An assistant is a teacher's secret weapon. They're an extension of the instructor's teaching style, a positive role model for students, and a key to maintaining class structure and order.
But the role requires much more than just being a great dancer. An effective assistant must be highly responsible and creative, possess organizational and leadership qualities, and be able to take disciplinary action if necessary.
"The assistant needs to be someone who's not selfish," says Denise Wall, co-owner of Denise Wall's Dance Energy in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "They need to be someone who pays attention and enjoys helping people."
Follow these best practices to ensure you select, train and retain the right assistants—and make the most of the experience for your assistants and your students.
Create a Selection Process
A thoughtful search has been a successful approach for Kelly Sullins, assistant director at Gotta Dance Studio and Company in Bend, Oregon. Sullins developed the Dance Teacher Assistant Program, which the studio's director, Brandi Nichols, helped finalize, to attract the best-suited students for the job.
To be considered, students must be at least 13 years old and enrolled at the studio for at least a year. They must fill out an application that includes references, availability, a commitment signature and whether or not they're seeking a volunteer assistant position or a regular assistant position. (Assistants are compensated with discounted tuition, and once they are qualified to sub, an hourly rate.) "Starting with an application process weeds out the students who might not be as serious," says Sullins.
If instilling a rigorous vetting process isn't right for your studio, seek out students who inspire and help others. A positive attitude and a solid attendance record are also good indicators, says Sullins. But not all assistants need to be overachievers or even the strongest dancers. Lisa Rumbauskas, director of ballet at the West End Academy of Dance in Richmond, Virginia, has asked dancers who need extra encouragement to assist her.
"If we observe a student might be feeling left out socially or someone who's working really hard and is committed, this responsibility gives them a positive boost," says Rumbauskas. In fact, Wall says, students for whom things haven't always come naturally often make better assistants, and eventually better teachers.
Photo courtesy Rumbauskas
Clarify Expectations Up Front
Depending on the setting—whether it's a studio or a convention tour, preschoolers or advanced teens—you'll need different things from an assistant.
Rumbauskas, for example, uses her assistant to demonstrate the ballet lines she can longer hit. Wall has assistants demonstrate combinations at conventions, which allows Wall to step back and observe the whole room. Then, between convention classes, Wall might linger to answer teachers' questions or take pictures. The assistant knows to disconnect Wall's computer, grab her bag and get her stuff ready to go to the next room.
Whatever it is you're asking assistants to do—perhaps even helping little ones with bathroom breaks—set clear expectations from the beginning. Making the role clear from day one and giving a heads-up when new responsibilities arise will help smooth over any surprises.
Photo courtesy NUVO
Assigning too much responsibility too soon can have a negative effect on the assistant's experience, as well as on the class.
Especially with beginner levels, have assistants start with taking attendance, tieing shoes or nurturing students who need more hands-on attention. As the assistant becomes more comfortable, allow them to start the warm-up, incorporate a personalized lesson plan or teach an across-the-floor exercise.
You can cultivate assistants' growth even if you're teaching virtually, says Sullins, who has had her students demonstrate on Zoom and help prepare lesson plans for when they return to the studio.
When an assistant has advanced to leading sections of class, having oversight as the teacher is still crucial, in case an intervention is needed. "If the assistant is leading the jazz warm-up and they go right into the splits," says Sullins, "then I can be there to correct them."
Train Them as Teachers
Even if you need your assistant to help with potty breaks or tieing shoes, it's beneficial to give them real teaching skills and opportunities to practice those skills.
Sullins wishes she'd had this experience during her training, since she knew at a young age that she wanted to teach, not dance professionally. "I wish that I'd had a more structured, guided assistant program and not just a 'Hey, can you help out?,'" experience," she says. Separating teacher training from dance training can help serve more students in their goals and skill sets.
For Wall, training assistants to be teachers has resulted in survival jobs for students who are now pursuing professional work in the dance world, and several homegrown teachers are on her staff.
Provide Regular Feedback
Sullins holds an assessment evaluation for her assistants twice a year. These check-ins give her the opportunity to give feedback on each assistant's participation and development.
More regularly, Sullins meets with her assistants after class to talk about how students performed that day. This can develop an assistant's communication skills, and gauge when they are ready to give feedback directly to students. Having assistants occasionally observe classes to take notes will also grow their correction skills.
Teachers should also allow assistants to share how the experience is going for them. This will make sure they're not missing out on any skills they want to learn or additional opportunities they're hoping to have.