This is my first assignment for the MOOC #FutureEd https://class.coursera.org/highered-001/ The task is to write about something you have had to unlearn in order to learn something new. As I wrote this - initially feeling a little uncertain about the "political correctness" of writing about being the submissive female follower in a rather macho dance form - I began to see this as a metaphor for learning on a bigger scale.
When I first went to a salsa class, I had always considered myself to be a good dancer - but I had never danced with a partner. I didn't have too much trouble learning the basic steps and picking up the rhythm - in fact that part was really fun. The unlearning came when I had to dance with a man! I really did not know how to let go of my need to be in control and let him lead. In fact, it felt unfair that the man ALWAYS led and decided on the choreography as the dance unfolded.
Frankly this made me a very poor dance partner. My arms were stiff from resisting the lead, I moved ahead of the music, anticipating the next steps - or my feet seemed to refuse to do as they were "told" and became leaden and unresponsive. Practice with my partner became a time of tears and tantrums and I constantly felt angry and ashamed of my lack of progress.
Gradually I came to feel how impossible it was to have two leads in the dance. I also began to understand that to follow was an art form in itself. To be able to interpret the subtleties of the lead, to feel the flow of the dance, required its own skill. I also saw that as the follower, my steps were often more complicated, involving lots of spinning, and it was impossible for me to concentrate on the choreography or direction of the dance on my own - I needed my partner to take care of those things, to support me and allow me to shine!
There are still times when I feel frustrated as a dancer that I am not "permitted" to take over (although I have now learnt how to lead!) but I also know that there is great satisfaction to be had from knowing how to work in partnership.
Two years ago I travelled from the UK to an educational conference in San Diego and whilst there visited a wonderful salsa club. It was a magical experience for me - dancing the night away with a succession of charming young men, feeling a great sense of mastery in my ability to "follow", and co-creating with them dances that were as lovely as they were surprising.
By unlearning my habit of controlling I discovered the international community of salsa and the joy of dancing.
I guess the moral of this story (and I am just realising this as I write) is that letting go of control and being prepared to step into the unknown is an essential part of participating in a learning community, whether as teacher or student. When I wear the hat of teacher, I still hold on to the illusion of control and yet every new group of students, every start of each new academic year is a step into the unknown – a new dance, in which I am once again aiming to be the skilled follower.