Teachers! Are you Empowering your Students?

Aerial can be hard, intimidating, and the most empowering thing you do on a given day. How can you make students feel supported so they can reap the benefits from your classes?

Deciding to take aerial classes marks a very exciting moment in an aerialist’s life. Whether they just want to try something new or are inspired to become a performer, they’re approaching an area of athletics that comes with a LOT of unknowns and intimidation factors. There are many ways to support aerial students to help them feel empowered and excited. This article discusses ways to support adult aerial silks students. 

1. Be clear with your expectations

Take measures to get everyone on the same page. Make sure the rules, etiquette, what to wear, where to park are all up front and clear. Boundaries may not be clear for students if they have never taken aerial classes before, so being explicit is key. E.g., do not touch other students at any time without permission from them and the instructor. Or, no phones until the last 10 minutes of class. Or, you may ask any question at any time. 

You can also help students by cluing them in to your teaching style. I let students know that when I say things bluntly, such as “No, that’s wrong, you need to ____________” I am not angry or disappointed–my purpose is to be clear and efficient. I have found that every time I explain this students are gracious and say “YES, tell me anything that’s wrong–I want to learn.” 

2. Be generous in terms of the learning process

Some students will climb to the top of the fabric and invert on day one. Some students may never climb to the top of the fabric or invert. There are things you can do and say that let your students know that there is no rush and no need for them to execute any particular skill (except to be able to progress to more advanced skills). I frequently use phrases like, “If you climb to the top, great. If not, that’s fine too,” and I note that some skills commonly take weeks or longer to learn. 

It has helped me to consider that some students come to silks class for NO other reason than to build their confidence. They need to know that they are not going to be valued less or become a source of frustration if they practice foundational skills for years. Many students come only to exercise, or to get their mind off of other things. Unless a student tells you explicitly, you don’t know why they are there

. Support all students by celebrating their presence first and their achievements second. Be generous by showing your appreciation for students simply for showing up and taking the time to learn about something you’re excited about. 

Except for select circumstances, a teacher’s primary job is not to advance their students quickly. Inclusive instruction means providing students with resources for learning and practicing at a pace and level that is appropriate for them. Some students respond well to being pushed, and some don’t–and frequently one week their preferences are different from the next. This is where the art of teaching comes in.

What does it look like and sound like to challenge students without putting pressure on them? How do you know when to nudge and when to back off? Read your students and judge what they need most on any given day–it might be emotional support, challenge, or simply something that makes them laugh. Be generous by allowing students as much time as they need to progress. 

Remember that learning silks means being told a LOT of steps and trying things that are unlike anything else in life. A few rare people will remember just about everything you tell them, but 99% will need to be reminded, and many folks are not auditory learners at all (I am not particularly auditory myself, despite being extremely verbal).

Be generous by allowing room for questions and repeated instructions. I tell my students upfront that I don’t mind if they ask a lot of questions or even the same question over and over (assuming they are making a genuine effort to pay attention). I assure them that I will never be mad at them for making sure they know what they are doing.

At some point you may find yourself wondering with exasperation HOW your long-time student still doesn’t understand something as simple as finding the right amount of slack for a foot lock. Assuming you have done a good job of explaining this aspect of this skill, your frustration is a clear signal that you need to summon extra patience and remember that not everyone’s learning experience is going to feel like yours did.

REMEMBER that people have different learning styles, different proprioceptive capacities, and different ways of interpreting words and ideas. 

3. Nurture a culture conducive to learning and creating

Fact of life: it is natural and easy to become competitive in any discipline. Being competitive is not necessarily bad, but if gets in the way of good relations, fun times, and creative exploration, then it crosses from being motivational to being detrimental. As a teacher, you provide cues to your students for how to act–in the studio and within the broader aerial community. If you’re getting competitive with other students or teachers to a point that you’ve lost sight of the fun and creative side of things, students will notice that, and they might take after you–or become intimidated. 

I’m lucky enough to have a performance partner, student, and instructor with technical and artistic prowess to die for. Since we first met, we shared so much mutual admiration and appreciation that there has never been even a flicker of jealousy or resentment between us. We are excited about each other’s strengths and eager to learn from each other. Of course, this is the ideal situation. You may come across aerialists who don’t strive for this supportive dynamic, but instead simply want to prove they are “better” than you. In that case, you will just have to make sure you don’t fall for it 😉

I’ve watched the supportive attitude blossom in my local aerial community, and it’s a beautiful, uplifting thing. All the students encourage one another. We all talk openly about one another’s special skills and strengths, and we laugh about and exchange tips on what we need to work on. Everything I overhear in the studio makes me proud of my students and makes me feel lucky to get to work with them. 

4. Student-centered classes

Class is about the students, not the teacher. The students are already going to admire you–there is no need to draw excess attention to yourself. A confident, self-assured teacher directs her energy toward supporting her students and only demonstrates for instructional and inspirational purposes–not to show off. Of course, sometimes students want to see a fancy trick–they want to witness and celebrate your talent. If they request to see a skill and you are okay with it, enjoy sharing your abilities! You have the power to inspire and motivate people, and that’s a beautiful thing.

An important consideration in aerial classes is that there is a LOT to take in when teaching: you have to be aware of students’ physical condition and emotional states, watch wraps carefully, provide constant feedback, answer questions, spot, and monitor student interactions. Prepare to be FULLY, 100% ON when you are teaching, even if you had a bad day, even if you don’t feel well, even if you just fell in love and just want to think about that all day. Your students need you to be present. This is one reason I prefer small classes and avoid mixed levels. I prefer to be able to give detailed feedback and unwavering emotional support to every student in every class.

Considering how much you give in class, remember: REST! Incorporate self-care into your life. Hydrate, sleep well, put good food in your body, take baths, go for walks, meditate, enjoy your life. Recharging regularly allows you to keep teaching.

Need inspiration for what to teach? Access the full Wakeful Ascent aerial silks and aerial sling catalog here (don’t miss out on the two free tutorials!).