Is it just a “performance”?

When I was a TA for fluid mechanics, I was given the opportunity to give students weekly recitation. This 45-min class was usually divided into two parts: I will work through some example problems for that week’s topic first, and then followed by some experimental demonstrations that facilitate the students’ understanding of some concepts.

This recitation was optional. And the professor stressed that I won’t get too many of them, you know, just to make me less nervous. However, when I walked into the classroom in the first week, I got more than 30 students! That was two thirds of the class! I was totally taken aback by this for a minute, and then, without choice, I proceeded with caution and finished my first class.

It is amazing how teaching can get you addicted. Well, at least for me. I started to enjoy standing in front of the students and getting their attention. And inevitably, this feeling got me disappointed several weeks later, in fact, exactly the week after spring break, when some students were still in their holiday moods. I got only five students that week. I felt so depressed that I ran to the professor and asked if it was because the way I teach. Was it because I was a bad teacher?

He said:

“No. I don’t think so. Sometimes students got busy or they don’t feel like the need to attend a recitation this week. So you don’t need to be sad. As long as you think you are doing your best. This is like a performance. Your performance. You got prepared, go up stage and perform the teaching. No matter how many audiences you’ve got, it does not affect the way you teach. ”

I was convinced. This made me feel much better and I totally bought the idea of seeing teaching as a performance.

But is it really?

As I learnt recently, no. It’s better if we see ourselves as facilitators for students’ learning than as teachers. Teaching should not be a one-way knowledge indoctrination, but should be an interactive process. I still appreciate the professor’s saying that helped me to rebuild my confidence, but teaching is totally not a performance. We should, from some aspects, be cautious about our gestures, voices, and postures that can affect our communication, but we should never see the teaching podiums as our stages. Teaching is not about us. Teaching is about the students.

12 thoughts on “Is it just a “performance”?”

  1. Let me say something about performance, do you feel performing is only a talent? I do not think so. You can find a good actor who can be unconvincing in one of his roles, you also can find an unknown actor who is performing very well in one role. I think it depends on how you perform like how you teach. My idea is if you believe in something, you’ll perform it very well. Again, in teaching if you believe in your role of illustrating something, you will prepare well for this.
    I faced similar situations before as the one in your Fluid mechanics class when I was working in my TA position for some years. I found out that sometimes it was simply that students feel that they got everything in the lecture and do not want a follow-up.

    1. Thanks for the reply Abdel! I do agree with you on the performance part, I just want to say that while performing is more of a thing of one’s own, teaching should be more about the students, too. Teaching should be more interactive.

  2. Great point! I think that teaching should be an engaging process and that there is not one way to go about it… However tone of voice and postures are important factors which can help with engaging the students. This does not mean that we have to be good performers, but it simply means that we have to keep our listeners engaged… For example this does require a non monotonic voice tone and gestures which get the listener exited. However I think that as long as our main goal is to make the class, interactive, hands on, and fun the rest will come naturally at some point.

  3. There are a couple of things here I would like to address. The first is I completely agree with you that act of teaching is not about the teacher but about the student. This is a brilliant statement and one that should not be overlooked.

    The art of performing is about so much more than the artist. It’s about the work being performed, the relationship between characters, the piece of music, and ultimately the connection between the artist and the audience. In that aspect, teaching is very much about performing.

    To me, performance comes from a place of laser sharp focus, being present within the moment, being aware of your audience, and being fully, totally, and completely prepared. I firmly believe teaching exists in the same place, uses the same set of skills, and takes takes time and training to master.

    I think in your example you confuse the idea of a performer with the idea of a celebrity. Celebrity is a status. Performing is an art.

    1. Thanks Willie for your thoughts. Your last paragraph does make me think. Maybe I did misunderstand the meaning of performance and thank you for pointing that out. But I’m glad we have agreement on teaching. 🙂

  4. It’s been said in the previous comments already, but I agree that there is much about teaching that is a performance. Teaching in the classroom should not be a show in itself (that’s a seminar), but the instructor should prepare and illustrate their passion for the subject much in the same way as a performer does. Flare is also a handy toolset as you purvey information to the class–why not put in extra effort to make the delivery device as interesting and fun as possible?

    I really appreciate your professor’s advice about why students didn’t show up that week and hope you have gained much more from them since then! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks for this post Yi. It is extremely reminiscent of my own experience two weeks ago teaching my first undergraduate course where I gave a presentation as a performance to cover up my nerves. I felt if I started “teaching” my nerves would come out. The Professor later told me I looked very comfortable up there, but I felt that the students did not ‘learn’ much. I saved myself, but left others out to try (or so I felt). The professor rejected my feeling and said I did a good job, but gave me other important advice.

    The problem I felt is precisely what you elucidated here. I gave a performance, but did not teach. I took the “stage of a teacher” and acted the part. But I very quickly saw the following class that the professor was “teaching” (she didn’t speak for more than 15 minutes) while I gave a one hour presentation. Two very different modes of teaching; hers was far superior. Thanks for this post!

  6. Nice post! Thanks so much for that. I was just reminded that I have experience as a teacher.. It’s been a while since I’ve been a TA but evidently, I too have experience and can relate. Students sometimes are in the habit of skipping class. However, it seems like you really love teaching. And yes, I affirm. It is not a one way road, I agree. We have to find out what our students need and do it for them. Thanks for your post.

  7. Great post! I really like your emphasize that as teachers our classroom should be student-centric. I think the concept of seeing ourselves as facilitators is important. Having students being engaged and involved in the process of learning is a constant mission. In one of my classes we learned counseling styles such as directing, guiding, and following. I feel as teachers we should also be in the guiding as opposed directing role.

    Thank for sharing!

  8. I agree that teachers should be co-learning along side their students but in my experience teaching has very much been a performance. I tend to exaggerate my enthusiasm and underplay my knowledge of the material when I teach. Sometimes if I ask a question and give the impression that I really don’t know the answer, students seem to feel more confident in offering their ideas. This tends to get a discussion going and then I can guide them to correctly formulate their solutions. In some ways, this is me teaching them. But I really think its my performance that makes students feel like they are part of a learning team with me as simply a more experienced investigator.

  9. I find the concept of a recitation session fascinating. I had to go back and re-look what subject area you are in. I wonder, what is the intent of a recitation session in fluid mechanics? I also wonder if the name of such a session lends itself to a one way transfer of information or performance.

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