Teaching teachers

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Photo by Andreea Constandache‎: On the first day of the conference we were asked to mingle and create groups with people we had something in common with. This is the result of the “improv in education”-group.

Teaching teachers. Last week I attended my first Applied Improv Network global conference, in Paris. It was an overwhelming and inspiring experience. During the four days there were lots of talks and workshops, and also Open space-sessions, where participants could pitch their own topics, and connect with other people with common interests.

Together with another participant I pitched the session “IA in Education: Teaching teachers”. We wanted to discuss the special challenges that often appear when your group of students consists of teachers, and maybe share some solutions. I did not take notes during the one hour long conversation, but these are my reflections, based on my memory, a few days after:

In my experience teaching teachers has some very specific challenges:
1) Lead and be led. Teachers are trained to lead, but are not to the same extent used to being led. That means they would have a lower threshold to interrupt the teaching with their own perspectives and reflections than other groups. This poses high demands to your classroom-management.

2) Emotional and analytical mode. When you teach improv-skills, you would like the participants to engage in the exercises, be emotional and intuitive, go by the flow and not be too much “in their head”. Teachers, who know that one of the goals for the workshop is that they will teach the material themselves, will sometimes stop during the exercise, and ask how they should / could teach it. Then they switch to a more analytic mode, they are “in their head”. When you teach teachers you should take this into consideration when planning your workshop.

3) Hostile attitude and resistance. If you are a guest teacher at a school, booked by the headmaster / management, introducing a fun and playful session for the staff, it could generate a surprising reaction of resistance and maybe even hostile attitudes. Even though only 1-20% of the teachers react like this, it will affect your teaching. The reasons for this reaction could be diverse, like “we don’t have the time for another new thing introduced by the management”, or that they have been exposed to out-of-the-comfort-zone-activities and team building-activities that have given them bad experiences in the past . And, of course, facing the fear in a setting you didn’t sign up for voluntarily, could make anyone choose to sit in the back of the room with their arms crossed.

These three challenges seemed to be quite similar in the school systems around the Globe, at least in the countries represented in the Open space session. Here are some ideas on how to deal with them:

  1. Lead and be led.
    a) You should be very clear in the start of the workshop in describing the rules for the workshop. You could describe it as a roleplay, that in this setting the participants should go into character as students. “It is important that you know how your students will experience this!”
    b) An easy way to gain control over the group is to be pedantic – in a friendly way – and stress the importance of i. e. that when we stand in a circle, the circle should be perfect. That if there are more chairs than people, you should remove the extra chair(s) etc. “The friendly pedant” is a very powerful character 🙂

2) Emotional and analytical mode.
a) In the start of the workshop you could address this issue and be explicit about the challenges. Ask the participants to trust that they by the end of the workshop will have all the information they need.
b) Establish some rules for when to go into analytical mode. It could be that sitting down on chairs is the signal, or you do the “T”- time out signal to make it clear that you now will talk “meta-talk”, some sentences about “how to teach what we now just did”.
c) Be efficient in your meta-communication, give the participants 1-3 clues on what is important in teaching the exercise, and then move on quickly. If you don’t, the level of energy will decrease, and the rest of the workshop could end up as a discussion.

3) Hostile attitude and resistance.
a) Much of the job of dealing with this lies in 1 a) and b). By showing that you are in control of the situation, you will create a safe(r) space. Metaphor: Be the captain on the airplane, calm and clear, welcoming to this “flight”. The feeling of someone (you) being responsible and in charge of the situation will make it easier to relax and take part in what is coming.
b) People are not there voluntarily, so you should be generous and underline that no one will be forced to do anything they don’t want, that they can step back, sit down or even leave the room at any point, if they need to. (We had a discussion on if it was ok to say that they could choose to watch the exercises. It could provide a soft start, which makes it easier to jump in later, but at the same time it could increase the stress in the room for the other participants, if they feel that they are observed by bystanders).
c) In circle-games, that do not require eye-contact, it is possible to ask the participants to turn around, looking towards the wall/window, with their back to the center of the circle. People who don’t want to do the exercise (i.e. low status / high status body language) can just stand still, an no one is exposed to others.

Some of these challenges/solutions were brought into the discussion by me, others came up and evolved around the table. Now I have described them in my own words, and I would be so glad if you add something, ask questions, correct me or in other ways bring this further. Ideas and knowledge grow when they are shared! Thank you for reading!

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