Sunday, June 14, 2009

Detecting Sham or Incompetent Tango Teachers

While on the subject...a little birdie pointed out this old thread from Tango-L...

Let's face it, tango is not cheap. During the first three years for me, I would guess (I'm afraid to actually run the numbers) I spent $15,000 to $20,000 on workshops, festivals, travel, hotels. It probably cost me more in indirect cost impacts - focusing on my tango addiction more than other areas of my life.

So, tango newbies (and others who still take workshops) should be able to get the most bang for their buck. I always approached workshops a little differently. I always said to myself, "Self, if you end up with only one item, one piece of vocabulary, one tango product, then it was worth the $100 or so you paid..." Now, I can't afford that mindset. A full festival pass, hotel, travel, meals, vino tinto, could easily run $600-800 even if you are bare-bonesing it.

So, bang for the buck - maximizing your tango learning (and retention) for your dollars expended. Learning "proper" technique. Learning fundamentals, the subtle nuances of lead and follow. Being taught (but perhaps never learning) codigos and floorcraft. In my experience, it's surprising (no, not really) that there are so many leaders with really piss-poor technique and no desire to improve. Many are dancing the Basic-8 over and over. I would rather learn less "stuff" and gain more fundamental truth from a nice, friendly couple, than have tons of elaborate figures thrown at me by arrogant, self-aggrandizing teachers who think they are hot shit tango demi-gods.

Anyway, this all came up out of the blue. The recent thread on Tango-L made me start thinking about it - and you all know how I think too much. Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut and leave well enough alone. After all, it's not like people are being harmed or somehow damaged by bad teachers teaching bad tango. Or are they?

IMPORTANT NOTE!!! Luckily, there aren't that many of these tango carpetbaggers out there...the vast majority of tango teachers are careful, conscious, diligent, knowledgeable, curious, genuine, all-around good people. Also, the vast majority of festival and workshop organizers are only going to bring in the tried and true teachers for their events - they have done the due diligence for us end users.

Here's the thread...from 2003...from someone named "TangoGuy"

Sham or incompetent teachers
One needs to be suspicious of any teacher who exhibits any of the following. However, one needs to look at and think deeply about the overall picture and not rush to judgment. After all, it isn't fair to incorrectly evaluate a legitimate, good and dedicated teacher. And one may be passing up a very fine learning opportunity.

This list won't help the poor hapless vulnerable and total beginner because in all likelihood, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to have read it. But one can warn and guide any beginners one may encounter. Also, one can give the beginner a copy of this list.

Teachers can view this list as a way of checking themselves. They shouldn't construe any part of what I say as meaning they are necessarily sham or incompetent teachers. However, if any part applies to them, they need to take it as a helpful hint. It's the responsibility of every teacher to improve both their dancing and their teaching skills. Doing so improves ones service to their students and to the wider Tango community.

Obviously, most truly sham teachers are going to continue shamming. I just hope some will have a pang of conscience that will lead them to change their ways.

I have attempted to create an exhaustive list but if I have left anything out, please let me know. All helpful comments and critiques are welcome and requests for clarifications will be honored.

1)Money seems to be a teacher's paramount concern. It's certainly ok for a teacher to make money but it shouldn't be his chief concern. Their chief concern needs to be the welfare of their students and the wider Tango community. It becomes a concern to other Tango dancers when they end-up dancing with a poorly trained person. Beginners are one thing; poorly trained dancers are another.

Alex here...I disagree with this...for full-time professional teachers, this is how they put bread on the table...not being concerned about paying your bills from month to month would be difficult/impossible for any of us to do.

2)A teacher doesn't concentrate on basics with a beginner. As a student advances, he will often need to be reminded or helped from time to time with relevant basics. A teacher needs to be willing to do this regardless of the class level. I have already mentioned elsewhere in this posting a type of class structure that will accommodate this.

3)A teacher is unwilling to correct a student. The teacher may be afraid to lose a student due to too many needed corrections.

4)A teacher teaches a beginner figures other than Salidas, Crosses and Ochos. These figures are used as a way to convey basics to a student so it may be possible to use additional figures to convey needed basics.

5)A teacher who teaches a lot of flashy, fancy and/or sexy figures is probably attempting to hook or keep students. Latter on as a dancer becomes more advanced, such figures are a lot of fun.

6)The teacher doesn't dance well or is not smooth or doesn't dance elegantly or doesn't give a lady time to complete a figure or doesn't insert strategic pauses to give a lady time to do adornments.

7)A teacher doesn't seem to have sufficient dedication to Tango. A truly dedicated teacher has enough interest in Tango to go beyond the actual dance itself. Almost everything about Tango needs to be of interest to the teacher. Things such as the music, Tango personalities, Tango history, etc. A teacher can convey such info to the student in bits and snippets.

