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Teach It Like You Mean It

By Lucia Volk

How often do we educators ask ourselves: Do we show up in the classroom ready to teach like we mean it?

After nine years in private and public university classrooms of various sizes and skill levels, I have asked both my students and myself what makes for good teaching. When I tried to describe a successful course, I often ended up saying that some sort of magic happened that energized everyone. I used the word magic, because I could not explain where the energy came from; I only knew that it was there. For their part, on their end-of-semester evaluations, students praised my engaging style and the clarity of my presentations and assignments, but that seemed to describe the symptoms, not the disease. Insights finally came to me outside the classroom, and in the world of magic and make-believe, also known as the theater.

A few years into my college teaching, I decided I wanted to improve my lecturing capabilities by taking an acting class at a local community college. Diction, pronunciation, and projection are just a few of the skills actors need to perform well, and I imagined they would be useful for me, too. Three classes later, I was auditioning for shows in local community theaters. I was hooked on this playful exercise at self-exposure and self-discovery, and it helped me think about the teaching venture in a new way. Here are a few of the lessons I learned, which, I believe, have made me a better teacher.

Acute Awareness of the Learner

Professors who inspire as teachers remain interested in being a student. I mean this literally, and not in the larger sense of life-long learning (which, of course, is also a helpful attitude to embrace). To teach in an inspiring way requires an acute awareness of the position of the learner, empathy for their fears of failure, and admiration of their courage in wrestling with the unknown. What better way to remind ourselves what it means to sit in one of these uncomfortable chairs than enroll in classes? We get to experience first-hand the difficulties of deciphering the blackboard, following the instructions of the teacher, mustering the courage to speak in front of strangers, and fending off the distractions that come from other people doing what they are doing next to you.

I have taken a variety of classes over the years. My favorites: a motorcycle repair shop class, and various dance, voice, and acting classes. All were courses outside my usual comfort zone, following the mantra: Do something that scares you with some sort of regularity! It is good exercise to yield the authority in the room, to be thoroughly confused by carburetors, calipers, and cam shafts, to trip over one’s own feet trying to follow a lead in a dance, and to miss the right pitch which everyone else seem to be getting effortlessly. It is good exercise to remember how satisfying it is to get it right, finally!

I experienced the camaraderie among students: the feeling of trust that will make people turn to their neighbor to offer or ask for help. I also saw the limits of learning communities, when students infect each other with negative vibes that prevent a planned classroom discussion or activity. And it was also good—in a sobering sort of way—to be reminded of the ways students speak about their teachers. In short, it is so much easier to comprehend and empathize with your students, if you have to do some homework yourself.

Public Performance and Self Awareness

Teaching is a public performance, similar to stage acting, which means a teacher has to be fully present and in the moment. My list of “what you must know, but what they do not teach you in graduate school” is a long one, but very much on the top of that list is the fact that I was never taught how to perform. I was never taught how to present myself to my audience, and, very importantly, how to be present. I lacked self-awareness of what my body communicates without me ever uttering a word. The way we move ourselves through the classroom physically, from the blackboard to the back of the room, from the door to the windows, all of this communicates something to our students.  Facial expressions and gestures are equally crucial. Do my hands conduct a symphony? Do I stand still? Do I smile or frown? As I lecture on familiar subjects, do I show that the matter still grabs and moves me—or am I just saying my lines?   

One of the things that makes stage acting a difficult art (much more so than screen acting) is that the actors need to communicate content and emotions to a large, live audience. Good actors move their audience all the way in the back of the theater to laughter or tears, to insights they never could articulate themselves. Much of the communication happens through twists and turns of the body, inflection and volume of the voice. It is amazing how much a deep breath at a strategic point in a monologue can communicate.  And there is the golden rule for actors: never, ever, turn your back to your audience. Your goal is to speak to a room full of people, but make it seem like you speak to each one individually.

