Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Teaching as the Performance Art of Engagement

It's been a while since I thought about it, but a reader recently reminded me of and inquired about a blog post from 2010 in which I opined about "Teachers as Performers." After twenty-eight years in the classroom, I'd say I now realize the key is not just performance or entertainment, but the art of engagement. If the teacher creates an engaging lesson that is tailored to the students sitting in front of him or her, then the "entertaining" quality can take many different forms. Despite my introverted loner nature, I am on stage in class most of the time, and my teaching generally has pretty high energy or intensity. However, over the years as I've noted the downside to that for students who don't quite "get" me, I've actually tried to approach each and every year with the goal of being the "kinder and gentler" Mr. Mazenko.

For me, the performance aspect became my shtick early in my career, and it seemed almost necessary and certainly more comfortable to do it that way. That high intensity approach probably has much to do with my first job out of college -- teaching English as a second language in a private language school in Taiwan. Though I trained to be a high school literature and writing teacher, I was teaching elementary school kids, and even kindergarten for a year, in Taiwan. The fun, engaging performance style connected with the kids who were learning English because they had no choice. The rather rigid, or "canned," curriculum was centered on games and activities as well. The school and the parents liked that high energy approach.

After five years teaching in cram schools in the evening, I returned to the States and taught middle school for a couple years at a Catholic school in the city of Chicago before transitioning to high school in a middle class suburban district. And, at each stop along the way, I just found a performance approach seemed to equal engagement. In all honesty, I now realize I may have been overestimating the engagement level, especially when I consider the insight that "too often school is a place where kids go to watch adults work." I also had a great mentor who once advised me to make sure I don't "become a caricature of myself." Reflecting on these ideas is helpful. We do need to be "on" quite a bit, but it's important to remember we can also be human beings and be vulnerable. Otherwise, it's easy to burn out.

Reflection is the key. Be thoughtful about what you do every day, and ultimately be true to yourself and what your style of engagement is; for at then end of the bell, the only important consideration is whatever works. Just teach kids. Not just content. Not only skills. Teach the kids.

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