Blog – Being a Dance Artist and an Early Years Teacher: that can work, right?

Being a Dance Artist and an Early Years Teacher: that can work, right?

As part of her work on the Cultural Curriculum for Bristol project (read Tanuja Amarasuriya’s introductory blog here), we’ve asked Laura Street to share her insight and experiences of being an artist in schools. Already an experienced Dance Artist, Laura recently trained as an Early Year’s Teacher. It’s been pretty enlightening to hear Laura talk about the experience. She talks brilliantly about how her creative instincts were challenged, but ultimately helped her to find a way to swim the currents of a turbulent schools system.

We asked her to write about that complex journey. It’s especially eye-opening for any artist who might be interested in teaching in or working with schools.

This is a long read, so you might want to get comfy before starting.

A no-brainer decision

Sitting down to write anything is a little alien to me. I notice I need to be sat in ‘dance’ trousers, with my legs crossed under the desk to make myself feel at home. Home is a feeling I have been on journey with of late. I took myself away from it without realising it a year ago, and I’ve been asked by my lovely employers at Theatre Bristol to tell you about it.

One year ago, I decided to train as an Early Years Teacher (EYT). I graduated from Dance School 10 years ago and have been working as a dance artist for the majority of that time, taking some time out to travel and then adding in being a massage therapist to my working life about 4 years ago. My dance career had led me to working with young children. I was fascinated by this field and strove to make the very best work I could for this discerning audience. Primarily the decision to train as an EYT was because I was eager to know more about these young people. I had always put my audience at the heart of my work so to learn more about them seemed like a good idea. This course in particular was appealing due to the fact it was free. I had never earned much in terms of monetary value with my work as a dance artist and massage therapist, so to be able to expand my knowledge without having to pay money was quite simply a no-brainer. I also qualified for a monthly bursary to help me pay for ‘life’ so I decided to go for it. 

Leaving home; back to school

If you’ve ever trained as an educator or teacher in recent years you’ll know about the ‘skills tests’. These are unpleasant experiences where long since forgotten maths and English skills that you swore you’d never use again are dragged forward in your brain – mine were kicking and screaming all the way – to be input into soulless, timed tests in strange offices above shops in Bradley Stoke. You only get three tries at each and as I’d failed twice already, I needed to seek the help of a specialist dyslexic tutor to hold my hand and guide me through this first hurdle. As I sat next to other candidates breezing through these processing offices and standardised tests with apparent ease, I had my first taste of being different and slowly came to the realisation I was far away from home…

When I gave my presentation on the course interview day, the response: “wow I’ve never thought about it like that,” seemed like a good one to get. People smiled and I gained a place on the yearlong course. But soon into the first term it became apparent that thinking about things differently was in fact problematic for the team who were leading me through this journey. More and more I felt isolated from my peers, tutors and mentors, with a particularly painful tutor visit one November. I have been teaching workshops and classes for 10 years and always had good feedback (apart from one rather disastrous session at the Harbourside Festival I try not to think about too much). If the funding, project, access to space, want for the work, and my availability continued, so did my position of teacher – usually – and I was able to plan, inspire and facilitate learning for a huge variety of people very competently. But something happened that term. I needed to learn a brand-new language, something none of us has seen coming. 

Educators are experts at what they do. They do it day in day out and more often than not have done it from a young age and have a lot of experience under their belt. The people guiding me had not even realised just how ingrained their patterns were. They weren’t aware they spoke a different language and saw things in a totally different way. I was left trying to choreograph a Ballet without having even been to a dance class and I was sinking. 

Being outside the box(es)

I discovered that educators use documents a lot. They have stacks of paper in their bags, and most of them have tables on them. They divide things into boxes, often inputting data into them from what they call ‘observations’, referred to mostly as ‘obs’ (this simple shorthand was the start of crash course in many). This is when you observe a child doing something specific, something which probably features in one of the boxes on the page, then you record how this child does or executes this. A simple task you might think from my basic explanation… on the contrary I found. You see children aren’t keen on boxes. Anyone who has spent any time with young people will know this. 

The world of a young child, to me, is all consuming. The way they play is incredible, the games that are created are completely immersive and fascinating. It might be of interest at this point to add in a fact I learned in a talk from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk (you’ll find the info at about 8:43mins into the video). He talks about a study where a test was given to 1500 people and if you scored a certain level you were considered a genius at divergent thinking. 98% of Kindergarten children achieved this status. So even if you don’t have much experience of Early Years children, studies have shown they are pretty interesting thinkers. 

So the task of being completely present with this young person, and being able to record their progress against all the boxes on your page, is not all that simple. I found myself juggling iPads and post-it notes, trying and disappear into corners of a busy pre-school room just trying to write down all the amazing things I had just witnessed a child do. Unfortunately, children do not care for your constant note taking, I was not able to disappear into my notepad and hide beneath the shield of a large overcoat a la Lyn Gardner in the shadows at your latest theatre production. There aren’t hours of office time available to reflect on the wonder of each child, as there simply isn’t the time or money; so you’ve gotta do it on the go. Hence the presence of all the tables and boxes, as educators try to split the vast amount of information each child will present you with on a minute-by-minute basis into a comprehensive record of their ‘progress’ that can be evidenced for parents and Ofsted. I guess an equivalent might be audience feedback and box office numbers input so the arts council can see how their money was spent: ‘our work was brought to this many people and made them feel like this’ etc. 

