Teaching is Like Tahitian Dancing

As an undergrad at Bryn Mawr College, I took a number of courses as part of the teacher certification process in the state of Pennsylvania. A couple of them were particularly memorable because of the dedicated educators who taught them and the creative activities they used to develop our understanding of our chosen profession.

In one class our professor asked us to create an analogy for teaching. It was an exercise in reflection. Could we identify all the elements of teaching? Could we prioritize them and illustrate how they were interconnected? I think this was a useful activity for beginning teachers, and now more than fifteen years later I think it is a healthy activity for experienced teachers, too.  How do you view our profession? What can you compare it to?

Back in 1993, I came up with the analogy of a Tahitian grass skirt. I had been working during my summer and winter breaks in a Polynesian show, so I had familiarity with the skirt and the dances done in it. I don’t have a copy of the original analogy I submitted to my professor, but I remember it well enough to rewrite and update it for you to enjoy:

Teaching is like dancing in a Tahitian grass skirt. When done well, the dance is exciting and satisfying both for the dancer and the audience. It’s interesting to note that the dance simply doesn’t look the same without the skirt on; the movements are bare. Also, while you can admire the handiwork of the skirt itself, it doesn’t make its best impression until it’s put in motion by the dancer. The real beauty is created by the artful combination of body movement and the movement of the grass. This is like putting a teacher in a classroom with all her classroom tools.

The parts of the skirt can help illustrate the essentials of teaching. The many strands of grass represent strategies and techniques. Some strands fall out while you shake your hips, but if and when the skirt becomes too thin, you can add new layers of grass. Holding all the grass in place is the waistband. It sits comfortably on your hips and is very thick. This fundamental piece is just like a teacher’s knowledge and methodology. It must be firmly in place for the dance to be done well. What keeps the waistband wrapped around you is a strong metal clasp. Clasping the waistband on is like committing yourself to teaching. It must be your choice to put on the skirt, and you must be certain the clasp will hold until the dance is over. Similarly, when you start a lesson, you must be committed to seeing it through.

Dancers may wear different colors and adorn the waistband with different items. Is this not like teachers developing their individual teaching styles and decorating their classrooms? Sometimes dancers of a troupe must wear similar skirts. This is much like teachers working within the same school and teaching under the same curriculum. Even so, there will be opportunity for creativity and personalization. Tahitian dancers often get solos, just as teachers can get the opportunity to make individual contributions to a school.

Finally, it must be mentioned that dancing in the skirt takes training and practice. The more you do it, the better you get. Dancers can learn from one another. There are always new moves to learn and perfect – just like in teaching.

Once we finished writing (and in my case drawing) our analogy, we had to present our work to the class. I especially liked this part of the activity because then we were able to consider what teaching is from several viewpoints. Each student in our class had a completely different analogy. Everyone used an object or activity that had personal meaning in their lives. For me it was dancing in a grass skirt. For another woman it was playing a guitar. That’s as it should be: teaching must be a personal and meaningful experience. What’s your analogy?

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