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Today's Teachers Need to Learn to Perform in Front of a Camera

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It is not common knowledge that all instruction is a performance, every teacher an actor, and every classroom a theater. I’m not sure if this fact is simply a dirty little secret, or an indication of the teaching profession’s disproportionately low value to society.

Rarely is a classroom audience so self-motivated that a teacher can pull off a lecture with merely a straightforward recitation of facts. The teacher’s challenge is not so much presenting information on a topic for students to memorize, but rather persuading the students to believe that the material being taught is worth knowing. If it weren’t so, the teaching profession would have died out in step with popularization of the printing press.

The worthy feat of convincing students to think hard about what they’re being told and shown requires the teacher to adopt a class-time persona that’s suitable for such a demanding performance. Any skepticism about this claim, that great teaching requires the adoption of a persona, withers under the bright lights and the vacant stare of the camera lens when teaching with video.

When teaching effectively to a camera, the first significant hurdle to leap is to find your voice—to adopt this persona that is a little bit bigger, more authoritative, more on than your baseline personality. When teaching to a class face-to-face, this persona tends to be brought out through the natural social group dynamic feedback loop between you and your students: Good teachers are naturally motivated by motivated students. Seeing the wheels turning and the lights igniting gooses the enthusiasm. Nightmare classes, where none of the students are engaged, suffer from the same dynamic: It’s a dreadful, Sisyphean slog toward your positive persona when the students are having none of it.

When you replace the live student audience with a webcam, it is normal for teachers to find themselves back in the nightmare classroom, without positive reinforcement to bring out the great teacher within. Educators achieve transformational growth when they can teach excellent lessons to a camera, mastering their performance persona, without the benefit of the feedback loop of a live audience. Regular practice at it may be even more valuable than the resulting collection of great curricular video.

The key to training yourself to adopt a persona suitable for teaching is to be very deliberate and disinterestedly pragmatic about your teaching persona. You need to cultivate and nurture that persona from the primordial soup of your early days spent learning the discipline. Ask yourself: What persuaded me that this material was worth learning? What sort of character would have done the best job reaching me, and could also reach my students today? Your teaching persona will emerge from a negotiation between that ideal character and what you have the acting chops to pull off. As a half-joking rule-of-thumb, start with the version of yourself that appears exactly two cocktails into a party and work from there. Intentionally separating your research and other professional roles from your teacher persona liberates you to perform at your best—or your silliest, if that’s what it takes.

Ideally, you would be able to enlist a proxy student to sit in on your first few recording sessions to provide constructive feedback on your teaching performance. Training wheels exist to lean on.

Finally, if you feel discomforted by concerns about “authenticity,” consider these harsh critiques:

  1. Imposter syndrome is a mortal enemy of excellence.
  2. Those who are unwilling to sacrifice their own narcissistic need to put their “authentic” selves on display to benefit their students do not have the right priorities to be excellent teachers.

Even if your truest, purest self-image is the perfect character to teach your material, you can’t cram your full personality into a few videos. Deliberate simplification and amplification reveals the accessible persona that students need. Students recognize this as authentically skillful teaching.

[This article appears in the November/December 2018 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Teaching as a Performance."]

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