I had to make friends with paperwork, tables and iPads quickly, or I was never going to record the sheer amount of information I needed for my evidence portfolio – a large collection of documents that show that you know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. The panic started to rise. There was an extremely good reason my small company’s wonderful producer input the data and collected the testimonials and feedback. I was good at being in the moment with the wonderful children we were lucky enough to present our shows to; to spark and jam with them as we created our immersive and improvised shows. I left the taking and uploading of the pictures and videos to my computer savvy musical director and buried my head in the ‘I’m a technophobe’ sand. But to be an educator is to be a one-person operation. You needed to know the theory behind what you’re doing, think Stanislavski, create new and innovative teaching methods and plans to engage your learners, think devised theatre that tours to community setting and The National Theatre on the same pot of money, collect and record all data and present it to a body higher than you, so they can scrutinise and analyse it and work out whether you were ‘any good’. No small undertaking I realised. At least I can ask for support and be guided along this course to figure out how to do all of this? Afraid not. We’ve all been doing this for years, you simply need to catch up. There’s no space for mulling things over and philosophising, I need that plan yesterday. Oh. 

Creative processes are often long processes. Often, you’ll speak to an artist and they’ll tell you they had the initial idea 2 years ago and it’s been through various states in their mind before it was presented to you this evening in this gallery/playhouse/pub. As you move in awe (or not, depending on your personal opinion) through Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and take in Monet’s Water Lilies, you will probably be advised by your pamphlet or guide that the work consumed the artist for 30 years. I was being asked to create inspiring environments that could connect with a wide range of very different people with varying needs, that inspired them to take risks into the next step of their learning and development, in 5 minutes flat, whilst comprehensively documenting it and analysing it against the curriculum the government set out for me. I was not excelling. To add to the mix, I was perpetually ill with a serious of virus for 3 months in my first term. It seems young children are both inspiring and highly contagious.  

Falling between creative theories and exacting requirements

Early Years education is a particularly exciting field in my opinion. When reading through the Early Years foundation stage, which is set out by government and is the national curriculum that all educators of the under-5s follow, it seems to me to be an interesting and holistic concept. I learned quickly that most Early Years educators – reception teachers in schools and people who work in nurseries – refer to a document called Development Matters rather than the government document itself. Development Matters separates children into age ranges and the different areas of learning that the government and the many experts who write the curriculum, think need to be included. 

A huge amount of the document is given to “the characteristics of effective learning”. This is the concept that the early years of a child’s life are where many characteristics of the personality are formed and if we can help them be effective learners then we can equip them with everything thing they need for their education careers, and hopefully in turn, life. They use language like “give children time to talk and think” and “always respect children’s efforts and ideas, so they feel safe to take risk with a new idea.” Language and concepts that wouldn’t be out of place in a creative process such as rehearsals for a devised piece of theatre, or a funding application for a new work, or a meeting between an artist and their manager. The word “should” does not feature; as opposed to the national curriculum for Key Stage 1 and 2, which is what teachers in Primary School use to plan their lessons and what children are assessed against during this stage of their education careers. In the national curriculum, the word “should” features multiple times per page and the presence of learning goals at the end of each page makes sure its value is high and adhered to. 

So I thought: yes, Early Years education, that’s for me – my individualism will be celebrated and I’ll have ‘time to think’ just like in the creative process I would consider home – but it seems there was another layer of information I was missing.

Another document that I was expected to absorb into my blood stream and know off by heart was the Early Years Teachers’ Standards. This lists things a teacher must evidence they can do before they are qualified. It includes things like, “set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge all children” and then divides this into further statements explaining what they need to show to prove this, like: “establish and sustain a safe and stimulating environment where children feel confident and are able to learn and develop.” You evidence these things by showing lesson plans you have done, being observed by your peers and tutors and photographs of things you have done with the children in the room. 

Again, from my basic explanation you might think, ‘yep I could do that.’ When I was told about this task I too thought yes, I’ve been teaching for a number of years, I just don’t usually record what I’ve done and evidence it in this way. But what they didn’t mention as I happily went about immersing myself in children’s fascinating and complex games is that there is formula they use. They have been using it for years and it should look like this. I only became privy to this information slowly. As I ended my first placement and moved into my second one I realised all of the ‘evidence’ I had been collecting was not in fact what they were looking for. It seemed however the children presented their learning and development was celebrated, but the same rules did not apply to me. My work needed to look like this, not this. Oh. 

So I went about trying to pretend to be them (the educators around me). I tried to mimic and do as they did. I photocopied (another key activity for educators – I quickly learnt that the centre receptionist would become an important ally for me as I didn’t really know how to use one…) their tables and documents and started filling in the boxes. As a dyslexic I was pretty good at copying and pretending I knew what was going on. I didn’t discover this learning disability until I was blanket tested with all the new students at my University, and had come up with lots of coping mechanisms at school to help me muddle through. Sitting next to and befriending the high achievers was a key tactic that often enough fooled the teachers into thinking I knew what the hell was going on. 

