5 Lessons from the Stage for Teachers

Recently

All the world’s a stage

I was recently working in a busy kindergarten classroom.  I arrived to a room full of activity, bustling with energy, teaming with learning.  The students were engaged at play, active and joyful with the noise of conversation and materials interacting.   A group of boys had build and obstacle course/pathway and they were challenging themselves to jump between the blocks while staying balanced.  Another group was using a mirror to draw self-portraits.  Other children were playing with puppets, painting, and reading.

After a period of observation, we asked them to leave their play and to join us at the carpet for some music and storytelling.  The teacher tapped the outside of a singing bowl to get their attention and the children slowly began to make their way towards the carpet.  I love singing bowls so I took the opportunity to use it as a way to draw all the students in, playing it by rubbing the outside edge and then slowly moving it across my body so that the sound moved through the room.  The students, familiar with this sound, were transfixed and watched me as I raised and lowered the bowl, moving it from right to left as it vibrated in my hand.

It was a bit of theatre, a gimmick perhaps.  I use all of my performance skills in these transitional moments; I draw myself up to full height, exaggerate my gestures, and use my voice to effect: when the sound of the singing bowl faded away, my voice was a whisper. Later in the lesson, the children went and gathered items that they could use to make soft and loud sounds in the room and I conducted their found-sound-orchestra with the nearest pencil, using flourishes and facial expressions to indicate when I wanted each group to play.

So many times when I watch teachers who are struggling to maintain students’ interest and to manage a group, I notice that, while the may have a good grasp of the content they’re teaching, they’ve forgotten (or have never thought about) that teaching is a performing art.  While I am absolutely an advocate of teacher as guide on the side and meddler in the middle, I am noticing that many teachers don’t know how to grab onto those ‘on stage’ moments and make the most of them.

So, in the spirit of building dramatic tension please imagine a drumroll as I give you my top five tips for creating student engagement through performance.

1. Body Language

If there was one thing I would give new teachers, it would be an awareness of their body language.  Women (who occupy the majority of elementary teaching positions) have, in many cases, been taught to take up less space with their bodies, to be quiet and unobtrusive.  Good performers take up space.  They occupy the room with authority.  They plant their feet and square their shoulders.  Their spines extend and their heads lift.  They don’t fidget; their gestures are purposeful and clear.  The maintain eye focus.  They make no apologies for their presence in a room.  Be aware of your own physicality and what it’s telling your students.  What messages are you sending?  Is the subtext of your body language sabotaging your teaching?

2. Use your voice.

We use our voices all day in the classroom but rarely do we think about how we use them.  Too often, teachers’ voices maintain a consistent range, which starts loud and gets louder when the noise level in the classroom increases.  I almost never hear a whisper or a change in pace, tone, or intonation.  The brain loves novelty and children’s ears will generally perk up when the teacher starts speaking in a very low tone or starts stretching out her words.  Not only does it help students to pay attention, it will also help to save your voice, which brings us to my next suggestion…

3. Silence

Think about that moment before a concert starts, when everyone settles in and leans forward, straining to hear the first notes.  That is a beautiful moment.  Dramatic pauses are sadly underused in teaching.  There are few techniques more effective than a short pause. To wait. For the next. Word. Try it.

4. Move

A few times in my teaching career, I’ve had parents request that their child sit closer to the front of the class due to challenges with attention, vision, or hearing.  These requests have caused me to ask: “Where is the front?”  I very rarely stand in one place in a classroom.  Unless I’m sitting down, I’m walking.  Movement is another way to help students pay attention; it forces them to track you through the classroom and gets them to move in their seats.  It also demonstrates confidence and allows you to touch base with every student while giving you something to do if you’re prone to fidgeting.

5. Transitions

Transitions are the tip of the sword in teaching.  They can absolutely ruin a good lesson.  Every transition is an opportunity to loose the students’ interest.  Think about performances you’ve seen when the scene changes are clunky, when the lighting cues aren’t in synch or when the performers are under-rehearsed.  Those transitional moments are agony for an audience.  People start to shift in their seats, check their phones, or whisper to their friends… and these are fully grown adults, presumably more capable of self-regulation than the kids in our classes!  Practice your teaching transitions, make sure you have all the materials you need, give the kids something to do during the transition, sing a song, tap dance, 7th inning stretch… anything.  Being aware of transitions, cutting them back to the bare minimum and smoothing out the ones that remain will make a huge difference to your classroom management.

Break a leg!

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3 thoughts on “5 Lessons from the Stage for Teachers

  1. As a future teacher, this post really resonated with me. I’m in the process of learning different teaching strategies, having completed my first classroom placement in a kindergarten class last winter, yet this idea of teaching as though you are on a stage is something entirely new for me. I’ve learned about attention grabbers and the importance of using transitions as a tool for keeping the engagement of your students, but never once have I thought about this sort of role that teaching requires.

    When I think back to my favourite teachers I had growing up, all of them did these things. The lessons that I remember fondly are the ones in which my teachers would move about the room, add emphasis to their voice by either speaking louder or softer and use gestures and different body movements to get their messages across. As someone who is generally softer spoken, I’ve had worries that my struggles to project my voice that much might add difficulty to keeping the attention of my students, yet these points you have mentioned helped ease those nerves.

    I feel much more confident that I will be able to keep the attention of my students if I ensure that I treat teaching as a type of performance, in which my recited lines are merely the information I am outstretching to my students. You’ve provided me with a lot of good pointers for starting my career as a teacher. I am curious to see how you think this could relate to digital spaces? For instance, how can an educator maintain this type of performance through social media or even when using digital tools in the classroom in which feedback and conversations occur digitally?

    – Megan

    1. Hi Megan and thank for your comment. If I think about my own experiences learning online, I know the pacing of the class and how much interaction there has been with the instructor and other students is important to maintaining interest. It’s a good question and one I’ll have to think more about!

  2. I really enjoyed this post! In high school, I was extremely active in the arts like musical theatre, strings, and vocals. Now, as a university student studying in a Concurrent Education program, I often miss the performing that I got to interact with on a regular basis in high school.

    My mother was very involved in vocals as a teenager and young adult, and then again as an adult when I got older. I think of my mother because she has never been the take up less space, be quiet and unobtrusive type of woman, she never conformed to this ideal that you point out, although she was aware of it. Her physicality taught me that it is okay to stand tall and confident. I think teachers have a similar impact on students in the way they present themselves to the classroom. By being open and confident, we are portraying a message that highlights positivity for representation.

    I have never tried “silence.” However, I loved this moment in the concert because as a performer you are backstage, there is an excitement and whispered tones exchanged. Some of my favourite memories are from setting up the orchestra and sitting waiting for the curtain to be pulled. As soon as the current is pulled we shift, from students in a class to professionals, you see the backs straighten, the bows raise, and you watch your conductor with unbreakable concentration, you all take a big breath in with the conductor as they raise their stick, and then start to play. I am interested in trying this technique you suggest in the classroom. Perhaps that posture, concentration, and mindful breathing will be used here.

    How do you deal with the nerves of performance? The moments when you become unsure or not one hundred percent confident in yourself?
    – Jade

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