The Classroom is a Stage: Teaching as Theater, Theater as Teaching

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

All the classroom is a stage…and all the teachers and students merely players.

Let’s riff off Shakespeare today and draw parallels between education and acting. It’s not too far fetched to say these two professions are linked. I’m certainly not the first teacher to write on the subject, as any Google search will tell you, but it is one particularly close to my heart.

My family’s history with acting is nowhere near the Hollywood cache of the Barrymores, but I do come from a line of recreational actors. My grandparents met during a college annual theater revue, my grandmother having won a college scholarship in a drama competition just a few years earlier. My baby boomer mother moonlit as a mime and performance artist in the ‘70s and stepped in as my elementary school’s mascot later on. It wasn’t much surprise that I grew up theatrical and boisterous, staging amateur retellings of Jason and the Argonauts with tinfoil swords and bed-sheet togas, throwing myself into every high school drama commitment possible.

Though I found theater to be a fun and limitless place to be creative in, I never considered it would rear its head once I discovered teaching. Nevertheless, the more and more I invested in working with students, the more I realized I hadn’t left theater behind and that my training (however informal) was hugely useful in building my confidence as a teacher and in creating an engaging learning environment for my students.

Whether or not you know it, theater likely influences your teaching. Let’s break down the following four tenets of acting and talk about how they relate to ESL teaching.

1. Battling Stage Fright

First-time teachers can get nervous about teaching in front of the class
Your first time teaching can be nerve-wracking

Remember the first time you had to get up in front of the classroom? Raise your hand (feel free to play along and actually fling that arm up) if you were nervous or even terrified to get up in front of the class. Stage fright is a real thing and it ain’t just for actors, my friends. You may not be in front of an audience of thousands about to belt out a solo, but you certainly are up close and personal with an audience, with all eyes on you, ready to set the tone for class. My fellow Teaching House blogger (and performer and puppeteer!), John Harrop, has a great post on surviving his first day of teaching, which is well worth the read.

Classic advice for actors wishing to banish the stress of stage fright: begin with preparation. Rehearsing scenes helps to build muscle memory of your movements, your cues, and body language. If you’re worried about freezing in front of the class, try running through your lesson quickly with a friend (hit the highlights, this isn’t a full-on dress rehearsal) and ask for feedback. You’ll be able to see where the holes in your delivery are, and it will certainly build confidence as you hear yourself get it right.

2. Set the Stage

How your space is set up is just as important as how your present yourself. Have you ever had that teacher who could never seem to find the handout they wanted, or whose classroom looked like a war zone? No wonder they looked distracted and flustered!

Any actor can tell you that they rely heavily on the set designers and crew to set the scene with the right furniture and props. Imagine Hamlet reaching for poor Yorick’s skull, only to find a big handful of air! In teaching, your classroom is your stage, and you need to be your own crew. It’s important to have your props set up and ready to go well before you begin your first activity. This allows for a more fluid transition between activities and therefore allows you to command your class with more confidence. One of my CELTA trainers kept his handouts and materials in individual plastic sleeves lined up in a binder, which I’ve now adopted as a tactic in my own classroom.

Your stage doesn’t stop there. How is your audience arranged? To borrow another set of terms from the theater, are you teaching with a picture frame stage (with students facing the teacher at the front of the classroom), or are you teaching in the round (students sitting in a circle around you)? Do you have information on the board when they arrive, or is it revealed throughout class? What roles do the walls, windows, doors, and ceilings play in your lesson as a way to present materials, stage a game, or provide clues? All of these elements become deliberate choices when you take the stage, and there are endless opportunities for creativity.

3. Owning your Voice

Your voice is one of your most powerful teaching tools

For both actors and teachers, your voice is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. The way you control your volume, tone, and speed impacts the engagement of your audience immensely. Think about the voice you use during class. Is it loud or soft? Do you vary the volume depending on the topic, task, attention needed, or all of the above?

Beyond our commitments to teaching language (thinking about pronunciation and clarity of voice), the way we speak when we teach is not too far off from the grand tradition of oral storytelling. You have your audience for the duration of the class, and it’s up to you to draw them into the topic at hand for the day. How can you inspire excitement, curiosity, and zeal for your lesson? It all starts with your voice.

Another huge element of commanding your class is your ability to project. “Speak from your diaphragm!” is something you’ll hear often as an actor, but potentially not so much as a teacher. This means that you’re breathing not just into your lungs before speaking, but bringing air into your abdomen below the ribs as well. This allows you to speak at a slightly louder volume and reach audience members further away without straining your vocal cords. Practice speaking from your diaphragm at home, and see if it makes a difference when you’re in charge of a class of 25. Be careful not to overdo it, though, as students can become immune to the loud voice of a teacher who merely yells instructions all the time without saving their volume for moments of necessity (this is especially true with young learners).

4. Cast Yourself

One of my most memorable lessons in Shanghai involved an aggressive bully and a stunned yours-truly at the whiteboard. Thankfully, it was a lesson dreamed up by my theatrical colleague, Dan, and I.

I had a lesson about workplace bullying coming up and wanted to find an interesting way to jump into the topic. We decided that I would start the class with some mild pair discussion about negative scenarios in the workplace, and Dan was invited to sit in the back under the guise of being a peer observer.

As pairs began brainstorming, Dan started to whisper comments from the back of the room like “Lauren’s not a very good teacher, is she?” and “This class isn’t very fun!”

Confused students tried replying politely to Dan and returning to their partner. As we began whole class discussion, Dan’s comments increased to out-of-hand back-seat teaching, rushing to the board to correct my handwriting, and a finale of “Well, I guess that’s the best a girl teacher can do.”

My class rushed to defend me and passionately decried Dan’s efforts to undermine my authority, especially based on gender. The tension was real and palpable, but quickly melted into laughter as we broke character to let the class know it was all an act. We ended up having a great conversation about the emotional impact of watching our skit and how it reflected on more subtle aggressions they’ve seen at work.

This sort of surprise tactic isn’t the only way to infuse your lessons with a dramatic flair. I’ve found that one of the simplest and certainly one of the most entertaining methods for teaching new vocabulary is to act it out. Are you looking for a way to cover emotions and moods, or you’re struggling to convey the word “grumpy”? Crunch your body up into a Scrooge-like ball, pull your face into a deep grimace, and let out some misanthropic utterances. Your class is sure to enjoy seeing you put yourself out on a limb, and it’s sure to encourage them to do the same.

Overall, the connections between teaching and acting are endless. Some educational theorists have even called for theatrical training techniques to be woven into teacher training programs!

Interested in exploring theater in the classroom? In my next post, I’ll be diving into some theater and improv activities that you can use to liven up your lesson plans, so stay tuned!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the link between acting and teaching. Do you incorporate the two in your classroom?

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