Learning to Teach (and, Teaching to Learn): Sophia’s personal soapbox

Have you ever considered becoming an instructor? I’ll be honest: I didn’t! I’d been training for a little over a year when Acoatzin was actually the one to plant the seed in my brain by telling me I should consider taking an upcoming lyra teacher training that Monarca was hosting… and the rest is pretty much history!

I love teaching now, and I believe it’s made me a better aerialist, but before I talk about my journey, I want to share some things I’ve learned:

  1. Teaching is NOT the “natural” next step after you’ve been learning for a while (and neither is performing, for that matter!). Truly, teaching is not for everyone, and that’s ok!
  2. Everyone has a different journey, and that includes the journey to becoming a coach (if you ever decide to pursue it)! This was my path, but there’s no single way to do it.
  3. Not every coach is good. And even the good ones aren’t good for every student. (There, I said it!!) This one has an important corollary: just because a coach asks you to do something you hate, or their class is difficult, doesn’t mean they’re not good or not good for you 😉
    1. What I was trying to get at with #2 and #3 is that you don’t have to take a teacher training to be a good teacher, and just because someone took one (or two, or three!) doesn’t make them a [good] teacher.
  4. You will be a student forever. Even when you’re a coach. ESPECIALLY when you’re a coach! And that’s a good thing.

That said, my path to teaching was actually pretty straightforward: I decided to take the training! I figured that even if I didn’t end up teaching, I would still learn something (and I learned a LOT!), and I had the time and the money to do it, so I did. The Paper Doll Militia course I took was one week long (35 hours, in person) and covered a ton of material, including: basic anatomy, rigging and safety practices, teaching tools and techniques, classroom management, how to lesson plan, and a suggested Lyra 1 curriculum. We practiced spotting, learned conditioning drills, taught skills to each other, and ran warm-ups and cool-downs every day.

After I completed the training course, there was an option to get a certification from Born To Fly (Rebekah Leach’s program) by completing additional requirements, which I chose not to do.* (I think their certification program is wonderful, it just wasn’t right for me at the time.) Then Monarca had its own requirements for me to complete: I shadowed classes, then I started teaching parts of other instructors’ classes (e.g., warm-up, teaching a couple skills, cool-down, etc.), and finally I taught full classes under supervision before I was cleared to fly solo.

But those are just details. Here’s the important stuff!

I actually love recommending teacher trainings to students who DON’T want to become teachers, but who are interested in deepening their understanding of aerial. Teacher training was a smörgåsbord of information every aerialist should know, but you don’t always learn in technique class. For example: rigging, how to plan your own training (including how to warm up and cool down effectively), spotting techniques (even if you don’t teach, when you train with other people it’s nice to know just in case). And of course, we spent HOURS breaking down skills in different ways. Not only did this give me a deeper understanding of those specific skills, it also gave me the tools to break down other skills myself! I think having (and using!) those tools is the hallmark of a smart aerialist, so I try to pass it on to my students too.

I also learned that teaching is a MASSIVE time suck. In my first year of teaching, I took on way too much, my personal training suffered… and I impinged my shoulder. But ultimately, I also learned balance. I was lucky that Acoatzin and the rest of the Monarca staff were supportive when I wanted to take a break. I’ve been able to strike a much better balance after I learned that lesson the hard way!

Crucially, in that first year of teaching too much and learning too little, I realized that if I wanted to be a good coach, I had to keep being a student too. I might’ve felt differently if I’d already had a decade of aerial under my belt – but I doubt it! I’m constantly learning new things, both from my students and from other instructors. Yes, of course learning new skills is cool, and helps me keep my lessons fresh. More importantly though, I learn about how to teach people who aren’t like me and I keep building my teaching toolbox. For example: I took ballet for 13 years, so there are some things I don’t even know that I know – they’re just second nature. But I have to figure out how to identify, talk about, and teach those things to a student who has never had a single movement class in their life.

What that really means is that, despite our best efforts, not every coach is good for every student. I’ll be honest: I sometimes get very nervous to teach male-bodied aerialists! I just don’t have the same equipment as they do, and while I’ve done some research, I worry that I’m not cueing them well or that I haven’t considered something they might need to know. I know I’m not the right fit for everyone, so when a student stops taking my classes, I add their name to an Arya Stark type list try not to take it personally!**

This has made me a better student too. Coaches are there to provide support and safety as you stretch the boundaries of your comfort zone, but stretching your comfort zone often involves, well, discomfort! So we have our garden variety discomfort – but then there’s discomfort that’s actually a signal that something’s not working. And if that’s the case, I know how to ask for what I need, like different cueing or a heavy spot, and I can even dig into my own toolbox to supplement.

And here’s the absolute worst case scenario: sometimes a teacher is actually just not very good. Luckily, that’s not the case at Monarca*** but as a student I’m grateful I can recognize unsafe practices or a teacher who has plenty of skills to share but not enough tools to safely share them. Because at the end of the day, as students and aerialists, our safety and growth is actually our own responsibility. Becoming a coach helped me take ownership of those things and become a better, safer aerialist.

On a personal note, our Monarca community is really special and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to give back over the last few years by teaching. This was a really beautiful and supportive environment for me to make the transition from learning to teaching (even when it seemed like that might mean me NOT teaching).**** But even though I do love being a coach, I actually plan to stop when I move to Chicago. I need to devote more time and attention to my own training – I miss being a “full-time” student and there’s a lot I’d like to learn. And now I have better tools to help me learn them!

I could talk about teaching all day long, but I’ll end it here (for now). If you’d like to become an instructor someday, or even if you’re just curious about the possibility of maybe trying it out someday, please come chat with me or any of the Monarca coaches about it!

* Not every teacher training ends in a “certification” – some will give you a “certificate of completion,” but in many cases that basically just means you showed up every day and were still alive at the end of the course. Also, not every certification means something because aerial doesn’t have a governing body to administer this sort of thing. Born To Fly is probably the best known program, especially in the US, but I could start my own certification program tomorrow and the certification police wouldn’t say a word. Because they don’t exist! So if someone says they’re a “certified aerial instructor,” you should ask “by whom?” Because it could be by their mom. Or their dog.

** I’m kidding about the list. Really. I promise.

*** At least, I don’t think it is. I mean, none of the other coaches are bad. And someone would have told me by now if I was, right? RIGHT???

**** On a serious note, there are MANY pitfalls to students becoming instructors, especially as early as I did. A lot of studios don’t handle this as well as Monarca did, but I’m under no illusions that my journey was perfect, and I know I am not the Best Coach In The World! I still have a lot to learn as a coach too, not just as an aerialist. If you’re curious about this, please ask me! It’s an important conversation that doesn’t happen often enough, and I promise to be honest.

-Sophia Chen