This edition of The Balcony View is guest written by Jamie Cranston, an aspiring school leader in the All-Iowa Principalship cohort at UNI. Jamie currently serves as an Early Childhood Special Education Teacher and Preschool Site Coordinator for the Newton Community School District.
Setting the Stage:
In early June I attended a special education conference in
Des Moines with many of
the administrators in my district. This conference was a first time experience
for me. I had never attended a conference that focuses only on special education
or even one that administrators attend. I am not sure that I have ever even attended
a conference where lunch was provided!
While waiting for the conference to begin I was looking at the different options for workshops to attend and mapping out my day. I looked up from my very important work to see a group of special needs students standing at the end of the stage with parents and an instructor. They began moving onto the stage
One or two of the dancers appeared to be extremely confident. Another appeared very shy but was still moving toward her spot. The spotlights drew in and they formed a dance pose with their bodies before the music began. My emotions immediately began to take over as they began to move. There was no mistaking that they loved what they were doing and had practiced many times.
As I sat with a table full of administrators I began to feel very vulnerable Tears filled my eyes. The girls danced like no one was watching and without a care in the world. I slid my chair a little more so that I was turned more toward the stage (and away from the administrators) to make sure that I could see every move and hide my emotions.
The songs continued and the clincher for me was a solo performed by a young lady. She danced and danced and danced and danced. The instructor didn’t even make a move to guide her off stage or encourage her to stop. The crowd loved her enthusiasm and many were like me-- streaming with tears.
Instead of interrupting the dance, the instructor guided other dancers out to the middle of the stage to dance along side this confident young lady. One young girl lacked the confidence of her peer, so her instructor simply danced with her. In an instant, she had the confidence that she needed to perform in a room of hundreds.
At this point I had to turn my chair completely toward the stage. The finale came with pulling a variety of male teachers and administrators from the audience to join in the dance. This priceless ending provided for many bursts of laughter through even more tears of emotion.
The performance ended with a standing ovation. As we gathered our things (and collected myself) one of my administrators said “We need to have something like those dancers.” I instantly agreed and realized that all of the administrators had been as moved as I had been. This was the beginning of something new and the ball began rolling on a project that got me more involved than I could have imagined.
After we returned from the conference, I returned to my hectic life as a teacher, wife, and aspiring school leader. About two weeks later I received an email from one of the administrators. She suggested meeting with the dance teacher in
to talk about how we might duplicate the performance we had watched with our
own students from our own district.
We met and I gathered lists of Level 2 and 3 special needs students from 2nd to 12th graders who usually were unable to participate in many extracurricular activities. After hundreds of phone calls we had a list of eight students who, along with their parents, were committed to participating in a dance program with the high school dance team.
After countless hours of practice, phone calls and meetings, we performed. Our special dancers were called the Newton Unified Dancers. The Newton Pacesetters (our high school dance squad) joined our Unified Dancers to perform during the opening ceremonies for returning teachers in August.
As the students took their places behind a large black curtain in the high school auditorium, photos of countless practices and inspirational quotes and our new group's name set the stage. When the students came out from behind the curtain and began dancing their hearts out. Once again, I was taken away with emotion. I couldn’t even look around at staff members to see other reactions due to my crying. In the middle of the performance, each child danced a solo. After the dancers finished their performance fast music came on and all staff members were invited to dance to some fun beats too. We organized a number of staff members to jump on stage and dance and also organized dancers to go into the audience and get people moving.
I have never seen anything like it.
This experience was incredible. When the students entered the high school stage my emotions surged from exhaustion to excitement…pride in the commitment of the families and students. Love. While I served as a behind the scenes leader for the project, my connection and emotional tie to the project were at the forefront.
There are always going to be things that you would do differently and always things that you can learn from. I have a list of those from this experience but the bottom line is how the students and their families felt. The special dancers loved it and had fun at every rehearsal. They bonded with members of the high school dance squad—girls with whom they would not have otherwise come in contact with in the daily life in a large high school. One high school girl received a gift from a special dancer on the last night of practice. A second grader received a Justin Bieber poster and CD from a member of the high school dance team. One boy with autism, a reluctant dancer, came alive in rehearsals, so long as his sister was with him. As a result, we asked her to participate, which she enthusiastically did.
So what began with me discreetly sliding my chair to avert the eyes of my colleagues out of fear that I would be caught in an emotional moment culminated in something far more powerful. Something deep and inspiring that I will not forget.
I invite you to watch our video, with special dancers in red and dance squad members in black. Tell me you’re not moved.