, tossed aside when another talented student enrolls, or receive other mean-spirited (and mostly unfounded) threats. It's true that not all students will thrive in a highly competitive environment (which begs the question of whether they're suited to a career in dance at all). But talent draws attention in schools of any size.

If you believe you are qualified to train that student so that she'll have a chance at a career, professional behavior dictates that you explain to her and her family why you think she should remain at your school. Then--and here's the hard part-you must accept her decision graciously. If the student chooses to leave, let her know that you wish her the best and that your door--and your heart-remain open to her.

Of course you'll be crushed. You wanted to watch that child blossom under your tutelage, enjoy the satisfaction of claiming her as your protegee. If you're a school owner, you probably want the cachet of telling prospective students that your alumni dance with prestigious companies. So have a gripe session with your co-workers. Recast your formerly favored clients as a manipulative stage mother and her bratty kid, and call them every name in the book. Slam the door when you get home and treat your spouse to a diatribe on ungrateful students. Get your feelings out, in private or to your colleagues. Not to other students or parents, and certainly not to the student in question.

An underlying tenet of the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians is "First, do no harm." It's a code of conduct that translates well to the teaching profession. Kudos to the majority of dance teachers who subscribe to it. To those of you who value your egos more than the well-being of your students, shame on you.

Cheryl Ossola is a freelance writer and editor and a contributing editor of Dance Magazine.
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Title Annotation:Rants & RAVES; dance trainers
Author:Ossola, Cheryl
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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