So I am advocating theater classes for teachers, especially improvisation classes, which have the added bonus of fun. During those classes, students get out of their seats to play. In most of my improv classes, even the ones with assignments that terrified and embarrassed me, I ended up laughing to the point of tears. Of course, teaching is serious business. But that does not mean that we have to take ourselves, as teachers, too seriously. I also feel similarly about yoga and dance classes, as both give us not only a much-needed workout after too many hours sitting behind our books or at the computer, but also an awareness of self, either through breathing exercises, choreographed movements, or through sensing and reacting to the presence of our fellow students.

Voice classes can also be workouts that focus on breathing, posture, pacing, pitch, and communication with the audience. These kinds of bodily engaged classes fall, in the broadest sense, under the heading of “learning how to be present in this world.” And that is what good educators teach their students, regardless of their subject matter.

Know Your Students

Even when playing to a large house, get to know your audience. Before my lecture and seminar classes start, I read the rosters out loud to myself. I sound out names that are unfamiliar and take note of my stumbles. Speaking the names helps me attach them to faces. It usually takes me three to four weeks to learn every student’s name. Another benefit of taking those acting classes is that they train you to memorize your lines. And student names are some of the most important lines for a teacher. A student who knows she or he will be called on by name feels accountable to the teacher and the class. It makes the lesson personal.

What further helps me know my students is an introductory questionnaire I prepare for the first day of class, asking students to explain their classroom learning style.  It helps to know if students consider themselves shy or talkative, slow or fast, procrastinators or work horses. Students’ habits and skills predate their enrollment in my course, and once they exhibit their learning styles in my class, it is good to re-read their self-assessment and realize that, most of the time, their behaviors are nothing personal. I end the introductory exercise with the question, “Is there something that you think would be helpful for me to know about you?”  Most students leave it blank, but those who do respond give very valuable feedback (especially students who shoulder significant family and work responsibilities and know they will struggle to keep up). Sometimes, I ask the students to sketch a self-portrait, which later helps me learn their names!

I think of these questionnaires as conversation starters. Joking with students becomes a whole lot easier if you know their names and know a couple of things about them. Obviously, there are limits: class sizes are growing faster than you can say “teach it like you mean it” and it is next to impossible to get to know all students in large introductory classes—a good reason to abolish them. Students have never blamed me for failing to remember their names, but they have appreciated my efforts to try.

The Syllabus is Your Script

Good actors know their script, and good teachers know their syllabus. To teach it like we mean it, we come to our first class with a syllabus so prepared and ready that students know exactly what to expect to learn and do on any day of the semester. For example, during my so-called “breaks” from teaching, I take sheets of construction paper and write out—sometimes I draw out—my objectives for each week of each course along with possible reading materials.

Generally, objectives come in two kinds: content objectives and learning process objectives.  For content objectives, I need to choose topics from a rainbow of books, films, guest lecturers and the like. Pragmatist that I am, I need to strike a balance between re-using materials from previous semesters and selecting new ones, as current events demand. Moreover, my students are expected to learn critical thinking, coherent writing, and informed, respectful discussion—no matter what the specific content that week. Because I teach anthropology, my students also should learn how different cultures solve the challenges of everyday life in a way that is meaningful to them, and more often than not, different from our own. Recognizing and appreciating cultural difference in a critical, informed, and respectful way are 21st century life skills. These practical skills can be learned individually or in groups, through student presentations or short acting assignments. Turning students into actors is very good pedagogical practice, because it teaches them to think carefully not only about what to say, but also about how to say it.

So I make good use of my “breaks” and put a lot of thought into the content and activities that go on my syllabi—and then I stick to them. I make sure I have answers to the question: Why do I have to read this?  Why is it important to learn about Muslim women practicing their faith in Lebanon; Islamic charitable organizations in Egypt; or the relationship between oil companies and the state in Saudi Arabia? What are the important, larger questions that these materials can help us understand? Can the material spark a lively debate, a simulated appeal to an imaginary United Nations committee, a captivating script for a reality show? Of course, what will happen on any given day in the actual classroom may differ, but that should not prevent us from walking in with, and referring repeatedly to, a detailed plan.

