Why Teachers Should Be Trained Like Actors

| July 1, 2013 | 43 Comments
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Teaching is a lot like acting, a high-energy, performance profession that requires a person to act as a role model. But when teachers go through training and professional development, the performance aspect of the job is rarely emphasized or taught. Acknowledging this aspect could be a missed opportunity to restructure ways teachers learn new skills and tactics.

Actors, musicians or acrobats spend hours perfecting their craft because that’s how they improve. Teachers on the other hand, are often asked to identify teaching tools and tactics they’d like to try and to reflect on how those new elements could be integrated into the classroom.

“Knowing what you want to do is a long way from being able to do it,” said Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools, a non-profit school management organization and author of Teach Like a Champion and Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better in a recent Future of Education conversation with Steve Hargadon. He started trying to improve teaching by identifying the best practices of exceptional teachers and giving workshops on those “gold nuggets” to less experienced teachers. While many teachers found what they learned helpful, they couldn’t put the new methods into practice.

“Every other performance profession prepares people by practicing and breaking things down into sections,” said Lemov. So he shifted his professional development workshops to emphasize practicing good teaching strategies rather than just thinking about them.

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Those first workshops were a learning experience in building on skill sets. Lemov remembers in one of his first groups, teachers pretended to be unruly students in a class taught by another teacher present. The teacher tried to give her lesson as her “students” misbehaved. She was unable to do so; they were throwing too many challenges at her at once. “What just happened there is she practiced failure,” Lemov said. “She just got better at losing control of the classroom.”

At this point he realized that, like learning a new piece of music or the lines to a play, the challenges of the classroom had to be broken down into component parts. In order for the teacher to practice succeeding, to feel the satisfaction of a well-given lesson to a controlled classroom, she needed to first practice controlling simple behaviors. Then gradually, the pretend students added in new types of challenging behaviors, adding layers of complexity so she could improve at a manageable pace.

“To really learn something teachers and students have to embrace the normalcy of falling down and picking yourself back up.”

“So often we ask people to do things that are outside their realm of possibility,” Lemov said. That’s a disservice to the learner because it gives the impression that the difficult task is insurmountable when in fact it was thrust on the person too quickly. Lemov gave the example of teaching his son to play baseball and allowing his son to try the batting cage after he’d just barely learned to connect with a slow pitch. His son changed his practiced swing to randomly connect with the ball, undercutting all his previous learning. The rate of failure in the batting cage was too high for his experience and time practicing.

That’s not to say that failure is bad. In fact, Lemov councils that failure needs to be a much more accepted part of the teaching practice. “You can’t learn if you are afraid to fail,” Lemov said. “To really learn something teachers and students have to embrace the normalcy of falling down and picking yourself back up. But it needs to happen in a manageable way.”

In the workshops that Lemov now runs he encourages teachers who are “practicing” their craft to take the suggestions offered in real time and immediately try to use them. So often in teaching feedback is delayed or must be ignored in the moment for the good of the whole group. Lemov champions a space where teachers can immediately shift course and practice the difference.

But it’s not easy to get teachers to give up old ways. It’s hard to tell an earnest educator who has prepared for his work primarily through reflection that he should practice. “Getting them to feel comfortable and safe in that dynamic is a big part of what has to happen for it to be effective,” Lemov said. It has to be safe to do something risky, not a culture supported in many schools.

Through his work Lemov has observed that there is a correlation between how well a teacher gives instruction to students and the quality of the academic content. Giving clear instructions is only one of many skills a teacher needs, but Lemov found that if a teacher had mastered those external elements of the teaching craft, she was also more successful on the academic side because she thought about discussion in the same clear, measured way.

“I do think there’s a strange correlation between intentionality about seemingly little things on the behavioral-cultural side and big educational ideas,” Lemov said. A teacher who pays enough attention to make instructions clear is probably also paying close attention to how academic discussions and projects are structured.

But the most important thing is to realize that by practicing good teaching methods, a teacher can begin to embody good habits and feel successful at once difficult classroom tasks. Ultimately, professional development should make teachers feel that they can perform their jobs better, not merely know cerebrally what they should do differently.

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  • Laurence Cuffe

    Nancy Houfek of Harvard trains college lecturers to apply drama to teaching video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHy1PwW-iRk&feature=share&list=PLF3A4650CCFADF9F2

    • Mark

      Wow, what a blast from the past. Nancy was one of my voice teachers at ACT back in the early 1980s.

