Teaching requires theory – and practice. It’s practice that brings the lesson to the student, and that’s what teachers spend most of their day doing.
Of course, teachers need theory. I taught English as a foreign language, and it helped me immensely to know how our brains process language. For example, how does a fluent speaker create an utterance such as “I would like a chicken sandwich for lunch” compared to the way a beginning student approaches that task? A fluent speaker simply remembers groups of words that contain the necessary meaning, while a student must build the sentence word by word, a slow and error-prone method. As a teacher, then, my long-term goal should be to help students acquire groups of words in a way that strongly associates the groups of words with their meanings.
In addition, a teacher should understand how motivation and age affect learning, the number of new concepts that can be introduced in a single lesson – and a long list of other more-or-less theoretical concerns.
Then it’s time to open the door and walk into the classroom. Often enough, new teachers imitate what they’ve seen done by other teachers, which can work well if they’ve been exposed to good teaching. I want to suggest an approach that can serve as an additional guide: the similarities between the practice of acting and the practice of teaching.
I’m a bad actor and I know it, but I’ve learned a few things about acting, and I don’t let my limited skills stop me from performing when I can. I don’t know if I’m a good teacher, but I use some of the techniques of acting when I teach.
In a classroom, the teacher is the star: always “on,” always performing. You don’t have to be an extrovert, but if not, you have to be able to put on another personality like an actor.
If you’re an actor, you should study your lines. If you’re a teacher, you should plan your class. Being organized is not enough for success as a teacher, but being disorganized easily leads to failure.
Actors rehearse. So should teachers. Actors work together to know how to respond to each other in a scene. Teachers can’t do exactly that, but they can imagine how to move through a lesson. What questions to ask? Which students to ask? What kinds of answers to expect, and how to address right and wrong answers? When to distribute specific materials, and how?
As an actor, you should release your inhibitions on stage: the audience isn’t seeing you, they’re seeing your character. And as a teacher, your students are seeing your lesson, not you, provided you’ve planned a compelling lesson and are teaching it attentively. Otherwise, they’re still not seeing you, they’re daydreaming.
Project your voice on stage. In the classroom, it’s the same: a teacher must learn to use a “teacher voice.”
Enunciate and speak a little slowly as an actor. Do the same as a teacher, particularly when teaching English as a second language. Speak clearly and slowly enough, which may be very slowly for language learners, with each consonant pronounced and a little pause between each word.
Stay in character if you’re acting. Stay at the student level if you’re teaching. Use vocabulary that the students know, and just like an actor, use gestures and body language to reinforce what you need to get across. For example, when you want complete attention to your words (such as when you’re giving directions for an activity), stand still. Every gesture and word counts – that’s why both acting and teaching can be exhausting.
Emote if you’re an actor, which means controlling what you do to transmit the emotion. If you’re a teacher, control yourself, too. You can have fun: nothing is better than getting students to laugh (appropriately). But never get angry, because that’s a loss of control. Especially if you teach adolescents, you always want to emote control, a tricky emotion that is sometimes best conveyed by a confident smile.
Finally, don’t rush. The audience needs time to react. The students need time to think. My students say I’m patient. That’s part of the act.
Is this phony, “an act” rather than genuine interaction with students? For me, not at all. It feels intentional: my intention is to teach well, and I’ve found a set of methods to help me. Hard-working actors can make us laugh, weep, and gasp in fear. I think teachers might reach students effectively by adapting some of the skills of an Oscar-winner to the classroom.