Teachers Are Improvisers

Teachers are improvisers.  The profession is, at its core, improvisational.  So, to understand teaching one must see it as a process and an art form.

This does not mean that teachers don’t have to plan, or that anyone can do it with the skill and dexterity of a seasoned pro- the paradox of any improvisational art form is that it is easily accessible for beginners to try and even have success, but true mastery can take many lifetimes.  Like any true art form, doing it well takes planning, practice, patience and skill.  It requires a willingness to pour one’s heart and soul into it, to be vulnerable, to embrace success and to accept failure.

At its best, a classroom is an exercise where the teacher and the student are performers.  Together they create an environment where learning takes place.  A teacher’s job is to be a conduit connecting students to a body of knowledge and skill.  It is in that moment where teaching becomes an art.  It comes in the form of the constant adjustments and decisions that are made spontaneously as they endeavor to bring their students to that ever elusive next level of understanding or ability.

The medium of the classroom consists of a wide array of style, technique, strategy, activity and format that is forever being adjusted and rearranged to suit the needs of the students in the room.  The simple act of reading a passage as a class involves dozens of choices on the part of the teacher.  Do they read independently or as a group?  If the passage is read out loud, does the teacher read or do the students?  If so, which students?  One student might need the practice to improve her fluency, but giving her that time means that others may struggle to follow.  So maybe this student gets a less crucial section of the reading.  Now this teacher is evaluating the importance of each passage to the understanding of the concepts in the reading and applying it to her knowledge of her student’s reading fluency.  Maybe instead they will read it to each other in small groups of three or four, then report out.  This means that students need to be placed into groups, a task that brings with it the consideration of dozens of variables—reading levels, friendships, gender, attitude, etc.  This is just a sample of the types of choices and adjustments that teachers make, on the fly, every day, and this is just for the reading portion of a lesson, never mind what is going to be done with this new knowledge, or the evaluation process to determine if each student understood what was read.

It is possible, I suppose, to pre-plan for all of these factors, and I imagine that some try.  However, even when we set aside the practical issue of how much time that would take, this still does not take into account that teachers are connecting a living, breathing group of individual students to a living, breathing curriculum.  Nothing is static.  Kids change by the hour.  A typically focused student can be completely distracted by an event that happened the night before.  Students that didn’t know each other in September can be dating in November.  A kid that never cared might decide that today he is going to try.  On the curriculum side, a new discovery could put an entire Science lesson on its head.  A movie adaptation of a book that is being read in class will alter forever how students interpret the story, and no matter what one’s political views, a civics class during Barak Obama’s presidency is a very different experience to the same lesson while Donald Trump is in office.  Even a new program or teacher in their previous grades will change their perspectives and background knowledge while in class.  Nothing in a classroom is static.  So if teaching is, lessons will become less effective.  To be current and relevant, a teacher must watch, and listen and adjust to their students in real time, and in hundreds of different ways.  That is the very definition of improvisation.

Skillful teachers teach in the moment.  They don’t just talk, they listen, they adjust, they observe, they push.  When covering a concept they try to go just deep enough to make it challenging and interesting, but not so deep that students become lost and confused.  With individual students they try to be understanding, but not a pushover, challenging without being overwhelming.  It is that “sweet spot” that teachers are constantly trying to find and maintain.  And because everything is always in flux, that spot is a moving target.

Most students can recognize a skilled teacher within the first minutes of the first class.  This may seem silly to some, but when one understands teaching as an improvisational art form, it becomes more understandable.  There is an “it” to teaching, just as there is an “it” to playing music.  This “it” is hard to quantify or explain, but it is easy to recognize.  Two musicians can play the same song, with the same notes, using the same instrument but the experience will never be the same.  Even if they are both masters of their craft, the concerts will feel very different.  If only one is at a master level, the difference will be glaring, even to the most casual of listeners.  This master player will be on a different plane—he will be “in the zone,” every moment will be an experience.  The same is often said about special athletes—one can tell they have ‘it’ the minute they step on the court.  That quality exists in teaching as well.

The question then becomes, how do we recognize the “it” in teachers?  What can we do to train teachers so they can develop that “it” within themselves?  The answer to this question is that we need to recognize and embrace the improvisational nature of teaching, and build a training and professional development model from this.  For too long the artistry and process of teaching has been ignored and we have instead focused on the tools that teachers use—a list of outcomes, a set of standards, a program of lessons, new technology, a host of practices.  A solid teacher (one who has “it”) can take any of those things and be successful, just as a talented violinist can sound awesome playing any song, using any violin handed to her.

For the most part, teachers have been provided with those tools, and thrown into the classroom with the hope that they either have “it” naturally, or that they can find “it" quickly.  Does it make any sense for our schools, and students that we should simply hope for savants to wonder into the profession?  We need to find a way to actively train and practice that “it” as a core skill.

I hold that the “it” of teaching is improvisation.   Luckily, the process and artistry of improvisation has been studied and developed for generations—just not in the field of education.  Music and theater has been using improvisation as a training and performance method for generations.  Our starting point needs to be to discover what those art forms have to teach us. 

Musicians listen and adjust to the other artist they are playing with as well as to adjust to the room and audience.  In Jazz, musicians start with a basic structure, and are encouraged to explore the infinite possibilities within that structure.  In improv theater, artists are taught to listen with an eagerness to change, to seek out and recognize offers and say “yes, and…” without knowing where it might take them.  Both groups learn how to fill a room and take charge, but also how to pull back and let things happen, then they practice how and when to switch between those two rolls with ease and dexterity.  Lastly, they learn how to avoid letting the fear of failure control what they do and don’t do, by letting themselves fail, learning from it and moving on.  This, to them, is a crucial part of the learning process.  Mostly, they are taught to create, and maintain, an atmosphere of trust and acceptance, because they know that this is the only environment where true growth can happen.

Every teacher who has earned the respect of their students and peers know these things, if not directly than instinctively.  However, they have had to learn them on the job, through trial and error.  If we accept that teaching is an improvisational art form, and learn from the masters of that craft, we can begin to develop a vocabulary and structure that will enable more teachers to reach new levels of skill and mastery.