      • Laurence Cuffe

        I encountered her via a set of videos on teaching practice about three years ago.I can no longer locate them, and I find the above link a little disconnected. I have taught using the methods she describes and I found it both very effective, but also very draining. I save it for special parts of my courses now. It must have been wonderful to be in a class given by her.

  • Spacesong12

    When I was younger, I’d start most classes by telling the other teachers “It’s showtime!”

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  • Ellen Cavanaugh

    Improv skills are also essential for both a teacher and the students in the classroom. They are particularly important as we shift as teachers from sage on the stage to guide on the side. http://goo.gl/Vr5BU

    • Kaitlyn Fredricks

      what Gladys said I didn’t even know that a mom able to make $8069 in 1 month on the internet. did you see this page w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • AubLibDir

    When I was a sub, I always felt like I was on stage, working hard to engage the students to ensure continuity with their regular teacher. It was tiring but so rewarding.

  • http://jwphilly.tumblr.com Josh

    I’m not sure I could disagree with this premise more. A good teacher is not a performer, they are being themselves as relatable adults communicating honestly with students. Good teaching is not about sage on the stage, the students should be the ones in the limelight. I agree that the only way to improve as a teacher is practice, which is the core idea of this article, but anything that compares teaching to acting evokes a model of teaching where the teacher is a presenter and the students are a captive audience, that is not the model of teaching that we should be evoking.

    • Mark

      Josh,
      That’s a rather limited view of acting. Good actors are all about being “relatable adults communicating honestly…” The greatest skill an actor calls on is listening. I think that’s also an essential teaching skill. Good acting isn’t about being the center of attention or stealing the limelight. The best actors I know, like the best teachers I know, are generous listeners.

      • http://jwphilly.tumblr.com Josh

        I think I should first mention that I was a theater major in college and worked in theater for several years before becoming a teacher so I have a pretty solid understanding of what acting is. There are many ways that acting is like teaching, including your point of being “relatable adults communicating honestly.” My argument was less about the similarities of the nuances of the crafts of acting and teaching, and more about the general public perception of those professions. Most people do not have the experience to understand the craft of either and think of both as performative one-way expressions. I think the main ways most people think of actors is that they are on-stage and they are pretending to be someone else. I think any argument that suggests this is also true of good teaching (even if the subtleties of the argument suggest somewhat otherwise) is irresponsible as those are two of the most common qualities of really bad teaching, that are rarely recognized by people outside the field (just as most teachers probably don’t understand the actor’s craft either).

        • ben

          Anyone who uses the ‘Did I mention I am~’ , to support an argument is a prat.

    • Drjrhys

      totally agree. This article is based on a dying image of teachers – mainly from Hollywood. Teaching is not telling!

    • Profe

      i’ve had oodles of teachers and profs who had a “presence” about them which made me like their class. I was more apt to learn from these people. They were memorable, as was their content. Sometime class came alive. As a second language teacher, when I teach, I consider much of what I do as a performance becasue I bring energy, interest, some fun. There is interaction and accountability because if the students dont pay attention to the content and visual suggestions, its evident to everyone. Teaching can be very much an “ineractive performance art”.

    • pesty

      boring, you lost me

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  • http://adamcsharp.com/ Adam C. Sharp

    As a Theatre and Film Instructor I use many of my acting skills throughout
    my lessons. I use Mickey Mouse gloves when teaching comedy in my film
    class, have the students stand up and do some simple Bob Fosse moves in
    my theatre class and many other activities. Teachers are actors. But,
    there is a fine line between performing and presenting as a teacher.
    Once it becomes too much of a performance then the instruction lowers
    because it’s more about entertaining than teaching. The goal is to have
    the qualities of an actor, the ability to communicate as an actor, but
    teach like a presenter.

    • JK

      The title states that teachers should be trained like actors are trained. He introduces the article by pointing out what the two crafts have in common. Then, he proceeds to discuss why we should be training teacher that way all performers are trained. It’s a clear, concise, and well laid out argument. Whether or not you agree with the premise is the issue.
      I currently teach high school English, but my first undergrad degree was in vocal performance. My second was in English Education with a concentration in Drama. I can’t imagine teaching without the training I’ve had on and off the stage.

      • JK

        Sorry, this should have been a reply to Actor.

  • Actor

    Your article went completely off message in that your premise was that teachers should be more like actors but after some initial cursory examination of what you think an actor does, you ignore actors completely for the rest of your piece and dig up tried and tested formulaic methods. As a former professional actor for twenty-five years who, for the past nine years, has been a teacher and professor, if you really want to compare, contrast and even merge the two professions, try talking to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. This article proves you didn’t.

