You (teachers) do not have a ‘self’ to be when you start out as a teacher; that is, you do not have a teacher-self. You have to develop one, and you do that by acting a part, by performing a role … as you would in a theatre. Hanning (1984, 33)
Westworld is an American science fiction western television series that premiered on HBO on October 2, 2016. It was created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The series is set at a wild-west theme park that is populated by human-like robots; aka “Hosts”. The park caters to wealthy guests, aka “Newcomers”, who may do whatever they like within the walls of the park without worrying about the Hosts’ retaliation. The hosts are there to, solely, play their role in a spiritless way. They cannot reflect, react, or think. The problem is, as everybody might have guessed, the hosts become sentient, they start to feel, and they remember. One of the lessons that can be learned from Westworld is the dilemma of taking everything for granted.
In the general run of things, taking an idea for granted and considering it a rule is highly unadvisable in any given field of expertise; let alone the vital, and ever-changing realm of teaching and learning. It is maintained that teaching is one of the professions that everybody, allegedly, knows how it is done and anyone can weigh in with their theories and ideas. Some teachers cannot shake the idea of chalk and talk and control. They still treat students as robots who are there to be stuffed with information and to be as quiet as possible. In general, teachers who believe that all they need to do in the classroom is to play the role of a teacher are miscast. Students are not Westworld’s hosts, they should not sit passively and receive mindlessly. In the same way, teachers are not Westworld’s newcomers, they should not take students for granted, nor should they deprive them of having a say in how they are taught or treated. To stay within the walls of series, acting, and art, the classroom can be considered as a theatre with the teacher as a performer/actor and the students as their faithful audience.
Teacher as Performer
John Steinbeck (American writer, literature Nobel prize winner) said that teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. Teaching is a special type of art, and a teacher is a special type of performer. Musicians have instruments, actors have scripts and fictitious characters to play, and stand-up comedians have speeches. To top it all, their audience is willingly present and ready to listen attentively. Since teaching is a special art, it has a special audience. Teachers have a much more difficult job; their audience is, generally, there unwillingly. They would rather be somewhere else. Furthermore, teachers are responsible for their audience, they require students to focus, and they have personal and lesson objectives to attain.
Any teacher’s friends or family members say the following: “I wish I could see you teaching.” “I wonder what you look like as a teacher” “Can I attend your class?”. This might implicitly indicate that every teacher has a special teaching persona; a “teacher-self”. In other words, the classroom calls forth the performative aspects that shape the teacher’s character. It is like an actor on stage playing a role, but genuinely. And this does not mean that teachers lose their individuality, instead, they make use of the most advantageous and fitting aspects of their character to do the job with optimal efficiency. In this case, authenticity is a keyword when it comes to the teacher as performer notion. In addition, teachers do not and should not have just one way of being or interacting with students. Each class is special and requires specific aspects of the teacher’s character, but they should lie within the scope of their natural teaching style. As stated above, authenticity is highly important. When teachers change or adopt their style depending on the nature of their audience, does not necessarily mean that they are being inauthentic.
Actors or performers always make sure that their target audience is enjoying their time. Of course, they can achieve that through perfecting and concentrating on their performance. Similarly, all teachers, as performers, wish they could make their students enjoy their classes. The only difference is that they cannot concentrate only on their performance because it is a bit risky. To be more precise, if teachers focus only on their performance, they will be the center of the class; and that is not what teaching is about. Therefore, the focus should be directed toward performance, learning outcomes, and keeping the class student-centered. That is why, as already stated, teachers are special performers. They authentically play their different roles, they alter their teaching styles, and they entertain and help their audience improve. The question is: Do all teachers see themselves as performers/actors on stage?
Looking at teachers as performers is a very great way of seeing the profession. Teachers go through training and professional development, yet the performative dimension of the job is rarely highlighted or taught. On a daily basis, teachers need to set the scene and provide an encouraging atmosphere for learning to take place. Their students, aka audience, form a heterogeneous group with different needs, different learning styles, and most importantly different emotional states. Of course, teachers need to share their knowledge, communicate, and interact with all their students in an entertaining and engaging manner using a set of skills that could be borrowed from actors. The latter, especially theatre actors, need to keep their performance as fresh as possible even though they play the same role with the same script every night for a long period of time. They are expected to make the audience feel like it is the first time they play that role and say those lines. By the same token, teachers should embrace similar enthusiasm, energy, and freshness in order to gain their students’ attention. According to Tauber and Mester (2007), we can convey enthusiasm with animation in body, animation in voice, and creative use of classroom space.
