Classroom Management

Teaching in the Moment

Teaching can be a lot like improvisational acting when your goals are making your students look good, listening and responding appropriately, and “accepting the offer.”

September 18, 2014

If you've ever watched a really good improvisational acting troupe, you walked away thinking it was funny and perhaps that it looked too easy. The truth is that a lot of work goes into making it look easy. And many of the same elements that make improvisational actors great and improvisational acting look easy are the same elements that make teaching great.

Tip #1

If your goal is to make your fellow actors look good, you will look good.

When many people think about improvisational acting, they think about shows like Whose Line is it Anyway? and assume that you have to be funny to be successful. The goal in a scene is to set up your partner for success. If you focus on making your scene partners look good, you will also look good. It's like magic.

Teaching is much the same. As a teacher, your students are your scene partners. If you focus solely on how to make them look good, you will naturally look good. But too often, teachers are worried about how they are being evaluated, spending too much time on projects that don't have clear objectives to support instruction, or putting on a show for observation day. Much of the blame for that systemic failure comes from educational administration. Still, some of the best teachers don't spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not they look good. They spend their time thinking about and working toward making sure every student in their class is learning. And that certainly makes a teacher look good.

Tip #2

Be in the moment with your fellow actors. Listen and respond appropriately.

It's so hard to clear your mind and just be. Improvisational actors spend many hours practicing getting out of their heads. They are purposeful in making sure they are not working from any intentional script. This is all done to heighten their focus on really listening to their scene partners instead of just waiting for that person to stop talking so that they can say what they already had planned. In improvisational acting, it is immensely important that you listen and really hear your scene partners so that your response and reaction is pure and organic.

Being in the moment is also important for teachers. We know from years of research that teacher expectations can help or hinder a student's performance. But by letting go of that internal script about a child, really listening to what he or she is saying, noticing how he or she is performing and interacting, we can make a huge difference. The tremendous pressure teachers are under to get through material warrants some practice in slowing down and being in the moment with their students.

Tip #3

Accept the offer.

Accepting the offer is rule number one for improvisational acting. This also serves to make your partner look good. For instance, if you are in a scene and you imagined you were "the mother" but then your scene partner leans over and pets you and says, "Good boy, wanna go for a walk?", you’re the dog now. To accept the offer means you start panting and barking. Some less trained improvisers might be taken off guard or stuck in their idea that they are the mother. They might respond by saying, "How dare you treat me like a dog!" Both responses might get a laugh from the audience, but accepting the offer will almost always result in the better overall scene.

Teachers are constantly getting offers. Many of them are in the classroom from students. They ask a great question that isn't on topic; you overhear them talking about a passionate interest; they share some detail about their family history -- and do we accept these offers? When we do accept them, we might open a door that makes a positive difference. But we often feel that we don't have time to accept these offers, and we miss opportunities for greatness.

Teachers also get offers from administration. Sometimes these don't feel like offers. They feel like orders. Well, let's face it -- they often are directives, and teachers don’t have a choice. Still, it's an opportunity to look closely at one's practice. Imagine being told that your reading program is going to change -- next week. And you aren't getting any professional development right away. Many teachers would throw up their hands and immediately resist. But instead, I would like to challenge teachers to use what we know from improv and accept this as an offer to see what happens when we implement a new reading program. Accept this offer and use it as a way to learn more about yourself and your students. What's the use in resisting? Resistance will likely just bring negativity and suffering to the classroom. But by accepting it, being in the moment with it, and finding ways to use it to make your students look good, you might surprise yourself.

Please share your own experiences of teaching in the moment.

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  • Professional Learning
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  • Teaching Strategies

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