8)A teacher needs to tell students (even beginners) about Tango-L, Tango-A and other Tango related websites. He should have bibliographies of books, videos and CD's (or at least he can refer students to sources or others who have)

9)A teacher doesn't name techniques, figures and steps that are being taught. (Terms and names are best given in Spanish because a foreign language is freer of the non-tango related connotations and associations then ones own native language has.)

If a teacher doesn't know the names of what he is teaching, one needs to wonder how much the teacher actually knows.

If a teacher knows but won't give names of what he is teaching, the teacher is probably attempting to control how rapidly a student is learning with the intent of keeping the student in the teacher's classes as long as possible.

If a student doesn't have a name for something, it is difficult for him to think about. One needs a language and its words to think about anything. Not being able to think about something is a severe handicap to learning. This is called illiteracy.

Words gives a student the ability to discuss a technique, figure or step in as few words a possible. A word conveys a complex sets of ideas efficiently. Discussions with others helps a student to understand and learn a new technique, figure or step better.

A student can use the words to record efficient notes.

10)A teacher doesn't convey any sort of mental structure to the student. A structure is a way a student can think about Tango and its techniques, movements, steps and figures. A good structure aids the student in his quest toward tango. A teacher needs to structure the class and what he teaches along the lines of the mental structure he is attempting to convey.

Because Tango is essentially an improvisational dance, it doesn't have structure in the same way as Ballroom. The mental structure is only mental and is not applied to the actual dance itself. The intent of a structure is to help a student to think and learn in as clear and efficient manner as possible.

A beginner often depends on the mental structure as a sort of a crutch. As the beginner progresses, the need for the crutch gradually drops away. Later on, the mental structure can be used as a way a student can analyze and choreograph their own figures.

An integral part of any mental structure are words and names of things. Much of what I have already said in regards to words and names also applies to mental structures.

A mental structure relates techniques, movements, steps and figures according to their similarities, differences and according to ease of learning. Easy simple things, that may be found as part of more complex and harder figures, are taught early. When the more complex and harder figures are taught, the student will find them easier to learn because much of it has already been learned.

Any structure a teacher develops can be conveyed in a gradual fashion and not all at once.

11)A teacher doesn't encourage note taking.

12)A student remains in the class without much improvement while the teacher attempts to convince him he is improving. A student can measure their own progress at practicas and milongas and the response of other dancers with whom they dance. A dancer can test their lead/follow abilities by dancing with people less advanced then himself such as beginners.

13)A lot of what is being taught is not being retained by a student.

Exception: In the case of a student being in a class over their head, it would be the responsibility of the teacher to direct the student to a class and teacher that can better help the student.

Another thing the teacher can do is to structure the class so that each student is learning at their own particular level. Students at about the same level can be taught as a subgroup within the class. With this method, a single class can accommodate students of several different levels at the same time. The class can be on-going without beginning or end. Teachers can accept new students at any time without regard to the student's dance ability. To make such a structure work, the teacher needs to be willing to give each student more one-on-one attention. Sort of like giving private lessons in a group setting.

14)A teacher seems to make a lot of mistakes either in what he is teaching or how he is teaching.

15)A teacher seems make a lot of excuses for shortcomings.

16)A teacher seems to have more explanation than results.

17)A teacher seems to be defensive with questions whose answers may reveal the incompetence or fraud.

18)A teacher deliberately teaches incorrectly with the intent of handicapping the student. A sham teacher wants to keep the student dependent on the teacher so he continues with the teacher. I think this is the worst kind of teacher and I hope it is rare even among sham teachers.

19)A teacher deliberately withholds information from the student with the intent of either handicapping the student or in an attempt to keep the student from finding out the teachers fraudulence.

20)Any uncivility or discourtesy on the part of the teacher. This includes snapping at a student or any impatience. A teacher needs to be a paragon of patience.

21)A teacher who is unwilling to repeat or review prior material as often as is needed. I have already mentioned elsewhere in this posting a type of class structure that will accommodate this.


Henry ( said...

An interesting post written with a lot of gusto. Though I agree with much of the content (but not the rhetoric), I think some of the ideas here are a bit over-the-top and outrageous.

Nevertheless, a good read from a critical perspective.

Alex said...

Thanks for the comment Henry. Yes, it would be extremely rare to find teachers exhibiting many of the traits. I think the writer must have had several bad experiences to have been moved to write this.

It would be better to take is as a fictional account, and look at it with a critical eye as you said, for all of us to learn from and be aware of. Especially those new to tango - so they know what to look for and what to expect.