Animation in Body
Teachers and actors alike rely heavily on their voice and body language to convey ideas and information. However, body language or nonverbal communication seems to be more challenging for the fact that students might receive false messages based on the teacher’s facial expressions, gestures, or posture. These three expressive elements should be used to serve different purposes; they have an instructional nature. Knapp (1971) stated that nonverbal communication can serve the purpose of authority in the classroom, for example, standing with arms akimbo and squaring the shoulders. Therefore, teachers can make use of their body language to serve different purposes, be it classroom management or/and to empower teacher-student relationships.
For actors, physical animation can be definitively planned in advance, and it is used to complete or clearly convey the meaning. For teachers, physical animation is more important and spontaneous because it is not only exercised to complete or convey the meaning, but it also boosts the teacher’s confidence and triggers students’ motivation. Still, the teacher’s physical expressiveness should be used moderately, and students should like it. The nature of the lesson and/or the group of students dictate the level of physical animation.
Animation in Voice
Actors, performers, and public speakers consider their voices to be a powerful and convincing tool. For this reason, they keep doing vocal exercises to maintain vocal strength and flexibility (Tauber and Mester, 2007). Of course, teachers are aware of the importance of making use of their voice to portray different emotions and to bring order. Conversely, there is little to no experience among most teachers when it comes to vocal exercises or taking voice lessons. Therefore, it is highly advisable for teachers to consider their voice as a potentially beneficial tool that increases enthusiasm and that needs to be trained and treated with care. As stated earlier, teachers are supposed to keep an audience of easily distracted young people concentrated through their vocal variations, be it pitch, pace, intonation, word/sentence stress, and tone. Another vocal aspect that teachers need to master is voice control. For example, students tend to respect teachers who give disciplinary instructions in a calm and firm voice more than teachers who keep shouting (Anderson 1977). All being said, voice is a valuable tool and resource that should not be overlooked because it contributes to the teacher’s overall performance.
During rehearsals, actors, especially on stage, and directors study the space and map out where to move and stand. This mapping or blocking, as actors call it, is of utmost importance when it comes to establishing relationships between characters, maintaining audience interest, and holding audience attention. Equally, teachers should be aware of the classroom space and how moving around affects students’ attention. Some teachers may argue that their teaching style and the material they use result in how they move in the classroom. They might also add that large classes do not generally allow variation in seating arrangement. Still, this does not necessarily mean that the teacher must spend the whole class period near the board or the laptop. Some teachers, especially novice teachers, develop the hard-to-break habit of spending most of the class sitting or standing behind their desks as if it is a barrier that protects them from students or from stage fright. This might make students feel that the teacher wants to be distant. Moving away from the board and desk area and moving freely around the classroom grants the teacher a confident and professional image. Furthermore, by doing so, students feel that the teacher is so close and interested. This studied and intentional movement helps teachers establish more control of classroom behavior.
Most public schools’ classrooms only allow for traditional seating arrangements. In other words, the teacher’s movement is somehow limited, as well as where they put their material, be it a laptop or a projector. Despite this, teachers should regard classroom space as a teaching tool and move comfortably to establish positive teacher-student relationships and feel more confident. Studying the classroom space would result in saving a lot of time regarding material placement and bringing the most suitable teaching aids. Setting or adding classroom space to teachers’ personal objectives would definitely help in enhancing the teacher’s performance and enthusiasm.
All kinds of audiences, especially theatre audiences, expect to enjoy, move, laugh, and take something new while leaving. Students expect the same. Everything teachers need to do their job and to meet the needs of their audience is precisely a few clicks away. Making use of acting skills in the classroom is highly beneficial for the fact that teaching is a performative task and an art as well. Teachers could hold their students’ attention with a smile, gesture, or posture, they could use their voice to express different feelings, and they could claim the classroom space to be their own by moving and spreading confidence and comfort. Teachers should not have a one-size-fits-all mindset. Instead, they need to think and reflect upon how actions, postures, and tones can affect students and the whole classroom environment. Teachers are free to add as many tools as possible to their toolbox in order to improve their teaching practices. As Martin Luther King Jr said “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Written By: Youssef Bounaji