I tried to squash my creative thoughts and previous patterns. I even started to pretend I had watched I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, in the staff room just to fit in – something I unsurprisingly didn’t pull off. I had learned that being myself in the previous placement had got me nowhere. I was woefully behind my peers in terms of my portfolio and my tutors seemed to be getting annoyed with my ‘have you thought about it like this?’ comments that had previously been exciting to them. 

You can take the art out of the curriculum, but you can’t take the artist out of the teacher

I witnessed people pushed to their limits as I moved into my management module and started to focus on the roles and responsibilities of being an Early Years teacher. I saw to-do lists grow at the same rate expectations from the governing bodies did. I found it all rather unnerving. It seemed that these people were being pushed both physically and emotionally and many of them were at breaking point. 

I referred back to the Teachers’ Standards document looking for information on how I might achieve this monumental task and found something interesting. The first sentence in the document reads: “Early Years Teachers make the education and care of babies and children their first concern.” This was true of all the people I met on placement. They were entirely dedicated to the needs of the children in their care and to their jobs; be they management level, supervisor level or students like me. But what I witnessed was a complete foregoing of people’s personal needs. Bad backs were rife and I even noticed urinary infections were extremely common. Everyone was putting the children as their primary concern but forgetting about themselves. There was no ‘standards for the teachers’ document. 

By the third placement I was angry and tired. But I had realised what I needed to have in place and what environment I needed to feel comfortable and learn. So I found a different kind of placement and started to unpick all that I’d had thrown at me so far. As a massage therapist and artist who creates immersive work, I have experience of environments, of how powerful they are at creating the optimum opportunities to learn, explore, be inspired, feel at ease or relax. I had learnt a huge amount about how to create environments for children to learn and develop in from my experience on the course so far, and also what things I needed in place to be able to do this to the best of my ability. My struggling grades showed that I understood, but wasn’t able to deliver the work they wanted, and I started to understand why. As artists, we endeavour to create the right environment for creativity to take place. The rehearsal room is treated with the utmost respect. The studio’s doors are firmly closed until you are lucky enough to be invited in and walking on a dance company’s stage with outdoor shoes on is considered a violation. 

I needed to be nourished in order to nourish. So, I decided to be myself this time. I set up activities that were completely inherent to me and arrived organically into the room. I was lucky enough to be supported by an incredibly open minded and interested mentor. She noticed me being myself with the children, moving in an improvised and creative way, dancing, and she saw the learning taking place. She got out her document and pointed at boxes: “look you’re doing this; look they’re doing this.” I had been trying to squeeze myself into the boxes on the pages for months, and when I decided not to bother anymore and just be myself, the boxes came and met me. 

All along I had had the skills to “establish and sustain a safe and stimulating environment where children feel confident and are able to learn and develop” and I didn’t need to leave myself at the door in order to do this. To my amazement my tutors also sat up and listened. The statement “wow I’ve never seen it like that before” was back and this time it was followed by “you should write a book about this!” Most importantly I had learned the best way to establish and sustain those stimulating environments, which enable children to learn and develop, was by sustaining the teachers who create them. 

By feeding the educators you stop the vortex, where children and teachers find themselves on a conveyer belt by mistake. As an artist I held a valuable skill, I was able to bring my viewpoint and way of seeing to these hard working people and keep them stimulated and inspired, with the wonderful children in their care benefitting directly. It was like when I set up a massage programme for mums in a South Gloucestershire Children’s Centre and one mum came out after her treatment refreshed and said to her baby as she lovingly bounced him in her arms, “look how I can do so much more when I feel better!” So I would disagree with the ‘teacher standards’ and say: your first concern is yourself, then the children in your care. Don’t forgo all of the standards you need in place to be able to teach. 

A creative collaboration, towards a Cultural Curriculum

When I was lucky enough to be appointed as lead on the Cultural Curriculum programme with Theatre Bristol I was overjoyed. It’s a great idea and sorely needed in the demanding system that’s in place in schools today. 

My first task was to meet the teachers who would be collaborating with me on creating the teaching resources. As I expected they were dedicated and intelligent people who cared deeply about the education of the children in their care. I have set about establishing a truly collaborative working relationship, just as you would in creative process. I make sure I ask them to unpick all acronyms, and that I don’t wander down ‘dance-speak lane’. It’s important everyone understands and feels valued – just like in those statements in the Early Years foundation stage that set out how to encourage ‘the characteristics of effective learning’. 

Yes, educator and creative brains do differ sometimes but they are incredibly compatible if you take the time to listen. Creatives seeing wonderful visions and bigger pictures, looking at things from different viewpoints; and educators sharing your visions but reminding you to get a move on, as the children are arriving in 5 minutes. They are brilliantly practical people who understand their students on an incredible level, and how to bring learning to all the different stages of a child’s educational career. Together the approaches are a powerful force and I feel very excited about the way we will be working together on this project.

Find out more about Cultural Curriculum for Bristol.