A few weeks ago, I was teaching a clown workshop in downtown Baltimore. It was the final class of a month-long course I offered on the Michael Chekhov Technique to actors. For people who don’t know much about clown — or acting, for that matter — such a class can sound, well, easy. To actors who have trained in clown, it’s exactly the opposite. Clown training gets at the very core of who we are as humans. The exercises require tons of courage and vulnerability. For one, to experience clown, you must be willing to fail, for it is the experience of failure, of really not knowing what you’re doing, that makes the clown possible to exist in the first place.
There are many reasons why actors love to do this work, and this training can lead to any number of applications in their art. But what I find wonderful is the way that this work — excruciating as it may be at times — is addictive. Actors want more and more. And while I have personal reasons for why I love clown training, a colleague of mine who was there (and for whom clown is entirely new) shed some insight on why we might love this work so much. His words got me thinking about teaching and learning generally; I’ll get to that later.
Towards the beginning of the night, I had ten people line up and face each other — five on one side of the stage and five on the other (this is an exercise I learned from Lenard Petit). They stood about four feet apart and simply followed my directive to make eye contact with their partner across from them. And then I took them on a twenty-minute guided exercise where they had to maintain eye contact the whole time while opening their heart to their partner. I asked them to imagine their partner’s life: as a child, teenager, as happy and sad — essentially, as a whole person. Easy, right? Well . . .
Whenever I’ve done this exercise, and I have done it many times with groups all over, I see similar results. First, the exercise usually ends with hugs, and then we debrief. Participants talk about how they started to see the other person as complete, as singular. This is important for the clown since he or she is always seeking out an audience the way a child would: openly, fully, joyfully.
But at that class, one of the participants, Matt, said it was like going through the “five stages of joy,” a reference to Kubler-Ross’s famous study of how accept death. I asked him to explain. He said that, when the exercise began, he laughed and was self-conscious. Then he said that he had the thought, “Okay. I guess we’re doing this.” And then he said that he started to see his partner — a friend whom he’s known for awhile — as a complete person. This was, I know, three stages, but that’s not the point: he felt connected with her in a new way, a deep way. It took him awhile, but he hung in there, and he reaped the benefits of this exercise as preparatory to the other work we’d been doing that night.
This was instructive to me about professional development for faculty in schools — and probably for any learning experience. For the most part, faculty are used to being at the head of the room, in control and in full knowledge of what they’re doing. If they are successful, they may see no reason to broaden their understanding of teaching and learning. Grant Lichtman talks about this as the kind of innovation-deadening inertia that prevents change in successful schools (see #EdJourney, “Chapter 5: More Bumps in the Road: The Next Five Obstacles to Innovation”). So, what to do when the leaders of a school, who tend to be thinking about the whole institution strategically, face the task of ensuring school relevancy when teachers — for perfectly understandable reasons — might perceive “change” to be merely the same old professional development fad that will blow over?
Strong schools communicate their vision and direction clearly and frequently. This is a must. Tell the story! But the more difficult challenge is the actual work of helping teachers learn something new. As a classroom teacher, I know that I want to understand 1) why we are doing this and 2) when will we have the time to do it?
I think we might learn from clowns (wow, did I love writing that sentence!). Accept that introducing new ideas and practice will be uncomfortable at times and will be resisted. Plan for that. Faculty need the time to raise a skeptical eyebrow, to question, to resist, to accept, and (perhaps) to celebrate. And, despite the direction a school is moving — and that we can take as a given, as a non-negotiable — teachers still need to have choice of how to make that direction work for them as professionals.
Here are a few other thoughts that occur as I write this:
- If you undertake an initiative at your school, stick with it. Avoid one-day PD workshops that have no context or strategic plan. Get speakers/facilitators back to do follow-up work with teachers.
- Allow teachers to practice what they need to learn; avoid having them be passive in a darkened auditorium on a professional day. If they’re learning about PBL, have them try it themselves. No one ever learned to play trumpet by only reading about it.
- Ask them to work part of this training into a measurable goal for the year and follow up with them about.
- Ask teachers to share their work and practice at subsequent professional days; their own teaching will help them deepen their understanding while increasing faculty buy-in.