The Theatricality of Teaching

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Teaching and acting have a great deal in common. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Students walk into a dim classroom.

“Thank you for being here today,” the teacher intones to the first student who arrives.

“Your presence here this morning would have meant a great deal to him,” he remarks somberly to the next student.

“I know this is a tough morning for you; he considered you a great friend,” he assures a third.

As students take their seats, bewildered, they notice the podium is draped in black, fake vines and a rose hanging from the top, flickering tea light candles arranged across the top of the lectern. Behind the podium, a drawing of a long-haired boy next to a soberingly terse epitaph helps the students make sense of this bizarre start to their second-period English class:

Simon
c. 1944-1954

This is the dramatic scene that greeted my sophomore students this week the day after I assigned them to read chapter nine of Lord of the Flies, the chapter in which the stranded boys of the novel, driven savage in their isolation from “civilized” society, “do in” ten-year-old Simon in a frenzy of mob violence.

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The Power of a Teacher Pep Talk

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Dead Poets SocietyFreedom WritersStand and Deliver. Chances are good that if you’re a teacher, you’ve seen at least one of these movies and had one of two reactions. You were likely either stirred and inspired by the teacher protagonist in the film who seemed to achieve the impossible in their fictionalized classroom, or you were frustrated by the impossible standards for teachers created by a film you felt had little connection to the realities of teaching.

In a recent New York Times article by education reporter Motoko Rich (which I highly recommend), Rich explores the strange dichotomy that exists in teacher-centric movies: every Hollywood depiction of teachers seems to represent them as either a hero/savior figure or as an incompetent clown (Mr. Schue on the Fox series Glee was alternatingly inspiring and incompetent). Rich suggests that “neither cliché has much connection to reality,” adding that, unlike the doctors in medical dramas or the lawyers in legal dramas who are actually depicted doing their jobs, “movies and television rarely show teachers, well, teaching.”

Teaching in Dead Poets Society, for example, is reduced almost entirely to a matter of charisma (although I would argue there are some small moments of pedagogical excellence in that film, too). Extended footage of a teacher doing what we generally think of as teaching–working with a small group, giving a brief lecture, conferencing with a student–is not a feature of teacher movies. While Rich’s article is a fascinating read and raises provocative questions about representations of teaching in film and television and their effects on public perception of education, it also got me thinking about the role of charisma in our profession. Continue reading