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Teaching as Performance, Part Three: Teacher as Performer

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In this final blog in the series on Teaching as Performance, I’d like to focus more generally on our teaching persona, some personal narrative elements we can bring to our teaching, and how we can start to feel the classroom space as our natural home.

A. Teacher as Character

In this section, I’m interested in how the performative elements in our teaching relate to the notion of ‘authenticity’. Some teachers struggle initially with finding a teaching style they are comfortable with, and they need time to find their ‘inner teacher’. By this, I simply mean those aspects of themselves they bring to the fore when they are in the classroom. Like being on stage as an actor, being a teacher is a slightly artificial situation, so we are probably, in some senses, going to adopt a character. I don’t mean that we stop being ourselves, but simply that we find within ourselves those most useful and appropriate features of our personality to do the job most effectively. I stress that these should be intrinsic to us, in the same way as actors must find within themselves a genuine and authentic way of relating to the character they are portraying. Without this, everything becomes artificial. The students in your class will smell this a mile off and feel they are being taught by someone who is not relating to them in a genuine way.

This is not to say that each teacher has just one way of being with students, but it should fall within the range of their natural interactive styles. It’s normal to alter the way we present ourselves according to the context. By way of example, let’s compare two schools:

  1. In the first, the teacher dresses formally and the students wear uniforms. Students are expected to address their teachers by their honorific and surname, are expected to stand up when a teacher comes into the classroom and, at the end of the lesson, they must wait to be dismissed before they can leave.
  2. In the second school, the dress code is relaxed for both teachers and students, and they are on first name terms with each other. When the teacher comes into the classroom, the class carries on with what they are doing until the teacher calls for their attention. When the bell goes at the end of the lesson the students pack their bags and leave.

Neither school is necessarily better than the other, and the same teacher could teach equally successfully in both. However, if they are a good teacher, they will be able to adapt their presentation style to the two different contexts. For example:

  1. The teacher remains standing. “Good morning. Today we are going to be learning about the various uses of the Present Perfect. Please can you take your books out and open them to Unit 5 on page seventy-eight. At the end of the last lesson, we looked briefly at the form. Does anyone remember how we form the Present Perfect? Yes, Sarah.”
  2. The same teacher perches on the edge of the desk. “Okay guys, how are doing? Let’s get straight into things and start by having a look at the present perfect. If you grab your books and open them to page 78, let’s remind ourselves of the form. We covered this at the end of yesterday’s lesson. Ring any bells? Yes, Sarah…go for it.”

The teacher in the examples is not necessarily being inauthentic – just adapting their style to meet the expectations of the two sets of students. Depending on the teacher, they may be more comfortable with one style than the other, but the main thing is they understand that they need to engage with each cohort slightly differently.

B. Stories, Anecdotes and Humour

Some teachers tell me that they wish they could make their students laugh more. They feel this is a deficit in their teaching because they believe it is important that students enjoy their classes, and they see laughter as a kind of metric of this. For teachers who are natural performers there is some danger too – that the lesson becomes all about them, rather than about their students. A successful lesson becomes all about their ‘performance’, about how much they were liked and whether they have made their students laugh. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the main job of the teacher is to enable the students to learn effectively.

So how do we balance this performative aspect of teaching with a focus on achieving effective learning? This is probably not as difficult as it sounds. If you have clearly defined learning outcomes and you carry out regular checks of student learning and understanding, this element takes care of itself.

In terms of student enjoyment and satisfaction, it is also worth remembering that different students like different types of teaching and each will have their own personal learning style. You shouldn’t worry too much, provided you are comfortable with your own style of teaching. Having said this, one shouldn’t get too complacent, and it is always good to think about opportunities for development. A few things worth taking some time to think about are stories, anecdotes and humour.

Everyone loves stories, and personal anecdotes can help bring learning to life for the learners. When theatre engages us, it is often through the stories characters tell or through their own backstories. When we teach a lesson, it is always worth thinking about whether there is anything from our personal experience that we can use to illustrate or illuminate our teaching; or whether we can call on students’ own experiences to help them relate to the topics or language points that are being covered.  

With most topics, it is generally quite easy – everyone has a story to tell about a holiday they have been on, a pet they own, a terrible experience in a restaurant, or a disastrous clothing choice. However, you can apply the same principle to the teaching of language points. For example:

  • Tenses – talking about personal experiences is a great way to introduce all kinds of past tense, and you can shift the focus to simple past, past progressive or present perfect depending on what you are talking about and how you present it.
  • Conditionals – depending on which conditional form you are teaching, conjecturing about past regrets or future possibilities.
  • Giving directions – talking about a time you got lost and what happened as a result can be a great lead into an activity where students have to ask for and give directions.
  • Reported speech – talking about any interesting experience involving you and other people or talking about the advice you have been given (when you first went to college, got your first job, visited a foreign country, etc)

Anyway, I am sure you get the idea. And if you can incorporate humour into the telling, so much the better. There have been various studies on the effect of humour on learning. Studies have shown that humour increases dopamine release. Because dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is a part of the brain’s reward system, it puts people in a good mood, helps with attention and motivation, and seems to help learning.

There are other ways of introducing humour into the class:

  • Through the content you provide. For example, funny newspaper or online articles, short videos, funny pictures, funny signs in English, jokes and cartoons, and strange facts.
  • Providing activities and games, physical or language-based, that naturally trigger laughter.
  • Gentle teasing or banter with students.

Whilst humour can make lessons more enjoyable for students, remember to ensure that students feel they are learning, as well as being entertained. Also, ensure that any humour is appropriate to the age of the students, that it’s not off-topic or forced, that it’s not over-done, and that it’s not cruel, sarcastic or embarrassing for the students.  

C. Making The Classroom Your Home

I’d like to round on a slightly different note, drawing on my own experience in the theatre. As a nervous performer, of the most useful pieces of advice I ever had was: “Make the stage your home, the place where you belong and where you feel most comfortable.” Reading this now, it sounds rather trite, but it made me realise that, if I wanted to be an actor, she was right. It was a bit of a revelation and, over time, allowed me to develop a sense of ownership over the space.  

I think a similar thing can happen with teaching. If you are a new teacher and get a bit nervous standing in front of a class, learn to make the space yours – develop a feeling that this is where you belong. The classroom is the natural environment for a teacher, so learn to be comfortable in it. If you have a base room, here are a few practical ideas to help you get there:

  • Arrive early in class, before the students arrive, and claim it as your space. This is very different psychologically from entering a class once the students are in it. I think this is also one of the reasons why, in some schools, students must line up outside classrooms and are only let in by the teacher.
  • Arrange and decorate the classroom to make it your own.
  • Before class, lay out your resources, and write information or instructions up on the board.
  • Spend some time in the space when it is empty – maybe after class. Get a feel for the space and its possibilities.
  • Maybe even practise giving some instructions or explaining a point of grammar. After all, actors spend a good deal of their time rehearsing before they go onstage. It makes sense for teachers to do the same.

Taken together I hope this series on Teaching As Performance will give you a new way to think about your classroom practice and provide you with some useful tools to become a great ‘teacher performer’!

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