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Teaching as performance art (best done naked)

Sometimes I just don’t have it. The lecture I’m supposed to make is clear in my head, but the words come out in jumbles.

mortar boardFrankly, it’s embarrassing. I have a class to impress. If I don’t impress them, engage them, they lose interest. They lose interest and I’m a failure or, at least, feel like I am.

I can see the loss of students’ interest in all kinds of ways. Eyelids flutter. Students look lost. They play with their phones during the lecture, which is particularly disturbing because it distracts me and throws me further off my game. A few students whisper to each other. In extreme cases, they laugh. This makes me think they are laughing at me. I get more distracted. The more distracted I get, the more likely I am to lose them further.

I try to stay on my game. I know my stuff. Lectures about the formation of Farmers’ Alliances and the development of the Populist movement spill from my lips. The labor movement erupts like a spring out of a bluff face. I can talk at great length about the development of the Jim Crow South and the nation’s racist heritage. In my pre-Reconstruction classes, colonial history comes easy to me. From the Stamp Act to the Compromise of 1850, I have my shit together.

But some days, like today, I don’t prepare like I should. As my lecture outlines advance, it’s as if I’m reading these things for the very first time. I struggle to make connections between one event or trend to others. On days I haven’t prepared, the words don’t flow, they tumble. They are clumsy and fall all over themselves.

lectureI know what I have to do but I procrastinate and skip that work. Since I have a 9 a.m. class, I have to do homework on the weekends so that I’m that confident, self-assured teacher I need to be. I always let it go until Sunday. Sundays, however, are the last days I feel like working. I didn’t work yesterday. I can’t tell you that today’s lecture was a failure, but it wasn’t a complete success. I saw some eyelids droop. A kid who sits in the back because he really doesn’t want to be in class started fiddling with his phone. A few students sat with 1,000-yard stares, unaware they even attended class. In a couple of instances, I could see students doodling. They were bored.

Over the years, I’ve found that the secret to teaching is either staying one step in front of students or acting like I’m one step ahead. I don’t need a greater education than the students, I just have to know a few things that they don’t.

Sometime in the past, my teaching ability sharpened. My first attempts at engaging students halted and hobbled along. I felt like I was on trial every day. I felt the expansiveness of a decent public speaker but would recoil and question myself mercilessly after class. Insomnia plagued me. Doubt haunted me. Self-reproach and loathing accompanied me.

After a time, I became more confident. Doubt and self-depredation faded. I came to evaluate my lectures rather than question them. Soon, lectures became standard. I knew my stuff and could always just use a few notes to keep me on target. I began to stray from hard-boiled criticism of my classroom presence. After a while, I taught as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

This semester, I’m actually lecturing less and engaging students with work. Two days a week in my Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes are set up as lectures. For my Tuesday-Thursday class, I lecture just one day a week, maybe part of another. One class period a week, the students work among themselves on an essay question that will appear on the examination. This week, the students will work one class period on an essay question and one to work on the first writing assignment, which the students must complete in two weeks. Since I ask a lot of students for these writing assignments, they can’t get started too early.

I actually like not lecturing all the time, as I did when I first started. I wrote every lecture from my own store of knowledge. I felt like I had to get through it and struggled to keep up with the students’ reading. Most students comprehended that the lectures were separate from the textbook. Some, however, wondered why I didn’t lecture on what was in the book. They can read. Why should I repeat what the textbook had to say?

But days like today pop up. Twinges of doubt pass through me like electricity. Did I get through to students? Did they walk away with something they didn’t have before? Were my words halting or did they fall off my tongue smoothly and without effort?

Today’s lecture could have been better. I knew the material but did not express it in a way that would make the most bored and disengaged student interested. I didn’t fail. I filled that room, dominated it. At the same time, students didn’t feel intimidated or overwhelmed. The lecture just wasn’t perfect, and I strive for perfection.

Fortunately, there’s always the next lecture. I evaluate what I did wrong or where I didn’t achieve that excellence I’m always looking for. I take those lessons into the next lecture and, hopefully, do better. Flawlessness is a tough standard but one I shoot for. Maybe someday, I’ll get there.

In the end, every class represents an experiment in prying the lids off of young minds and pouring in the poisons of analysis and self-determination. Students don’t understand that now. They may never. But some, a few, will walk out of my class and into the halls of a university. The rest will go into careers, families, and lives that they make on their own. They won’t look back and remember me. But, I hope, they will do better in their endeavors because they took my classes.



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