Never Let Them See You Teach

3 Jul

There’s an intersection between the role of stand-up comedian and teacher.

Both stand alone before groups of people and try to engage their audience or class and move them to action (laugh/learn/both). Like stand-up comedians the best teachers write their own material (to rely on someone else’s lessons or text books is pretty hack) and are always ready to improvise when the needs of the class require it. And as most experienced teachers know, a little humour in the classroom can improve the learning. Because of this I’ve had a passing interest in what stand-up comedians have to say about what they do and how it helps me as a teacher.

I’ve been a fan of stand-up comedy in general and Bill Cosby specifically since I was young. I listened to his stand-up on vinyl and saw him perform in the early 80’s. It ranks up there with one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Recently, Cosby’s gone back to stand-up (did he ever leave?) and the stories of his shows are legendary. At his last performance at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal he did a two-hour show where he walked onto the stage, sat down, told TWO STORIES, killed and left.

Last week I was listening to an interview with Bill Crystal (not a fan) and he told a story about Cosby. When Crystal was coming up as a comedian he was also a big fan of Cosby’s. He was doing a set at a comedy club and looked up to see that Cosby was watching him at the back of the room. After the show and later they talked about comedy and Crystal related Cosby’s wisdom on what makes good stand-up comedy.

The secret he said is “Never let them see you work”. Good performances should come across as natural and unrehearsed. Be relaxed in the delivery and casually throw out things so that people think “wow, he’s naturally funny”. If people think it’s forced they put up resistance. The secret is to relax and get them to drop their defences.

I think the same is true of good teaching. Inexperienced teachers try to control everything and pre-plan learning so that nothing  can “go wrong”. As teachers get more experienced they develop more confidence and believe that, whatever happens, they can handle it. They relax more into the role and, in doing so, get students to relax, which increases engagement. Students think this is something you’re doing with them rather than to them.

This doesn’t mean that things aren’t prepared and planned, rather that when content or instructions are being delivered it doesn’t seem that way. It’s almost as if you’re deciding what to do there and then and you’re just as delighted and surprised by what’s happening. This leaves space for moments where something unexpected happens and suddenly learning is happening in a completely new, unplanned direction.

Most lesson plans and unit plans really miss the boat on this. Teachers need to have a general idea of where things are going but the route should be negotiable. After all, aren’t those the most interesting journeys?

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