According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary definition, the “real world” means “existing or occurring in reality: drawn from or drawing on actual events or situations”. In education, the term is typically used to describe situations occurring outside of the classroom. For example, a teacher may point out to a student that certain tools or practices they’re teaching can be applied in “the real world”. It is also used as an example to describe certain situations they know their students have never been through or witnessed. However, it seems to me the “real world” is the actual world you are living in, and this obviously looks very different for everyone. I have heard this term used so frequently in many different scenarios, that I wonder how it affects our students. When used in dance education, the dance studio, or the rehearsal space, what does that say about the work you are currently doing?

Your real world is what you make of it in the moment, not what you desire it to be in the future

I’ve always cringed at the looseness and overuse in which the term has been thrown around. Why was this seemingly unattainable place looming over me? It had always made me feel like it was suggesting that what I was currently doing was lesser than or not “real”. I do realize that the delivery and importance of language plays a major part in how it can be interpreted. I have certainly heard it as a very sincere desire to prepare the students with what to expect when they transition to their professional careers after school. Unfortunately, more often than not, I hear it delivered with a large amount of condescension, and as an excuse to lower standards. If we are using professional standards and practices already, then the “real world” shouldn’t be such a shock. I never felt in my training that I was being asked of anything less than professional behavior, work ethic, and practices. I also understood how and why certain situations were different when in an educational, academic setting. Perhaps I was fortunate to have had teachers that instilled those principles at an early age and the expectations and standards were constantly being raised.

For those of us that work in education, this IS our real world. Whatever your day to day life is, that IS your world. It’s all real. Although working in education allows us to get to know our students and their needs, making sure they’re prepared for the next step in their life is equally as important. In any form of education, it is our job as teachers to create a safe space where students can learn, grow, and fail hard. We’re also doing them a disservice if we aren’t honest about the amount of failure they will face in their professional careers and lives. Again, it’s not so different. Placing such a large distance between their future and what they are currently doing can be a setback in their growth. Environments are different all over. Some will be more forgiving than others, but being prepared for the vast number of situations is one of the best gifts we can give them.

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When you are a student, that is your job. If we hold our students accountable, and maintain high standards, they’re already ahead of the game. Treating the current situation as anything less than, not only diminishes the work they are doing, but does not support them for success in the future. Just because you’re not getting paid to do it, doesn’t mean you aren’t already a dancer, choreographer, actor, singer. Just because you don’t “make it” in LA or New York, doesn’t mean you’ve failed. If we don’t emphasize this enough, we are not acknowledging the breadth of careers that exist. These young artists already get asked constantly what their back-up plan is, and we all know that doesn’t stop even when they are working for a paycheck. We need to empower them to truly feel confident in their identity, as well as help them discover the endless avenues to explore. Additionally, many students may not go into the dance field in their careers after school. Does that mean that all of those hours spent working in the studio were a waste of time? Absolutely not. 

If we are using professional standards and practices already, then the “real world” shouldn’t be such a shock.

As mentioned earlier, I was always held to very high standards in my training. Of course I had dreams and goals I was working towards, but not once did I feel that what I was doing at that moment wasn’t important. Don’t misunderstand me either. I was not given participation ribbons in the studio and applauded for every little thing I did right. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was held accountable for showing up early, working hard, expecting more of myself, and respecting the process and failures along the way. When students are held accountable, responsibility and high standards begin to be evident in their own work ethic. Then, with the support of their educators, they can own their successes. Making sure that each student is present and focused on what they’re current goals are is part of that process. 

As we all know, making a blanket statement that one thing is better than another is problematic. Your real world is what you make of it in the moment, not what you desire it to be in the future. In a time when the importance of language is on the forefront of necessary review, I want to challenge the next time you hear or say the term “real world” to think about this: What is really being said?