Teachers As Performers

By Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR’s All Things Considered, 11/17/14

[Michael’s note: This story was part of the NPR Education Team’s fall series, “50 Great Teachers.” You can listen to the stories, see transcripts, and watch videos of the teachers in action at: http://www.npr.org/series/359618671/50-great-teachers]

When Amanda Siepiola steps into her classroom, she channels two role models.

“I’m a big Bruce Springsteen fan,” says Siepiola, a teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School in Washington DC. “When I go to his concerts, I end up saying, ‘I want to teach like him.’ ”

The other role model is Siepiola’s own English teacher from the 1990s at Clinton High School in upstate New York: Ms. Hepburn. “She was a performer—she was on all the time,” Siepiola says. “That made me want to stay in that chair and be there.”

Siepiola has been teaching for over a decade. She is naturally quiet and reserved but, in the classroom, she amps up her enthusiasm. She mixes the energy of Springsteen and the drama of Ms. Hepburn. Siepiola readily admits, “I am performing.”

One morning, Siepiola whispers to her students, “See what makes you feel excited.” They are learning to browse the classroom books. “See what makes your heart race a little bit, your face get a little hot. Which book adventures do you want to go on?” Her voice is rising as she anticipates the impending adventures.

One girl’s hand shoots up as she blurts out, “I know what it means by ‘lost in a book.’ ”

Siepiola swears her own energy makes the students more engaged and motivated. I spoke to a lot of teachers for this story and all of them said they feel like they’re performing.

But here’s a funny thing: this isn’t something you’ll find in a typical ed school curriculum. It’s rarely taught.

“I don’t think I have ever learned any techniques in any kind of formal way,” says Siepiola. In other words, a basic element of a teacher’s job—the very way in which they impart information—may not be a part of their training.

Now, maybe that’s not a surprise to anyone who’s struggled to stay awake through a droning 90-minute lecture. But it raises a question: How much performance—how much pizzazz—does a teacher need?

For answers, let’s go to the movies.

There is Ben Stein, master of the monotone lecture, in the 1986 classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His lifeless, “Anyone? Anyone?” punctuates his speaking and has earned him a spot as one of the most boring teachers in movie history.

At the other end of the spectrum, more in the Springsteen and Ms. Hepburn category, is the late Robin Williams in the 1989 film, Dead Poets Society. This prep school teacher peppers his lectures with skilled impersonations. He leaps onto his desk to demonstrate that looking at things from a new perspective is important. His excitement, his passion, his theatrics have made him a model of educational inspiration. [Watch this “lecture” on Shakespeare from the film. Clearly, a “lecture” can be much richer than the stereotype.]

So, is Robin Williams’ character all the things a great teacher should be?

Maybe not, says Bruce Lenthall, who runs the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pennsylvania. He has seen some teachers bristle at the idea that successful teachers have to also be performers.

“Remember that’s not what they’ve signed on for and that can, in fact, be alienating to them.” Lenthall says teachers tell him, ” ‘I’m here to convey my ideas, I don’t need to get into this stuff that seems ephemeral.’ ”

But what if the teacher is really boring?

Lenthall says that’s not his primary concern. He’s worried about what students are learning, and argues that entertaining doesn’t equal learning. “There is not a clear relationship between whether students enjoy paying attention to a lecture and whether they learn from the experience,” Lenthall says. [This ignores the connection between learning and such factors as curiosity, engagement, and rapport with the teacher. Watch another “lecture” by Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society and see if the students are learning.]

So it’s more complicated that Ben Stein vs. Robin Williams.

Lenthall and others say it’s not supposed to be about the teacher. It’s about the students. They are the ones who should be fired up. The teacher’s role is to guide, to encourage, to prod along. And that doesn’t necessarily mean standing on the desk or playing the guitar.

This model is called “active learning.” It’s a popular idea that largely rejects the lecture. Instead of sitting quietly in the audience, the students experience the magic of discovering information and exploring ideas themselves. “That’s where the push is going on right now in educational theory,” says Lenthall.

Of course, he doesn’t think teachers should be boring. But he also doesn’t think lectures are the way to go.

In many ways, the performance question has gotten caught up in this fight between active learning and lecturing.

“We assume that performance only relates to lecture, only relates to the passive delivery. And thus it should be discarded along with the lecture,” says Robert Lue, director of Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning [where he has been called “one of the foremost leaders in innovative teaching.”]

Lue is a big fan of honing a teacher’s performance gene. He insists the absolute best active learning teachers have it too. “You look at these faculty members and you watch them. Oh boy! They are performers. I mean you have to be,” Lue says. “And our failure to recognize that is a problem.” [I’ve seen highly interactive, Socratic lessons where the teacher weaves stories, questions, music, and humor into a dynamic performance. Such lessons not only make learning more enjoyable for students; they are consistent with research in cognitive psychology and memory.]

But maybe just maybe, there is another factor here too.

Perhaps it’s not just a question of which method imparts more facts or produces the highest test score. It’s also about a teacher’s ability to inspire […and which pedagogical methods are consistent with a teacher’s personality.]

[Michael’s bottom line: “Sage on the stage” vs. “Guide on the side” is a false dichotomy. Great teaching is much more nuanced. There are often elements from both styles—as well as the vast middle ground—in classes where engagement, enjoyment, and learning are at their highest.]

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