“I’m not an Actor!”

Professor Hal Wicke
Assistant Professor
Deputy Chair, Department of Speech and Communication
New York School of Career and Applied Studies, Touro College

Many years ago, a math instructor asked me to help her with teaching style. She was concerned that she was not an interesting teacher to her students. At the time, I was head of the school’s arts program, responsible for the theatre courses and productions. I took her seriously and asked her what she wanted from my coaching. She said she was concerned that her explanations of how to do math problems were not interesting to the students. She wanted to know how she could be more exciting and charismatic.

I suggested that she might begin working on her breathing which was shallow and choppy. We worked on slowing down her breathing and emitting a sound which was low and continuous. Then I asked to explain a math problem to me as if I were a student.  She immediately reverted to her habituated high pitched, fast, breathy delivery. I stopped her and asked her to describe what she had just done as she explained the problem. She didn’t know. “I did it just the way I usually do,” she said.  I asked her if she saw a connection between the vocal exercise we had just done and the sample lesson she had just presented. “Not really,” she replied.  “I thought what you asked me to do was interesting, but it had nothing to do with my teaching. I need to help you with my teaching, not my voice. I am not an actor; I am a math teacher.” Later, though we spent many amusing moments talking about how, on Sunday night, she prepares her submarine sandwich lunches for the week, that was the last time we spent talking about teaching.

Over the years I have reflected on this incident, trying to understand what was operating in those moments. Years later, my nephew recommended  a stimulating book, “Mindset,” by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, which examines how the human mind creates an arbitrary binary choice of how we think of ourselves.  In the broadest terms, some of us decide that we are one person with certain immutable traits. “I am a math teacher” is an intellectual silo that had become fixed in this math teacher’s view of reality. “I am not an actor” clearly states that if she is a math teacher, how could she possibly be an actor? An actor does “funny” things with his voice pretending to be someone else.  A math teacher never does funny things with her voice. An actor dresses up in strange costumes. A math teacher always dresses in down -to -earth “regular” clothes. In other words, the skills of the actor are entirely inappropriate for a math teacher.

What can we learn from this painful episode? The math teacher was focused entirely on the content she was teaching. She is unaware of the human being who delivers the material to her students.  They observe the teacher as an entity who has the title of teacher. She is not just a robotic loud speaker for math problems. Although students may not be conscious of what they observe, they see the teacher’s face, her hair, her clothes, her walk, her gestures, her manner of speaking. For them, she is a person with characteristics that may be ordinary, but often are unusual to her students and sometime quite amusing.

If every teacher became conscious of herself as dynamic objects interacting in a flexible space, she would begin to realize she emits unconsciously a kind of energy that infects the student perception of the class. Good teachers do not have to become “actors” to be effective in the class. They can continue with familiar habits and unknowingly turn off students to the content of the class. They can continue to be boring to students who are conditioned to watching television, that box that conditions them to expect exciting performances in class. For the teacher to develop an awareness of an actor’s toolbox of vocal skills, body movement, gesturing plus a conscious effort to vary to pace of presentation is more than one can expect. However, such an awareness may open an unexpectedly rich universe of teaching possibilities which might even help to create for the student an aura of expectancy in every teacher’s class.

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