The Unexpected Joy of Online Teaching

Before COVID-19 shut down the studio where I teach I had never put much though into online teaching. I could imagine a few scenarios in which teaching remotely might help support students far away with little access to a studio, or I could see working with new moms on post natal work while getting out of the house wasn’t yet practical. But I hadn’t given it much thought beyond that, partly because I was already running to keep up with my in-person teaching schedule and didn’t have much time to ponder ways to add even more teaching to my life.

Then the pandemic hit and all at once I was forced to to think, and think fast, about how online teaching would now fit into my life.

First, a little about what I teach in “real-life”. Back in the studio I was teaching mostly private sessions, primarily GYROTONIC® equipment sessions, but also some duets and some pilates. I had only one GYROKINESIS® class a week on the schedule, and that was a staff class for trainers. (In the past I had several on the schedule, but now those are taught by other trainers, as it’s too expensive for the studio to have me teaching small group classes). In addition to that I was teaching a pretty full load of GYROTONIC® and GYROKINESIS® teacher training courses.

Initially, as I went about setting up my free, trial online class, my concerns were that ivirtual classes would lack the warmth of an in-person class. Teaching in-person I would walk into the room, sense the energy of the participants, have a little social exchange, and then start teaching a class. I’d be calibrating on the spot to the particular energy level I felt in the room that day. How would this be possible over a computer screen?

My other concern, specifically regarding equipment classes and private sessions, was that I’m very much a hands-on teacher, giving lots of tactile cues and support. My GYROKINESIS® classes tend to be very rhythmic and fluid, without much stopping and starting, but how would this work for equipment and privates? How could I translate my teaching style to virtual classes? Could I convey the information online to my students that they needed to have a positive class experience and that would support their continued growth in their movement practice?

And yet another concern was would anybody even come? Was there really a market for online classes?

So at this point we’re coming up on two months of this online life and I’ve found, while there certainly are challenges, this has been an amazing experience that will forever change the way I teach, reach out to students, and structure my career.

By far the easiest transition to teaching online has been GYROKINESIS® classes. Since I would normally do the class with the participants, not a lot changed there, except that I have to speak more than I would in person and make gestures for directional cues bigger to communicate more clearly and keep the class in sync over our small screens. The biggest change in terms of GYROKINESIS® classes is the regularity I’m teaching these now. I teach these classes pretty much every day now, and often multiple classes per day.

And because I’m teaching daily, and people are coming to classes regularly, I’m able to dive more deeply into the work with them. I’m able to pull threads of concepts more clearly across my classes, and offer more variety from class to class. Often when people are coming to my once a week class I feel like the frequency isn’t enough to progress them along. Having participants take class daily, or several times per week, allows me to unfold and expand upon the material in a more free-flowing way, without feeling the need to “recap” what we did last week. And, when the participants are practicing more frequently in this way, change happens in the body to allow for deeper connections and therefore deeper understanding in the work.

Yes, people do come to online classes. What I’ve found is that some might normally attend regular classes in their local area, but many are taking far more classes than they ever would in person. Many don’t have access to in-person classes or, if they do, they might not have the space in their schedule to drive half an hour to class, take class, and then drive half an hour home. Classes might not be at convenient times for them. Online classes bypass many of these obstacles people face in getting to class regularly.

The other really appealing aspect of teaching online is that I can draw students from a wider area, really from anywhere at all. I like to teach higher level classes that demand a certain level of experience from the participants. I’m located in a small city, so it’s hard to draw enough people from my local area with enough experience to regularly fill high level classes. But with teaching online these students find my classes from wherever they are in the world and this filling of my classes with experienced and curious students allows for greater levels of creatively and inspiration in my teaching.

Just a couple of weeks ago the studio where I teach closed it’s second location, consolidating back down to just the main studio. This meant I had to pick up my Pulley Tower and take it home, which opened up for me teaching group tower classes online. In the past when I’ve taught tower classes I’ve stood in front of the class and cued verbally while gesturing with my arms, or showing the movement on a stool, and I’ve walked around and giving hands on, occasionally booting someone off their tower to demonstrate something in more detail. But now the number of towers isn’t a limiting factor. And, since I can’t walk around and give hands on, the most obvious approach is to just do the class with the participants, cueing as I go, and fitting in as much detailing information as I can within the rhythm of teaching.

My students have said they much prefer when I do the class with them like this. I figure it’s a good opportunity to focus on rhythm, flow, and continuity, which sometimes get lost a bit as we go for analysis and precision in our in-person classes. Analysis and precision are good and important, but it’s really nice to take the emphasis off perfection for awhile and let people apply all the principles they’ve worked on for so long and enjoy a flowing, fun workout. And especially during this time, when everyone is stressed and under heavy pressure, it’s nice to just let us all move together.

Of course some days this teaching approach is challenging, such as the day I taught a Level 1 Tower class, Advanced GYROKINESIS® class, and then a Level 2 Tower class, plus took a client through a GYROKINESIS® private session. Clearly one cannot do this every day with no end in sight.

Private sessions are a different matter. I have a few pilates privates and duets on my schedule. For these I sit in front of my screen and cue, occasionally getting down on my mat or standing to demonstrate a particular exercise. For GYROKINESIS® privates I move with the participant, and the other day I did my first online Jumping Stretching Board private on the JSB I have in storage in my basement. I used clothes pins to hang a big sheet from the beams behind it to hide the furnace and storage crates. I put the laptop on the paint supply shelf and found it really worked best if I did the workout with the student, looking over frequently to give her corrections. It was actually really fun to do. Moving with other people creates more sense of community and connection than just about anything else we do, so it’s appealing and comforting during these times of isolation.

So how about the warmth? The energy of the classes and the exchange of energy with the participants? Yes, that’s there in the online classes. I was surprised at how strong it actually is. I can feel when I’m teaching to a smaller group and I can feel when it’s a large group. I can feel when energy is low and they need to be built up and I can feel when the energy is too frenetic and needs to be calmed down, just like in a “real” class. Sometimes this is tricky because often there are students from many time zones, some just waking up, some in the middle of their day, and some winding down for bedtime. So in these cases I mostly try to stay away from over-stimulating material for those about to try to sleep.

Online teaching has been exhausting, but it has also been an enjoyable, inspiring experience which has connected me with so many new people throughout the worldwide GYROTONIC® community. I’m not entirely sure what online teaching will look like for me when we go back to “normal”, but it’s certainly a venue for teaching that I’m excited to continue to explore.

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