Introduction to Effective Teaching

Introduction“Walk slowly around the room,” he said. “Walk slowly.  Make yourself light and feel your body float around the room.” I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t help but watch as the other students did their best to take the exercise seriously. I was crazy self-conscious for a theater major.

“Walk heavy. You’re a giant,” came the order followed by the loud stomping that echoed down the hallway and into the hollow theater below. I wondered what the neighboring classes thought was happening on the other side of the cinder-block wall that separated the acting class from the (probably) literature class.

I was studying theater at Middle Georgia College in Cochran, Georgia. What I really wanted was to write— books, poems, plays, or movies— but MGC didn’t offer a class in scriptwriting. I begged for a scriptwriting class, but the college had never offered one, so I was out of luck.

The professor’s name isn’t nearly as important as the things that I learned from him—the man who told us to walk like giants. In the class reflection that day, he asked me how I had felt during this exercise. My face lit up at the chance to make a joke, and he cut me off. He knew me well enough, and he knew what was coming. He looked at me—this was not meant for everyone else—and said, “How did you really feel?  I don’t want some funny, joke of an answer that makes you feel better about feeling awkward.”

He turned to the rest of the class and explained, “I understand that these exercises will push some of you past your comfort zones and laughter might be how you deal with that. That’s alright. I want you to be uncomfortable sometimes—it’s good. And I want you to push yourselves beyond your typical level of comfort.”

He turned back to me. “But when you stride onto new and shaky ground, I want you to be honest about how it feels without covering it up with a joke. Just be honest.”

He wasn’t saying not to make jokes. He was saying that we were going to feel silly doing these exercises, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed and make jokes out of it. And even though I still made jokes in class, I never hid behind them—not after that. That’s a fine line that he taught me to walk.

However, what I remember most about the things that I learned from my acting teacher and director took place in a different kind of classroom. The summer before he moved on to a bigger school in the north with more talented students and bigger budgets –MGC was no one’s dream job—I helped him at a children’s theater camp. We spent long nights putting sets together and coordinating lights.

One night, while we were drinking coffee and waiting on the paint to dry, he pulled out a pen and a pad of paper, and there in the dim glow of the theater’s houselights, with no one in attendance but me, he taught a class on scriptwriting.

The theater’s 500 seats sat empty, and the sound system was shut off, but there on an old table set up over center stage, class began. He sat across from me wearing his standard paint-splattered, black button-up shirt and jeans. Glasses, dark hair, and a beard framed his tired face as he began to outline all of the fundamentals of scriptwriting. He was teaching the class that I had asked for.

He told me about all of the essential elements and drew diagrams of plot structures on his paper: the traditional plot diagram with the peak and resolution, the absurdist drama which looked a lot like a circle, and even the fundamentals of the musical plot.

The biggest or flashiest musical number only sometimes comes at the end.  Sometimes, in the more dramatic musicals, biggest number comes at the end of Act I.  The finale is usually more subtle…”

And then we sat there for the next couple of hours talking about the future—mine at university and his at a private liberal arts school that “got” him better than MGC. We talked about family and girls—he never liked the girl I had recently broken up with—and art.

Even though he left the school soon after the curtain had fallen on the theater camp, I felt that I had learned more than I could have ever hoped to from him. And even though I didn’t get credit for it, I learned more that night sitting with him around the paint-splattered table than I ever had in any class.

But here is the important thing—I didn’t just learn about writing a script, though. Even though it would be years before I realized it, I had been given a crash-course in how to be a good teacher. I learned that you can always make time to teach your students what they want to learn while still teaching them what they have to learn. I learned that the smallest gesture can mean the world.

Sometimes I lose sight of these lessons. I know I have recently. This semester has been hard, but I’ve been thinking of this story recently. And I’ve decided it’s time to rediscover the reasons I decided to be a teacher. I think we can lose sight of what’s important about education because of administration and evaluations and blah blah blah. Good teaching is about human connection, not red tape.

Here’s to the rediscovery of certain passions that bureaucracy has tried to smother.


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