I have recently been thinking about a conversation I once had in a supermarket aisle with an old school teacher who I had bumped into, she having recently retired from her career, and me on the cusp of starting my own peregrinations within the world of ESL. She regaled me with the joys of teaching as she had experienced them over the years, but when I asked her about any downsides in her view, she replied that there was just one- that teaching is very tiring. ‘Physically’, I assumed she intended- due to being on one’s feet for much of the time- but she went on to explain it in different terms.
Being constantly ‘on display’ in a way that few other professions necessitate, the teacher has no way of concealing him or herself- behind a computer screen, for instance. This is what makes the work tiring and what, my former teacher joked, accounts for the vast quantities of coffee got through in staff rooms. The metaphor she continued to colourfully present throughout our conversation was one of teaching as a kind performance.
To be sure, teaching is a demanding profession, but on reflection I wonder whether this rather old-fashioned view of teaching is entirely invalid. One would clearly hope that students are not regarded as an audience, precisely because they themselves are meant to be the focus of proceedings, but when we teach, aren’t we attempting, at least at times, to facilitate some transferral of information in a way that is pleasant, even entertaining.
The ‘variables’ involved in a teacher/learner exchange (e.g. the abilities and receptivity of the students) as opposed to the consistencies of a performance (say, of music or acting) might settle the matter once and for all and put paid to the suggestion of any relation between the two, were it not for the possibility of impromptu, unrehearsed performances (my John Coltrane lessons are easily distinguishable from my Haydn lessons), in which the performer adapts their approach to the mood of the people in the room. Don’t we hone and polish our skills as teachers, for delivery, as a performer might do?
I suppose the associations and connotations of ‘performance’, in which the emphasis is on the performer, are too stark to sit very comfortably with the accepted notion of what a teacher is meant to be. The learning process, after all, is about the learner. So my questions are- what are the limits of this comparison between teaching and performance? In what ways is teaching similar to, and different from, performance? Is there any possible merit to be gained from regarding teaching, or aspects of it, as a form of performance?
Director of Studies