Different Settings, Different Styles

While focusing on the performance on the main stage, do not forget about the studio theater next door. We do the vast majority of our teaching in the classroom, but the other crucial space is our office. Here we can address face-to-face, student-specific learning challenges. Due to the vast discrepancies in K-12 education, college students who can ably identify the three main points of any given article sit next to students who cannot. There are many ways in which to address skill diversity in the classroom: making more advanced students work with those who are less advanced, breaking assignments down into manageable portions, giving basic and bonus assignments, for example, but there is little that substitutes for some individualized teacher attention.

When a student comes to office hours, the first thing that happens is they work up the courage to acknowledge their struggles. A conversation with the student will establish that struggle is an inherent part of learning, but there are more and less productive ways to struggle. Focus on one particular area—say, summarizing main points of the readings or distinguishing between opinion and evidence—and draw up a manageable plan of action. Setting up students to fail, by demanding the impossible or by abusing the element of surprise, turns students off. But with struggling students in particular, some personalized attention can go a long way.

Your office is just another performance space, but with less distance between actor and audience, and therefore it inspires more trust. It is a space to experiment with less orthodox teaching methods: try drawing a picture of the readings with colorful pens; or ask, “if you were to set them to music, what would they sound like?” It never ceases to amaze me how often students struggle with the way I worded an assignment. If they can formulate the questions in their own way, they can proceed with the answers. Does transformation happen every time you talk to a struggling student in office hours? No, it does not. But it happens often enough to make this space and time invaluable.

Maintaining a Work/Life Balance

Now it is time for some pragmatism. How do I manage all this time outside the classroom, so that I do not feel like I am drowning? Teaching like you mean it does not mean teaching yourself to exhaustion. First and foremost, I protect my time to take my improv or dance classes, and to do other activities that have nothing at all to do with teaching. Every week, some block of my time remains safely locked away from teaching demands.  More specifically, I scale down content expectations for the first few weeks of class. I assign materials that I know inside and out, so that I do not have to spend much time on prep. I give short assignments or pop quizzes, which are easy to grade but keep students honest. And yes, I admit that the first weeks are hard, but I have noticed that it all pays off in the long run.

It is impossible to reach every student in a class, and to fix all the learning issues that have accumulated before the students show up our roster. But we can, and we should, set the bar high for ourselves as teachers, at the same time we set it high for our students. In my experience, students rarely complain about high expectations, as long as the syllabus indicates clearly how those expectations can be met. Part of setting the bar high for ourselves is to ask ourselves as we walk down that hallway to our classroom: am I ready to perform my part so that the audience will listen? Am I ready to raise the energy level in the room so that the spark plugs can ignite the learning engine?

Unfortunately, there is no simple formula to sum up “teach it like you mean it.” I maintain it is an attitude that can be cultivated in a variety of ways – and, of course, in more ways than I have suggested. But the act of enrolling as a student in an unfamiliar class, particularly an acting class, I know has me a better teacher. I pay attention to my lines, but even more so to my presence. Occasionally, I get to play with roles. I once did a Morpheus impersonation to show that The Matrix works like culture in many ways. But even on my regular days, I am now able to employ my voice, gaze, posture, and breath in a more deliberate way. I communicate more clearly.  I monitor my frowns and my smiles (and theirs) as I would the gauges on my motorcycle. 

Which brings me to the final point of my reflections: if, as I sincerely believe, successful teaching is a combination of intellectual commitment and embodied experience—that it is as much thought as it is action—then we need to advocate for the learning environment that allows both to play out. At a time when disappearing dollars send universities and colleges down the online slope, the meeting of minds in physical space is going extinct. An entire online universe, full of potential friends, fancy shoes, and political allies, promises that the virtual world is superior to the tangible one. Online teaching certainly can convey content, but it is devoid of the energies and attitudes that make possible engaged and experiential learning in a living, breathing community. Empathy, laughter, bewilderment, angst, and “I got it” smiles all come from teaching a lesson to a live audience, and they are an intrinsic part of the lesson. In being fully present in front of our students, we cultivate the attitudes that make teaching rewarding and learning worthwhile.

Lucia Volk is co-director of Middle East and Islamic studies and associate professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University. Her research focuses on the politics of memory in the aftermath of war and violence, as well as on health and well-being among Arab immigrant populations. When not teaching or learning something new, she enjoys riding her motorcycle. She welcomes correspondence at