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Wellbeing for dance teachers

A little while ago I recorded a podcast for a dance education organisation, focusing on teacher wellbeing. The podcast host was keen to address this topic because literature and media outputs about wellbeing tend to be aimed at students and performers, rather than those who train them. Unfortunately, the organisation is no longer in operation, so the episode was never released. But this conversation about teacher wellbeing feels useful and relevant – so I’ve summarised the content below.

Q: How do you define wellbeing?

A: Wellbeing is a huge topic within psychology and because of this there are various different definitions of it. Essentially, wellbeing involves continual striving to live in accordance with our values and to fulfil our own purpose in life, while also enjoying momentary pleasures and experiences. Models of wellbeing generally include factors like positive emotions – which may come from pleasurable experiences, positive social relationships and connections, a sense of meaning and purpose, opportunities for achievement, some form of autonomy in at least some areas of our lives, and the feeling that we are making a contribution to our community or society. So it is quite broad, far-reaching and involves both fun and development or growth.

Another important point to make about wellbeing is that it’s a dynamic concept – it’s not something we either have or don’t have. It can change, it can fluctuate, and it’s absolutely something that we can change ourselves. In fact, some authors suggest that wellbeing is really just the balance point between the challenges we face in our lives, and the resources we have available to us to meet those challenges. From that perspective, a life without challenge is a life without opportunities to grow and develop, so actually we don’t necessarily want to feel good or happy all the time. This is a useful way of looking at wellbeing because many messages in the media suggest that constant or permanent happiness is within our grasp if we just try hard enough – and this simply isn’t true. No matter our circumstances, no matter how many tools and techniques we use to enhance our wellbeing, there are always going to be times when we don’t feel great, and accepting that life has its ups and downs and that is normal, is key to becoming more content.

Q: Why is well-being important for dance educators?

A: Wellbeing in and of itself is important for everybody, at every stage and in every walk of life, because everybody deserves to feel good about themselves. And when we feel good about ourselves, we are more likely to perform our various roles well – whether that’s as a teacher, dancer, parent, student, friend, partner, and so on.

Often when we work in dance it’s because we have a passion for it – dancing is a part of us, a part of who we are – and because of this we give a lot to it. Wellbeing is so important for dance teachers because we are in a giving role. I know from myself, my colleagues and my own teachers just how much time, energy and thought goes into teaching, and that teaching is about more than instruction, it’s also about guiding, mentoring and caring for students. There can be a huge amount of pastoral work that goes hand-in-hand with teaching that often goes unrecognised. Teachers give so much, but the vast majority of research out there focuses on students, or, if it’s about teachers, it tends to be about teaching styles and strategies. Teachers themselves deserve more attention, particularly in terms of their wellbeing.

This combination of being in a giving role, and working in an area which we love, can be a great source of wellbeing – it can offer opportunities for meaning and purpose, for making a contribution, for positive social relationships – but when our work forms a large part of our identities it can also take over to an extent, and it can stop us from paying attention to other areas of our lives. In the long term this can lead to burnout, but in the short term when our wellbeing is compromised it can have an impact on things like our mental and physical health and also our ability to do our jobs well. For instance, we may struggle with concentration, we may be more negative around our students, we may be more pessimistic in general or disproportionately worried about things. We need to find a balance between our work and our lives outside of work, and to try and prioritise our own personal needs as these are separate to our needs in the professional context, even when our work is a big part of our identity.

Q: Can you give some more detail about what happens when an educator doesn’t prioritise their wellbeing?

A: It can be quite obvious when we aren’t looking after our psychological wellbeing. For example if we’re really stressed, we can become very irritable, snapping at people or being sarcastic, we can find even small challenges suddenly overwhelming, we can find it very difficult to make what are really quite simple decisions, we might lose our sense of humour, and we may not sleep well which only makes things worse. If we are suffering from low mood we may find ourselves feeling pessimistic, lethargic or low in