Why and how did you become a lecturer in performing arts?
I enjoyed school, particularly taking part in school shows and musicals, where I was much more interested in the creative subjects than academic. At 16 I left to attend Gateshead College to study for a level 3 performing arts qualification in 1992 and then go on to take a dance and drama degree at the former Roehampton Institute (now university) in London. For personal reasons, I went home and finished my degree at Gateshead College, affiliated through Sunderland University. Winning a student of the year award could easily have been one of the reasons college staff remembered me after I’d left (!) and asked me to teach dance to cover a staffing gap for six months. It was an invitation based, I think, largely on practical skills as well as the communicating, leadership and problem-solving skills I’d built up at college. I’d not planned to enter teaching but my skill set seemed to fit. I’ve been there ever since.
Any key hurdles when you started teaching?
Initially, I thought being a good teacher was all about my own performance and working really hard. But after meeting my students I quickly realised that success was measured through the individual students themselves and the journeys they make. What works one year might not work with the next year’s cohort. You can’t just teach and then walk away; it’s about stretching and challenging the students and equipping them with more skills than they came in with.
What’s your main role?
I double up as a lecturer and curriculum leader. On a daily basis, I line-manage up to seven members of staff, conduct staff appraisals and also teach 18-19 hours a week, predominantly to 16-18s, preparing my own classes and setting and marking assignments. I check attendance and share the wider college business plan with students and staff. No two weeks are the same. In 1998 I started with level 2 students, became a course leader, and then in 2015 took on level 3 students when I moved up to curriculum leader.
How are you coping with Covid-19?
Online teaching was new to us when lockdown hit but we were a bit ahead of the game. Our dance department had always worked with video as a reflective tool, we’d constantly record sessions and workshops and our students would video their own choreography and performances. We’d also started using the Google Classroom online teaching platform to receive all submitted student work which we would then mark online.
Initially, we produced pre-recorded sessions for students which covered dance routines and setting tasks, and we gave online tutorials and business lessons over Zoom and Google Meet. But learners quickly tired of purely one-way online communication and needed more human contact. We started doing ‘live’ classes where students took part from their living room or gardens, meeting on Zoom calls and receiving real-time feedback. We’ve been continually talking to them, checking on their wellbeing and how they were doing (we report back to the college each fortnight).
As lockdown continued we found some students were still up in the early hours and 9am starts were not so well attended, so we moved the daily timetable to run from 11am-6pm - and student engagement really improved. We also found that students’ personal circumstances varied widely. Not everyone lived in roughly the same-sized houses and many did not have gardens. It’s forced us to be far more flexible and adaptable.
We’ve all had to upskill to find new ways of working; now we record as we go, have shorter assessment periods, and have extra material prepared to use during any further lockdowns. Smarter working now means running combined online tutorial sessions rather than three face-to-face sessions. Students, meanwhile, have become much more accountable for their own learning and better manage how they wish to learn.
What’s a typical day?
I’m at work by 8.30am to check emails and talk through the day’s agenda with colleagues, particularly as things can change quite rapidly - students are often off with Covid. Teaching would start at 9am (in non-Covid times) when I’d probably deliver two 90-minute classes followed by a 30-minute lunch break. More teaching or admin tasks would take up the afternnoon. This morning I’ve also interviewed a potential dance student for our level 3 course and spoken to another student not happy on her chosen course. I may have to tweak the timetable because of Covid - students are in Tuesday to Friday but we have just reduced class sizes from 20 to 10-15 maximum. Every classroom has a monitor, allowing students isolating at home to take part in live online sessions that day. Teaching would normally stop at 3.30pm, followed by marking registers and planning the next day.
What do students like learning best?
Choreography - here they’re given a stimulus and they create, rehearse and refine danceworks with their peers. Programme tutors support learning, rather than facilitate the sessions where year 1 and 2 students work together. The danceworks created are auditioned and the strongest, more technically accurate are performed in a showcase at the end of the year.
What do you like teaching most?
Human anatomy and vocational skills/progression routes. We study the human body and how it needs to work, and how to look after our bodies in a healthy way, using good nutrition; we also look at muscle groups, and how the body reacts to a range of movement. I enjoy looking at training providers and what’s on offer at different dance schools and conservatoires nationally, giving advice on student presentations and addressing communication skills in speaking to ensure students gain wider knowledge such as useful interview techniques when auditioning for jobs. The subject centres around picking up skills needed, while making links for a job working in the performing arts industry.
What personal skills do you need for the job?
Substantial industry experience or having worked closely within the arts. Good planning and organisational skills, an ability to get to know your learners - they are not just a list of names on a register but individuals with different needs and abilities. Being flexible and prepared - if something doesn’t work in a lesson, be ready to throw it out and bring in something else; if you’ve allocated a task 15 mins and yet it’s going really well, give it extra time. Thinking on your feet, ensuring your sessions are well planned and organised but also allowing learning to slow down if a session topic need more time.
We have industrially trained teachers from ballet, contemporary, commercial and jazz backgrounds, some have worked in London’s West End, on cruise ships or in TV shows and trained in different styles from a young age. Some still perform professionally. The team and skills set we have between us is what really makes our provision unique.
You need industry experience and ideally a teaching qualification - a classroom teacher needs a PGCE and to be trained up to level 7 (equivalent of a masters). Most teachers have a relevant degree up to level 6 or are working towards one.
Anything you are really proud of?
Seeing one of my own students, Connor Scott, perform live in Bristol and lift the BBC Contemporary Dancer of the Year award in 2015. For me sitting in the audience watching Connor perform, and knowing the whole auditorium had bought a ticket to be there, was a great experience that I’ll never forget.
A key question you would ask a candidate being interviewed for your type of role?
How would you measure success in your students? It’s not always about a product - much of the time success is about measuring the process of learning and tracking the trajectory.
What spurs you on to work each day?
I love working in such a great team and talented workforce - each member of staff has a specialism, be it as a musician, dancer, performing artist, singer … and many are still working in the industry performing live. Our students choose where they want to study, they don’t have to come to college and it’s up to staff to ‘sell’ them - and share with them - how good the college is and how much it can offer! I’ve never struggled to go to work. We work and play hard - it’s not just a job, more like family.