How My Training in Theater Prepared Me for a Career in Teaching
By Lisa O’Hara, Former Teacher and Senior Academic Designer
Let’s look back to the first day of school the first time you taught. I don’t know about you other current and former teachers out there, but my realization at that first-period bell was, “I have no idea how to teach.”
I had read over the rosters for each class, but as I called students’ names, I quickly learned I was mispronouncing many of them. I also had a hard time locating the voices that said, “Here.” From my education classes, I had been encouraged (this was 1987) to arrange my desks in a horseshoe. (Note to new teachers: Use rows.) I had also been encouraged to allow students to choose their own seats, to give them a sense of control. (Note to new teachers: Use alphabetical seating charts.) How would I ever place a name to a face? (It took me weeks to do that.) And what was I teaching again?
And it took no time at all before a student, while I was in mid-speech, asked the startling question, “Miss, can I use the restroom?” I had no idea how to write a hall pass or what the rules were around that. Now, all this disorientation is compounded by the wonder that is Zoom.
All these managerial minutiae cause more stress than a civilian might imagine. This is seemingly innocuous stuff — names, seating arrangements, hall passes — but combine the basic human needs of each student with today’s technological proficiency demands, and you see the result:
“According to the National Education Association, approximately 50 percent of new teachers will leave the profession within their first five years of teaching.”
Speaking as a veteran of 15 years before transitioning into educational publishing over 17 years ago, I suggest that the main reason teachers leave is not lack of passion, nor a lack of knowledge of their subject areas. It’s the lack of preparation in the form of support and training in the most fundamental way of relating to new humans.
Speaking as a former educator, I’m here to tell you that the reason I survived and thrived for 15 years might surprise you: I trained first as an actor and director. An acting class is but one suggestion to help prepare and retain new teachers, but it’s training that can prove invaluable.
Teaching and Theater
I hear you asking: How is theater like teaching, and how might you use it?
Teachers, Take an Acting Class
What would you learn, as a teacher in acting class? First, survival. Don’t feel like being in your classroom today? Fake it. Don’t know the answer to a student’s question? Say sincerely and comfortably, “I don’t know but I will find out.”
Don’t know your students’ names? Create storytelling activities and presentations so that you can all get to know one another while also fulfilling speaking and listening learning objectives.
Next, depth of connection. Want to really find out what your students are thinking and learning? Listen. Want to grasp what is making your students struggle or thrive? Learn to adjust, improvise, and practice until you find it.
Not sure how to respond to tense situations or nonstop distraction? Learn to take things moment by moment, listen, adjust, and breathe. And laugh.
Grow Your Imaginative Capacity
Most of us know that getting up in front of people and playing a part is terrifying. You feel vulnerable and often stupid because of all those lines you are not sure you have memorized. However, until you have put yourself in that position, you truly cannot imagine what that feels like.
When you (as I did) first stand up in front of a group of high school students, you will most likely be, as I was, shockingly unprepared. (With student teaching, a mentor and your advisor are coaching you.) Acting classes prepare you for the real deal like no other class can. To wit:
The first time a student interrupts you to ask for a restroom pass, or to inquire as to whether or not you are married, you will feel flustered and may wish to run. However, if you’ve taken an improv class, where fellow actors are throwing you stuff (in the form of first lines and odd scenarios) all the time, you will have some tools to roll with it, including delightful snappy comebacks.
As for the restroom, you will learn to gracefully take out a pass and fill it out while continuing with your instructional routine (based on an acting technique called “unnoticed action”). When students begin lobbing non sequitur questions about your appearance or family, you might find a segue into your lesson using that question, such as, “Curiosity about others is one of the things that drives us to read stories,” or, “I appreciate your curiosity, so let’s plan on some storytelling time,” as you continue, unrattled, with your lesson plan.
But here’s the deep reason: Actors study character. The characters of plays have lived full, rich, lives, and often those lives are completely different from your own.
By working on scenes for acting you learn to find, inside yourself, the feelings and motivations of others. You grow your imaginative capacity, empathy, and compassion so that worlds with which you have no experience no longer feel impossibly remote.
My friend Scott once said to me, “But if you are acting, aren’t you being fake?” It’s a fair question, and the answer is no. Acting is not about insincerity. Acting is about discipline. Acting is an art, and when you control the art in yourself, the possibilities feel limitless. At least, more often than not.
If aspiring educators had the benefit of acting classes, they might not only master any nerves involved with getting up in front of people, but they might also be less stunned by the student population, the reactions of parents, and all the other slings and arrows that seem so outside of their role as teacher.
Feeling in need of a refresher to reinvigorate your teaching life? Try a theater class. As I’ve said to hecklers when I do occasional stand-up in New York, “There’s nothing you can say to me that a 15-year-old hasn’t already said and with worse grammar.”
On with the show.
Lisa O’Hara was a public high school teacher and drama director in the state of Virginia for 15 years before moving to New York City. She has been with McGraw Hill since 2004, working on the Treasures, Wonders, and StudySync programs as an editor and academic designer. She lives in Queens.