  • Brent Rogers

    I agree wish Josh, teaching should be a two ways street with students having just as much control over the lesson as the teacher!
    http://www.inspireeducation.net.au/courses/training-and-assessment-courses/certificate-iv-in-training-and-assessment/

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  • Patricia

    Makes lessons more memorable and engaging for students. Let’s face it: some classes are tough audiences and anything one can do to capture students’ attention is a worthwhile skill.

  • Rebecca White

    Very good point! I have learned that this is often the difference between a teacher who can hold attention and ones who can’t, and that extends to classroom management. Kids misbehave when they aren’t engaged. Another benefit of it is that as a teacher you DON’T

  • ann

    considering the way Actors act in public I would just as soon just give teachers a psych test and leave it at that.

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  • PatSPascua

    I agree with the “set up to succeed” approach…and I subscribe to the idea that “you can’t learn if you’re afraid to fail”…Applicable here in the Philippines, especially with young, self-conscious audiences…I present failure as merely information that tells them where or even how to adjust their process or system…

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  • pesty

    It might keep more kids interested

  • A retired guide on the side

    I will never forget that the teacher chosen as the role model for all of us to emulate in our middle school was capable of “performing” quite well when observed by administrators. Of course, he was later arrested for using and selling cocaine. Performance assured by drug use! We can’t teach in rehearsed scenes and edited film takes. Not to say that acting can’t be incorporated in selective ways.. But who has the time for that in-service?

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  • I Gatt

    I totally agree with this. I see student teachers change and grow professionally as I train them in acting skills. The immersion in a performance perfects this as it injects a sense of urgency in perfecting certain skills and they see the impact this has on the young audiences. Unfortunately, this aspect is not appreciated enough by some educators who need to understand that theatre needs space and time besides commitment, and they should allow it that space in teacher training.

  • Facebook User

    I agree totally – especially when it comes to initial engagement. Some teachers naturally have it – some teachers don’t. However, if you’re really into ‘improvement” I can be learned. As for those teachers not willing to put new strategies into practice – I’d say that they just don’t have the ‘disposition’ for teaching. After all, isn’t the real goal to make students lifelong learners – and what better way to do that than in your own practice. However, must admit that it’s pretty hard to teach some of our old dogs – and new dogs – on our staff new tricks. Still, hope springs eternal. As Churchill said, “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

    BTW – LOVE – “Teach Like a Champion. “Especially the strategy that doesn’t let kids slip through the cracks with the famous “I don’t know,” routine, and the hand signals … positively AWESOME, and they work. Try ‘em.

  • Sheryl Morris

    I hope everyone can experience a teacher or two that commands attention with wit and charm. (Like an actor.) They’re fun!

    I prefer the student-centered approach, however, where the teacher is more a guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage.
    Others, too, agree that the trick is to become invisible; active but invisible!

    “It is necessary for the teacher to guide the child without letting him feel her presence too much, so that she may always be ready to supply the desired help, but may never be the obstacle between the child and his experience.” Maria Montessori

    http://teachthought.com/…/becoming-invisible…/…

  • Carol

    How interesting that the master teacher needed to rediscover that even teachers have their own “zone of proximal development” and need help, practice, and feedback in transitioning from old, comfortable behaviors and ways of teaching to new, challenging ones.

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  • deepow

    Any great teacher knows this.

  • Yuup

    I teach my students not to be afraid to FAIL = First Attempt In Learning, because it is apart of the “process of learning”.

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  • Pontifikate

    One of the best articles I’ve read about how to make a good teacher. I taught in “bad” schools and good schools. The difference was that I got practice teaching in the “good” school because I was not thrown a million things at once. Behavior/classroom management is what you practice in one school, teaching is what you practice in the other.

  • Pontifikate

    After reading many of the comments here, I think many misinterpret the article’s point to be that teachers are like actors in terms of the “performance” aspect. I read it differently — that teachers, like actors, need to practice their craft, break it down, and practice some more.

    Yes, there is some performance aspect in teaching. It helps to bring humor and energy to your practice, to use analogy and all the tools to make something that may be complicated more understandable and to translate your enthusiasm for your subject. But today, lectures and “performances” are a small part of teaching, especially in the K-12 levels. As a former teacher, I have found this article on spot since I believe that practice, as in most skills, helps.