The PERFORMANCE ART of teaching


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I know you if you are anything like me when you think of ‘performance art’ you think of a person standing in a subway with a bicycle on their head for 8 hours. Yes…performance art does often present itself in the strangest ways.

But in this case I am going to talk more about the performance side of teaching and how it can be an art, and in some ways not that different to standing in a subway with a bicycle on your head.

The ultimate goal of a teacher is to get the students attention. There are plenty of textbooks, websites, programmes, available that can do exactly what the curriculum wants, but to get the students attention can be the most impossible thing for some and the easiest thing in the world for another.

We have had a few teachers who were newly trained who found the whole attention-getting aspect of teaching completely impossible yet they knew the grammar well, and as a result the students couldn’t handle them. Then we have had other teachers who are the funniest, most engaging people around, but sadly they didn’t know their stuff, and though the students felt that they had a good laugh during the lesson, they knew it was more about self-study than actually learning. So the role of teaching is very much about that beautiful mix of getting the students attention and having something to say worth hearing.

Firstly, I would like to say that if you can get a student’s attention, you are off to an excellent start. If you can’t get their attention, you need to save yourself a life of misery and look for another vocation. Attention is everything and then….you need to get to know your stuff.

So what actually is attention in the classroom?

Some teachers find screaming to be the key to getting students to listen. Personally, (I have to say at times I have enjoyed screaming – but only for the reason of letting off steam), I wouldn’t recommend it on a long term basis not only will your throat get sore, your stress level will hit the sky and you will hate coming to school but the students will just hate you too. When a student hates you and/or are afraid of you, the attention level is extremely low. So you don’t want to go there.

At the same time, other people find an odd sharp word from time to time combined with a kind and caring word here and there (about a 1:10 ratio respectfully) can keep the pace going well so long as it has also been distributed fairly.

Attention in the classroom is literally when you can feel that all things are focused on the task or issue being discussed. Common indicators that attention is lacking is when people are talking and not listening to others, or other activities are going on together with your presentation.

So how does performance art play a role in this?

The performance of a teacher is not measured only by the results of the end of semester test. The performance of the teacher is really like that of an artist, a great speaker, a musician. The great teacher is as the great artist, they can hold you in their hand for a moment or an hour and you can hang on their every word, you can engage with them on their level and get the benefit from all of it by the end.

So many teachers out there never give themselves enough credit for actually how good they are at this. They undervalue those subtle nuances in the exchanges, the carefully constructed presentations of grammar points, the insightful questioning technique used to draw the answers from the students and the overall atmosphere they have created in the class – yes it is the teacher who has created that, not the student. And this happens not just once in a while, but all day and every day – this is why teachers are the most awesome artists of all time.

And most of all what teachers worry most about and really I would say needlessly, if the respect factor. The more you can relax and let the music flow the less chance there is of disrespectful behavior.

So what do you think of the notion of the performance art of the teacher? How do you (if you are a teacher) ‘work the room’, and draw all things to their final point?  And if you are a student, what was it that made you feel engaged with the good teachers you have had?

Let me know….I’m interested.


7 thoughts on “The PERFORMANCE ART of teaching

  1. I agree with you 100% I used to be a professional dancer, but have been teaching for almost 15 years now. In the same way a musician gets fans to buy tickets to fill stadiums, or politicians get people to vote for them to get into office…. A teacher should incite students to actively participate in class and moreover to become independent learners once they leave your room. Thanks for this article. I was just discussing this yesterday with teachers at a training session. Have you seen the Christopher Emdin talk on TED? If you haven’t you should check it out.

    • Thanks, no I haven’t seen it – I will definitely check it out thanks.

      I also have a few more posts coming on a similar theme, I find this whole thing of teaching as a performance really interesting. the best performers are the best teachers it seems to me – of course you need to know your stuff too.

      • I would love to exchange ideas with you! Performing arts was my first love, I started dancing when I was 4 years old and went on to do everything from theater to singing. The only thing that stuck was dancing, but my passion for anything artistic has always been larger than life. Once I got into teaching, for me it was vital that I kept my students “entertained” and engaged. When I saw this TED talk it kind of struck me… how similar what I do now, is to what I did for the first part of my life. And now I read your post, which was getting me to the point of investigating more and seeing what’s out there about the topic to write my own post on it and get my thoughts out there. Here’s the link to the TED talk:

        I’d love to share ideas, I found you on twitter and if you’re interested we could stay in touch.

  2. Always love your posts. I couldn’t agree more with you that teaching is definitely a performance art. I’ve heard a couple of teachers grumble at this but those that are able to make the classroom come alive are those ones students love most. Have you ever come across acting classes for teachers? To help us to “get into role” because we have to alter our personality depending on the student/class in front of us and this can be tricky without practice. Thinking about tone of voice, body language, word use etc..

    • Thanks Liam. I know I speak for some people and not others, and agree with you totally that there are some people who hate the idea that teaching is a performance, but in reality those ones who don’t see it as a performance tend to view teaching as a totally technical craft which I disagree with, (though of course there is definitely a lot of technical knowledge to acquire) and I dare say in my eyes these teachers can only ever reach ‘good’ level and never ‘great’.

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