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Using Acting Skills in the Classroom

Students will be more engaged and behave better when educators teach with enthusiasm, using acting techniques such as physical and vocal animation, role-playing, and the use of suspense and surprise, according to the authors of a book on acting lessons for teachers. Included: Acting techniques classroom teachers can use.

Today more than ever, teachers can learn a lot from actors. With various media competing for students attention, teachers who employ acting techniques such as animated speech and gestures and elements of surprise have a better chance of engaging their students.

In Acting Lessons for Teachers: Using performance Skills in the Classroom, authors Dr. Robert T. Tauber and Cathy Sargent Mester give detailed instructions about using acting techniques in the classroom can help grab students attention so the message gets through.

Education World: What are some of the common goals of actors and teachers?

Cathy Sargent Mester: Both teachers and actors must fundamentally capture and hold listener attention. This goal is particularly crucial in the classroom since attention is prerequisite to learning. Both professions also share the goal of having the listeners be able to perceive readily which parts of their messages are the most important, in other words directing the listeners attention by their nonverbal expression. Finally, both teachers and actors want to present material so that it sticks with the listeners for some time.

Dr. Robert T. Tauber: Actors and teachers, even seasoned ones, share some of the same thoughts and feelings before they step across that threshold onto the stage or into the classroom. They worry whether they will "forget their lines" and "will the audience accept them." They feel anxious, apprehensive, inadequate, and ill-prepared. Physiologically, soaked armpits, knees like rubber, and butterflies in the stomach make matters even worse. Their shared goal is not only to overcome these debilitating thoughts and feelings, but to get on with their job of entertaining or teaching and to do so effectively.

EW: Why do you think (if you do) today's teachers need to be more mindful of their presentation and approach?

Sargent Mester: Today's students are more visually oriented, more technologically sophisticated and more challenged in their academic orientation than the students of previous generations. Consequently, todays best teachers are those who can adapt to their students varied learning styles. We must offer lessons via multiple media in a consistently caring and engaging way in order to motivate todays students. Teachers have always had to adapt to changing times and the 21st century is no different.

Cathy Sargent Mester

Dr. Tauber: When I supervised student teachers, I would often try to help them handle their pre-teaching jitters by saying, "Dont worry, just go in there and be yourself." It wasnt until years later that I realized that teachers do not have a "self" to be when they start out as a teacher; that is, they dont yet have a teacher-self. According to Hanning (Tauber & Mester, 2006), they need to develop one, and they do that by acting a part, by playing a role. Ones teacher-self is developed by using proven performance skills in the classroom. These performance skills may be even more important to teachers, today, because students are constantly being bombarded by all kinds of other performances -- movies, concerts, iPods, the Internet, and more.

EW: I liked the point you made about the importance of enthusiasm in teaching. What are two or three acting-inspired techniques most teachers could use to enhance their teaching?

Sargent Mester: Our book presents ten categories of techniques; each category having numerous specific and important techniques within it. Our preference would be that all interested teachers buy the whole book rather than just reading the answer to this question. That said, it is possible to highlight two principles to which all of the techniques are connected. They are:

Planning a class means planning content and planning the means of delivering that content. Just as an actor works on learning the lines and determining the best way to deliver them, a teacher should constantly be working on mastering the subject matter and on developing a host of varying strategies for delivering that subject matter to the students so that they learn and retain what is covered in class.

The enthusiasm of which we speak should come from a genuine commitment to the teaching-learning process and to the subject matter. Just as the best actors evoke meaningful expression of lines due to their devotion to their craft, the best teachers convey enthusiasm because of a genuine devotion to their students and to the importance of the subject matter to be covered.

Dr. Robert T. Tauber

Dr. Tauber: The importance of teacher enthusiasm was driven home when I supervised student teachers. I would observe them and in our after class meeting often offer what I thought was sage advice, "You need to be more enthusiastic in your teaching." The student would nod his head in agreement. Two weeks later I would return to observe the same student only to find that he or she was just as, to put it politely, unenthusiastic as before. It was not until I researched the parallel between teaching and acting that I realized that I had forgotten to do something very important in my supervising. I had neglected to tell the student teachers "how" to be more enthusiastic!

If I knew then what I know now, I would have taught these teachers the effective use of specific acting- performances skills such as, animation in voice and body, use of suspense and surprise, role-playing, props, classroom space, and humor, which when combined with effective entrances and exits, are guaranteed to enhance their teaching. It is no coincidence that most forms that school administrators use to evaluate teaching effectiveness include a reference to teacher enthusiasm.

EW: How can a teacher utilize the classroom as a "stage"?

Sargent Mester: Rearrange the space to maximize student visibility and to provide enough space for incorporation of creative learning devices and exercises. It is not a "stage" in the sense of a space where works of others are "performed," but a stage in the sense of a space that provides enough flexibility for the use of a variety of teaching and learning strategies such as those identified in our Acting Lessons for Teachers text.

Dr. Tauber: According to Shakespeares As You Like It, "All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances." Surely, one would include teachers among these players. As teachers, our job in the classroom version of a "stage," is to maximize our effectiveness between our entrances and exits. Like actors, teachers have a message to convey -- and this is best accomplished by incorporating proven acting skills such as animation in voice and body, use of suspense and surprise, role-playing, props, classroom space, and humor. The similarities between the stage and the classroom are endless.


"Like actors, teachers have a message to convey -- and this is best accomplished by incorporating proven acting skills such as animation in voice and body, use of suspense and surprise, role-playing, props, classroom space, and humor."

EW: What aspects of actors' training do you think should be incorporated into teachers' training?

Sargent Mester: The two key elements from actors' training that are not typically covered in most teacher training programs are: a) nonverbal expressiveness and b) adaptation to audience. Both should be covered extensively for pre-service teachers. Nonverbal expression (e.g. facial expression, vocal expression, physical movement and use of artifacts) is a tool that allows the user to place emphasis, to clarify and to recapture flagging attention. Actors work on perfecting their range and fluency in these nonverbal domains and given that teachers share those goals, they, too, should learn and hone nonverbal techniques.

The second issue about audience adaptation relates to your earlier question about what todays teachers should be doing differently than those of previous generations. Actors know and prepare to adapt to the reality that no two audiences are ever the same. The result for them is that no two performances are ever the same. Likewise, teachers face the daunting challenge of preparing for each class as if it were the first time they ever covered that particular material. Doing so keeps the material fresh and their enthusiasm kindled, resulting in a dynamic and successful learning experience for the students.

Dr. Tauber: There are, of course, some actors and actresses who assert with pride that they have never taken an acting course in their lives. So be it. The fact is that most actors work long and hard on learning and sharpening skills that make them more effective performers. These are the same skills that have been used since the beginning of mankind to secure attention, hold interest, and to inform and excite an audience. It is no different in teaching. Our text, Acting Lessons for Teachers: Using performance Skills in the Classroom, identifies and explains the performance skills that should be incorporated into teachers pre- or inservice-training

This e-interview with Cathy Sargent Mester and Dr. Robert T. Tauber is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World


Published 05/09/2007