Teaching is as Much About Fucking It Up as Improvising Is

My teaching assistants tend to freeze up on the first day of class. They worry about having what to teach. They worry about their observations qualifying. They feel like imposters.
 
You’re going to fuck it up.
You are. We all do. But in doing so, you make it more okay for your students to fuck it up when they improvise. Especially when you point it out.
 
As teachers, not only do we give guidance, we create the environment within which that guidance is given. A place that is, hopefully, fun and safe. A place where it’s okay to fuck things up, including for the teacher. We all need permission to fuck it up. You’re the one that they look to for that permission and when you lead by example, it becomes clearer. Saying things like “Let’s figure this out together.” or “I’m going to try some shit that may help, but may make things worse.” or anything of the like that shows that you are with them and not necessarily above them.
 
You’re not going to have all the answers.
You’re there to facilitate the conversation. That’s different from being the one in the room with all the answers. Improv has just happened, and we want to learn from it as a group. Help guide that conversation. Don’t worry about having the answers yet.
 
In that world, doesn’t any observation about their scene help? Sure, it does. Start with what you enjoyed. Start with whatever stood out to you. See how they respond to that. Did they even notice what worked about the scene? Did they realize choices they were making and opportunities that came up? Probably not.
 
You have more of a vocabulary than they do.
By vocabulary, I don’t mean the jargon of improv: status, game, etc. Students often don’t know how to talk about their improv subjectively. When you ask them open-ended questions like “How did that feel?” the response will be similarly vague. It will usually be “Fine” or a similar non-committal answer. They just don’t know where to begin.
 
Give them a little more of a foothold with your questions:
“Where did you enjoy yourself most in that scene?”
“Was there anything that surprised you?”
“Were there any moments of confusion for you in that scene?”
 
We want to avoid one-word answers. If you ask a yes-or-no question, make sure it is one that has an inherent and immediate follow up. Draw them away from what they just worked on and might be judging themselves over and help them learn from it.
 
It’s always about the next time.
It’s really easy to get caught up in what to point out, what not to point out, to point out too much or focus on or to go on too long on certain minutiae. The key is thinking “What will help them most the next time they improvise?” That scene they just did is only an illustration of how it could go next time they get up there.
 
That scene is never going to happen again, but certain aspects might. The way that improviser backed down from their initiation might happen again. The way they lit up at their character choice could happen again. If you look towards helping them in their next scene, you’ll know better what to focus on as their teacher.
 
Think about how you grew as an improviser.
When you first started out, you had no idea what you were doing. You were fucking it up. You took some risks. You developed your instincts. Now, you’re more comfortable in it. You’ve got a better sense of what you have to offer as an improviser.
 
Now, it’s time for you to go through that whole process again, but as a teacher. Luckily, you have the illustration of how you went through that as an improviser to show you that you can do it.
 
And that gives you the tools to do it again, as a teacher.

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