[Editor's spoiler: It's about the student.]
The answer is simple: I have to. It’s in my genes. Here is a short “teaching” autobiography.
When I was thirteen and taking dance class my teacher saw me helping a younger child with the opening routine in her beginning class. After watching me for a while she asked if I would teach the opening routine, which lasted about 15 minutes out of every beginning class, from then on. I jumped at the chance. My pay would be my dance classes free of charge. I eventually moved on to teaching the entire beginners class of five and six year old children. This earned a private class with my teacher. I seemed to have a knack for teaching and getting free classes.
In high school my junior and senior year, the principal of my school asked if I would teach a dance class one day a week during gym class. It seems I was caught teaching some kids the latest dances and the school thought it a good idea to teach the rest of my class because the Junior and Senior Prom’s were coming up. I loved it. I became one of the most popular kids in school.
I worked for Prudential Life Insurance upon graduation. Someone heard of my interest in show business and asked if I would put together a group of talented coworkers and perform under the banner of Prudential at Veterans Hospitals, Old Age homes, etc. I loved teaching and directing my coworkers. What a great time.
To make extra money I got a job teaching for Arthur Murray. As low man on the totem pole I was given the least desirable students. The hardest to teach. I admit I wished I had been assigned some of the talented students, to be able to spend sessions comfortably gliding along the floor for an hour would have been bliss.
Those teachers who had the best students didn’t have the rewards I had. One student in particular was a woman who had braces on both legs. How was I to work with this woman? I admit to being fearful of injuring her in some manner. I studied books and consulted doctors. At the beginning I literally carried her around the floor. It was hell on my back, those braces were heavy, but she began to feel a movement she hadn’t experience in many years. I could feel the rhythms and tempos invade her body.
After more than a year we were at a Ball held by the school. Over the loud speaker came an announcement. They had a special surprise for Adam Hill. Everyone left the dance floor. A spotlight went on my student who was at the far end of the ballroom. She removed her leg braces and walked to the center of the room. Her walk was slow and awkward, but she did it without any help. She held her arms up in dance position. I walked to her. They played a waltz and we danced to thunderous applause. All of the exercises I put her through and the amount of homework she did allowed her to advance to this moment. Shortly after this evening she moved to Florida and I didn’t see her again, but the feeling of pride in watching her and what she accomplished never left me.
I had been acting several years when I was in a play directed by a man who was result oriented and lacked patience. The actors in the company were panicked. To the best of my abilities I worked with them. I prayed I understood this difficult man and his directions. When the run of the play was finished several of the actors asked if I would teach them. I had no idea what I could possibly teach them that they already didn’t know. I admit having a thirst for knowledge and had continued to study the craft every opportunity I had when I wasn’t working. I agreed to teach what I had learned, but for only a few weeks. These many years later, I am still teaching. As you see teaching chose me and not the other way round–to this day I am grateful.
Up to this point teaching seems to be only about me, but if you read in between the lines you will see it’s not. It’s about the people I teach. My rewards have always been about what my students have accomplished. I am like a proud daddy. I am as proud of my student who walked without braces as I am of my actor who has won several Emmy awards. Do you want to see me angry: mistreat an actor in my presence, or be an actor who is lazy and refusing to live up to your potential. It’s not about me it’s about the actor. It has to be.
At the University where I developed a professional theatre program, the enrollment grew from 3 or 4 students to more than 50 in a few short years. Then a new Provost came to the school and insisted the program be changed to what she believed to be better. I confronted her and told her that what she proposed was not what was best for the students. Her response shocks me to this day (although I don’t know why it does). Maybe she was right in calling me naive. She said to me, and I quote: “Don’t be naive, Adam. It’s not about the students. It’s never about the students. It’s about money.”
In her world maybe, but not mine. It is always about the student. The irony is she got her way and the program lost more than half the enrollment I built. In terms of money that is in the millions of lost tuitions.
I have the knowledge that I have trained some of the great teachers of the future. I hope they continue my legacy and always make it about the students. That is where the true reward is in teaching. No amount of money can compete with the joy and pride my kids have given me.