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Teaching as Performance, Part Two: The Elements of Performance

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Having looked at the parallels between performance space and classroom space, in this second blog, I’d like to consider the similarities between acting and teaching, and what we can learn from thinking about ourselves as performers.

A. Position, proximity and orientation

Following on from last week’s blog, the next natural step is to think about how we are physically within the space. If you look at a still from a stage play, you will be able to learn a lot about the relationships between the characters just by how they hold themselves and where they position themselves in relation to the other actors. Similarly, where we stand in the classroom and how we hold ourselves sends strong signals to the students about our role at specific moments in the lesson:

  • Standing at the front of the class, as previously discussed, might be appropriate for instruction-giving, presenting new language or brainstorming ideas.
  • Standing at the back of the class, so you can see the students, but they can’t see you without looking round can be a good way to monitor and manage behaviour.
  • Walking between desks and looking over shoulders as students work is another monitoring strategy.
  • Sitting down next to a student and asking them about a project they are doing signals that you are being supportive and interested.  
  • Crouching down close to a student whilst chatting to them brings you down to their eye level and allows you to relate to each other in a very different way.

These varieties of interaction are important markers to learners about the role you are playing at a particular time and help to mark off boundaries and transitions between types of engagement with your students.

B. Stillness and Movement

When I first started acting, one of the things I struggled with was finding a sense of stillness on stage and, having directed actors myself, I know now that this is quite common. 

Good teachers, like good actors, bring an energy to their work, and it takes a while to learn how to control and channel this. It is easy to wander or to pace up and down, so it’s a good exercise to try to find moments of focused stillness. There is no easy shortcut to achieving this, but a good first step is to try to be aware of when you are still and when you are moving in the space. This will allow you to make deliberate choices. This sense of calm, relaxed control only comes with practice and, once you achieve it, you will find it brings many benefits:

  • When you are relaxed and still, the class relaxes because students know they are in safe hands.
  • Your delivery slows and you become clearer and easier to understand when explaining or giving instructions.
  • Rather than raising your voice to reign in inappropriate behaviour, in many classes, you will find it is enough just to wait, and you will find noise and activity dies down on its own.
  • When you do use gestures or movement, the contrast with stillness gives them additional focus.

C. Sitting versus Standing

I have taught in schools where teachers are told they should never sit down in class. Whilst I don’t subscribe to this view, standing should be your default – it gives you energy and presence. In live theatre, I struggle to think of many gripping scenes where an actor stays seated for any length of time. If you are going to sit down in class, have a reason. Legitimate reasons include:

  • Sitting in a circle to talk with or play a game with the learners.
  • Sitting in a strategically placed chair as a signal for the class to gather round and stop talking (although you could equally do this by raising your hand).
  • Sitting with a student to go through some work with them.
  • Sitting to talk to a seated group who are carrying out a task.
  • Sitting to watch students perform or present.

If you need a break because you have been standing for a long period of time, choose an appropriate moment to do this; alternatively, if appropriate to the context of your teaching, perch on your desk as you talk to the class.

D. Gesture, Facial Expression and Eye contact

When actors perform in a naturalistic play, gestures usually emerge naturally as part of the process of developing character, or out of the action. However, some forms of theatre are much more stylised, and gestures can be incorporated as a more artificial theatrical device. Similarly, in the classroom, there are natural gestures that we use as part of our natural communication with our students and others that may be made more consciously. It is worth thinking about whether there are certain gestures we can use as ways of reinforcing our messaging or helping with explanations. There are too many to provide an extensive list, but here are some common ones:

  • Holding up fingers and thumb whilst counting out examples, explaining phases of an activity or counting down the last moments of a timed activity.
  • Finger to the lips to ask for quiet.
  • Rotating a finger to ask someone to turn around.
  • Pointing to a student to indicate they have been chosen to give a response.
  • Raised hand to signal you want the learners’ attention.
  • Thumbs up or down to indicate a correct or incorrect response (or hand face down and tilted from side to side to indicate that something is close but not quite right).
  • Raised finger (and eye contact) as a visual signal that you have seen that someone wants to speak and that they will be next.
  • ‘Air drawing’ using a finger to indicate intonation.
  • Using hand gestures to reinforce physical arrangements for an activity – where students need to stand and how they need to arrange themselves (in rows, in a circle, etc).

As with non-verbal communication on stage, facial expressions are a quick and easy way of showing students how we feel, and a look can often communicate more than words. 

Think about the expressions you would use to indicate the following: I’m waiting for you to be quiet’, ‘That answer isn’t quite right’, ‘I don’t quite understand what you are trying to say.’ 

Again, these are just a few basic examples, and gestures and facial expressions are often used together to create a clearer or more powerful message.

Eye contact can also play a part in messaging, but its most important use is to draw students into involvement in the lesson. When addressing the students, you need to make eye contact with students in different parts of the room. This is a strategy for keeping everyone interested and involved. In effect, you are saying that although this is a message for the whole class, it is also for you as individuals. In particular, focus on specific students if you feel their attention is drifting or who you are concerned might be disruptive if they become bored. It can be both a warning (‘I’ve got my eyes on you’) and a reassurance (‘You matter to me as much as any other student in the class.’). Think of a skilled presenter or a stand-up comedian, and how they command the attention of their audience.

E. Voice and speech

In thinking about how we use our voice as teachers, we can learn a lot from the acting profession. Care of the voice is one of the top priorities for actors and a significant proportion of actor training is spent on voice work. For most teachers, spoken communication is the primary channel of communication, and it is worth considering the various aspects of voice and speech, and how we can use each most effectively.

  • Actors spend a lot of time doing breathing and relaxation exercises, as it is the breath that supports the other aspects of voice and speech. Shallow breathing and tension can have serious adverse physical effects on teachers, so maybe we should be doing more to look after our voices.
  • Articulation: speaking clearly, particularly for language teachers, is something that students really appreciate. Not only do you make yourself easier to understand, but also provide a good model for your students. If breathing provides the power, clear articulation provides the precision. If in doubt, slow down a little and over-articulate.
  • Effective use of stress and intonation provide variety and interest. If your voice is too flat, you can sound bored and/or boring. As well as being more interesting to listen to, using a wide range of intonation conveys energy and enthusiasm.
  • Similarly, changing the volume of your speech at various points provides texture and variation.
  • Tone of voice is achieved through a variety of these elements and, whether acting or teaching, finding an appropriate tone of voice can help you engage with students in different ways at different points in the lesson. For example: ‘That’s a really fantastic response’; ‘This is important and I need you to listen closely’; ‘I’m starting to lose my patience with how you are behaving’.

Separating out these performance elements and applying them to the classroom can help examine our teaching from a slightly different perspective. Of course, as with rehearsing for a stage performance, these individual elements should all gradually come together to provide a rounded teaching ‘performance’!

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