24 May What A Teacher Does Apart From Teaching
Improv teaching in the last year or so has (like many things) undergone something of a revolution. Where before the Nursery was a London-based school with a fairly clear idea of the other schools, teachers and ideas our students might encounter, now and all of a sudden, improv classes are inherently and (for the moment) inevitably global. It is not unusual to be taking classes in different time zones in a single day with teachers and students from several continents. Online improv is one rolling, chaotic, decentralised festival of cross-pollination. The circumstances are awful, the response energetic and inspiring.
In this context, with our students rushing off to cram a sandwich before their next class, it is hard to resist the feeling of competition. Of the three classes you took today, which will be your favourite? Which will give you a lightbulb moment? Which will make you laugh until you choke? It’s ugly, and I am not proud of it, but it’s hard not to think about those things if you want to be a good teacher. And I want to be a good teacher.
Meet the invisible improv teacher
I have written before about the value of the invisible teacher. It doesn’t come by magic. I have to keep reminding myself to think of it this way:
- Level I – Student leaves class thinking teacher is great.
- Level II – Student leaves class thinking classmates are great.
- Level III – Student leaves class thinking they are themselves great.
Negotiating this ego-trap is as important for the teacher as the student. It is what unites us. Humbleness before the complexity of what we do and desire to do a little better today than yesterday.
In a way, the word ‘teacher’ might even be a little unhelpful. Classes don’t always need to be a lump of capital-C Content to be vomited down the throat of your little improv-chicks. That disempowers the student, makes them teacher-dependent. You don’t have to be always Teaching with a capital T. You can introduce less and repeat more, give space for discovery and explortion. Not practising, but creating a practise. That takes other skills, less obvious ones. These are the other jobs of the teacher.
Here then, are six other things that a teacher does in a class. Six things which are necessary, but not content-led.
1. Appreciate the work
A show is part powered by the audience’s enjoyment, which means you need someone to lead and channel that. That doesn’t mean you have to laugh hard all the time, but it does mean you have to be the biggest cheerleader in the room. We are often taught that intelligence is criticism and while all positivity is bizarre to some cultures and ultimately unhelpful, a great teacher must point out what worked, where effort has been expended and progress made.
2. Return the players to their task
It is so easy when you are doing an exercise to lose track of where you are, especially when what you are doing is enjoyable. You get distracted or fall into a habit. You do something which is good, but not what was requested. ‘That’s Ok’, says the teacher ‘But it’s not what we are doing. Let me remind you’. Most of the time the other students are thinking it, it is our responsibility to say it out loud. Gently return us to what we are doing.
3. Hold the space
Improv can be raw, exposing. When you react without thought, the results are going to be ill-thought-through and can bruise. There is no perfect code of conduct that can prevent this from ever happening (though we should still try). Offence will happen, nerves will get touched. So what do you do? You have a conversation afterwards, treat each other with respect, talk about how things made you feel, build better maps of each other’s minds, explain, empathise. You forgive yourself and others and you let the complex stay complex. It’s hard and endless, but it’s not an extra bonus on top of the fun improvising. It’s an inherent part of creating together. And it is up to the teacher to create an atmosphere in which such conversations can be had and to guide them to helpful results.
4. Model vulnerability
I doubt many of us are feeling our best right now, and being vulnerable in a public context is hard. Doubly so when you are on Zoom. But a group that has that shared vulnerability will work together better, more closely and genuinely. To this end I always start every class with a check in; an opportunity to share a little (or a lot). That means the teacher has to check in too, to take the time and the effort to be honest, to say how you feel, not how you wish you did. It shows the students that you mean what you say, and lets them see you as a person as well.
5. Affirm experience
Sometimes the hardest thing to notice is that you are feeling different to the others in the room. We sweep aside our internal experience when it does not seem to match expectations or what others say. The first voice sets the tone of the conversation. Often, this means faking positivity when we don’t feel it. But in an improv class, we do not need to pretend to be positive, or find what we are doing easy, or delightful. How we feel is how we feel and our reactions are what they are. Which means when someone shares a reaction to a scene or exercise, however haltingly, it is the teacher’s role to hear and echo what you are saying. Yes, this is a real feeling and it has value. Yes, you felt that.
6. Communicate coherently
In the end, all of this is about one of the great things living online makes difficult: coherency. Of how you feel, what you say and what you ask and expect from yourself and others. Cut the Brighton Rock and it says the same thing the whole way along. We all want to feel like we, our lives and the people we know and interact with are part of the same thing.
Improv-master and enthusiastic Zen-puppy Jason Schotts puts it like this: “The hardest thing to be onstage is just a person”. If we as teachers can be less ego and more person, we have a better chance of helping others to do so too.