I experienced a teacher who did not correct some rather obvious problems with me - I blog about it fairly frequently - my "fucked up walk". I'm not sure what motivated this person to not address it with me. I would have gladly spent more money on private lessons to get it fixed.

I have also heard of a teacher who didn't share some rather key follower 'secrets' over a year's time. As their little group got better and started taking workshops from visiting teachers, they wondered why these critical elements had not ever been mentioned.

Who knows what motivates teachers to do (or not do) these guess is much of this isn't to intentionally mislead the "customer", but more like general oblivion - they're just not aware or they are aware and don't care.

Better used as a checklist for folks of what to look for in a teacher - if their current teacher never mentions codigos or floorcraft, then they might want to look for someone else who does cover the full gamut of history, culture, music/ality, who's who, fundamentals/technique, and "stuff" (figures).

Plus, I'm running out of stuff to say on my blog, so I gotta "get where the gittin' is good"...someone sent this to me...and I figgered "what the hell?"...

I have questioned why I'm bringing this all up...the vast majority of teachers are pretty damn good...

Malevito said...

Hi Alex, how are you?

First off, wow, that's a lot of money. I doubt I've spent that much on tango in all my time dancing. Of course, I seem to be one of the odd men out--most people I know who have been in it for a while are quite well-to-do, in lucrative professions and such. But being relatively poor, I've gotten by very nicely through the generosity of the community and by lending my time as a volunteer and such.

Regarding the thread, I think the intentions behind it are probably for the most part noble but there are things listed that I don't think are so easily cut and dried (your contention of the first item is a good example, and one which has bearing on some of the others).

My thoughts in brief about each item:

1) Agree with Alex
2) Agree with list
3) Grey area. Experienced teachers are wary of giving students tmi, instead trying to focus on the most immediate issues. For the "long run" types of problems they will try to gently and gradually point the student in the right direction (kind of like straightening teeth, the dentist doesn't just hammer everything into alignment but uses braces to gradually ease into it).
4) Agree with list
5) This is one that goes back to the money issue, and I think that has to be taken into consideration. I would say that what is more important here is *how* the figures are being taught and how the instructor(s) relate them to more practical issues (ie. how will learning these boleos help the student better understand the walking intention and the ocho lead and follow, etc.) as well as conveying social etiquette of figures that may not be appropriate in a milonga.
6) Agree to a point, but quality can be so subjective.
7) Agree with list
8) Not sure this is of such importance.
9) Have issues with this one, although I understand the teaching/learning facility of giving things names.
10) Agree with list
11) Agree with list (but have never encountered it, seems conspicuous)
12) There is much to be said about each dancer's natural ability, as well as their self-awareness. For the former, it could be that the dance doesn't come to them as easily as to others. For the latter, it could be that they don't see or feel the improvement that others do.
13) Goes back to number 3, which also goes back to number 1. Sometimes teachers will plant a seed for the "long run" issues knowing they won't immediately register but will bear fruit over time.
14) Grey area. Teaching is a learning process as well.
15) Agree with list
16) Grey area
17) Agree with list
18 & 19) Both seem fairly outrageous and less common even than number 11, at least to my knowledge. Heinous if true, though.
20) Agree with list
21) Agree with list

And yeah, while the majority of teachers are good, there are always, ALWAYS, toxic fungi that pop up amidst the flora. And though experienced dancers can spot them easily, newer dancers often cannot, and they are the ones who are most vulnerable and perhaps have the most to lose.

Anyway, thanks for the post :)

msHedgehog said...

I disagree with the one about names. I know at least one effective teacher of beginners (a native speaker of Argentinian Spanish) who avoids naming anything in Spanish except purely for information - because the students will probably need that information when taught by other people. They certainly don't need it to learn. I think there's a very good argument that naming figures in a language unknown to the students is needlessly pretentious and mystifying, and harmful in teaching basic technique, when a clear explanation in words each of which will be fully understood, is much better and is perfectly easy to do with half a minute's thought.

But there's an argument that the information is needed, too.

Last year I tried something with the same aim in mind, but more aimed at beginners.

Alex said...

Thanks for the comments!

MsHedgehog's "Beginner's Questionaire" is a wonderful piece of work.

Check it out.

Professionals Guild said...

I like the idea that a teacher should give a brief name (in Spanish) to each figure that he is teaching. It does help them learn.

I actually use a combination of Spanish and English. For example:
back ochos.

I don't encourage note taking because I routinely send email summaries to my students along with custom videos taken at the lesson. Most of my students love the videos because they help them review what they've learned. The videos will be available to them for years to come.