Of Masks and Myths

Recently, my co-authors and I were guests at a roundtable discussion (a radio show) on effective teaching.  The host and I fundamentally disagreed on one point:  that teachers need to be good performers to be effective. 

His theory was that in order to keep students engaged in the material, the teacher had to be able to present it in an interesting and somewhat entertaining way. 

As an actor, musician, and vocalist, I can tell you:  the skill set is completely different. Performance skills are personal, internal, more "inside" for lack of a better explanation. Teaching skills entail the depth to which one can motivate others. It has nothing to do with me. It's comparing apples and...lettuce.

We derive part of this myth from media. If you do an image search for “teaching”, you’ll see that most of the images include a person in the spotlight, standing at the front of the class with an attentive group of children listening. That’s a performer and an audience. 

That might be teaching, but is that effective teaching?

An audience, even in an audience-participatory piece, never lets go of that sense they are
watching, not doing. At any point, the audience member can disengage. That shouldn’t happen within a class. Thus, one shouldn't perform at all.

Even if the teacher must demonstrate for purposes of a lesson, which entails some watching, the time spent in demonstration should be minimal. The goal is to get the students to “do”, moving the teacher from the spotlight to facilitation, which is where the learning happens.

Authentic, ingrained, mastery learning doesn’t happen when we watch someone else do something. 

Another part of the myth is derived from teachers. While I’m sure most of you would heartily agree that the ability to perform doesn’t equate to effective teaching, I challenge you to gauge how much time you spend in the spotlight in your class.  Ten minutes? Twenty?   Thirty?

If your standard approach to lessons entails presentation of information followed by student-regurgitation of some sort, rethink it. How can you create a lesson that hinges more upon students “doing” as opposed to “watching”? 

“But, what,” you may ask, “can I do if I really have to explain something? Besides, they won’t do anything on their own!” 

One lesson I particularly enjoyed was teaching Oedipus to ninth graders. (My justification was that since they were required to read Antigone in tenth grade, this would help them out.) And as is the case with ancient Greek plays, the most difficult aspect of the play was dealing with the Choral Odes. The concept of a Chorus, even with the analogy to the mice in Babe, is rough for 14 yr-olds.  

Rather than cope with the Choral Odes while reading the play, we “jumped” over them. (Blasphemy!) However, after reading the play, student groups dove into the text to determine what the Chorus was supposed to be and do. From there, they worked in groups to analyze a designated, particular ode, based on its location within the play—bonus, they had to read some of the play again. 

After analysis, they then had to work up how the chorus might have presented this ode at this point in the play. Complete with masks, they used their voices and bodies to become the Chorus of Theban Elders.  

Did they “get” the function of the chorus? You bet. Memorable? Yeppers. Me as performer? No way.

The effective teacher steps out of the spotlight. 

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!

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