On teaching: some lessons via David Byrne

In February 2009, we went to see David Byrne and his band at Radio City Music Hall. The tour marked the occasion of Byrne’s new album, Everything That Happens Happens Today, with Brian Eno.

When the curtain opened, the audience saw the full band and dancers dressed in white and poised to play and Byrne himself also dressed in white but with his back to the audience. We could see his guitar strapped to him, although it was partly blocked from our view by his back.

We don’t expect this as audience: our first encounter with the performer ignoring us. He’s there for us, right?

In my seventh row seat, however, the teacher in me — immediately and without much reflection — got it. Facing an audience takes so much out of a person, even if he is accustomed to that encounter, that Byrne was delaying that moment. He was on stage and yet easing his way into it.

This memory and its interpretation is clearly my projection of an inner state on Byrne’s; I actually have no idea for this back-to-the-audience stance. (Indeed, when I mentioned this to Jimmy, who has a different memory of the show, he said, “Maybe Byrne was talking to the drummer and the curtain suddenly went up, and he was caught there.”) This interpretation is about me and my relationship to my audience, i.e. students, much in the way my dream about Beck was about me.

Unless you are a raging extrovert and love the limelight, it takes some psychic sturdiness and a little push to get one’s self, as a teacher, to stand up in front of those students every day and really be the teacher.

Today, writing in the New York Times about his experiences as high school teacher of students with learning disabilities (please read his great essay!), William Johnson describes one dimension of the job that requires special fortitude:

Like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

[…] If our students are not learning, the let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies.

And if they are college students, sometimes they just fall asleep.

Even though the work of class preparation — syllabus design, lesson planning, paper reading and grading — is labor intensive, the work of being present and communicating to and with one’s students requires a kind of emotional labor that I call (or someone else more incisive than me calls, I can’t remember) activation energy. The best definition I can come up with for this is the igniting and using of one’s self to set the activity of others in motion. In terms of students, this activity may be internal and intellectual or imaginative, or it may be external, physical, and even interpersonal.

Teaching only works if there’s learning, and learning requires activity. Students really can’t learn by sitting there like lumpen sponges and letting the classroom goings-on wash over them. Students have to meet the teacher’s activation energy with their own.

And so using my activation energy to prompt happenings in other people… shoot, that’s hard. Days not in the classroom are generally easier days.

I’m not writing this in order to argue my job is harder than the work of others. I don’t believe that. No doubt many jobs involve deliberate and challenging social interactions (e.g., police officers, airline ticket agents, social workers) or audience encounters that require activation energy.

One point Johnson makes, though, may be particular to a teacher’s job: our awareness of being evaluated daily, hourly, and minutely by our audience.

The first semester I taught, at Wheelock College in the fall of 2003, I had a student who didn’t like me. This wasn’t paranoia; she really didn’t like me. Let’s face it: I was a new teacher, and I was practicing on them. (This is true of all new teachers, or even of experienced teachers teaching new classes.) She glared at me constantly, and once I turned around quickly from the board and caught her in the act of making a funny face at my back for her classmates’ benefit. They giggled, although the instant I turned they froze. So did she.  Later, at my borrowed desk (I was an adjunct), I reflected on the moment, tried to cut my disturbed feelings down to size, and asked myself, “Why am I doing this?”

There are (emotionally) easier jobs.

Okay, so why do I keep doing this? Why, when people ask me about my work, do I answer, “I love teaching”?

David Byrne helped me again with insight into a teacher/performer’s job when he wrote on his blog about the relationship of singer to audience :

As a sometime performer I wonder how much of what I do on stage is mirrored. Scientists claim that physical movement is commonly mirrored, but what about all the other stuff that we enjoy? When I sing, does everyone in the audience “sing” too? Mentally at least, it appears they do. The simulated and recreated feelings in a song performance are not just imparted through some intellectual understanding; instead, the audience members have the same feelings that I have, their vocal neurons firing with mine and yes, we become one hive mind. Sounds creepy, but that might be where the pleasure lies.

Sometimes — not every minute of every class, and not every class, and not every day — there is this moment when it all comes together, and the song I sing as teacher meets a group of students who are ready to stand up and dance, who engage, who look at me and around at each other, who speak or write or listen or close read or scribble on post-it notes or do some other thing I have suggested they do, and whose activity as learners meets my activity as teacher.

When this happens, it is a feeling like no other. A hive mind, as Byrne calls it. For me, it’s like we are quietly building a small kingdom together, on a cloud or in an imaginary world which is a better place than the one we live in now, which works in the way we want it to work. Really, it feels that big.

I am not a fool. I know that this particular emotional experience is going on only inside me, and that students are having their own emotional experiences that they may describe otherwise. But I also believe, based on my felt sense, that if nothing else we are having a ‘we’ experience, which is only possible when a teacher has made herself ready for it and when the students bring themselves to the place where it happens.

A lot of times as a teacher I do not experience this magic. But enough times I do.

Image credits: “David Byrne, Paris, Olympia, 25.03.09,” by megathud on Flickr via a Creative Commons license; and Jane, teaching, April 2008, by Eli Guterman

2 thoughts on “On teaching: some lessons via David Byrne

  1. I felt this coaching – labor intensive and requires a lot of emotional energy! I’d argue that this is only true for teachers who measure themselves against the reactions and interactions from their students. No matter how exhausted you are however, the performance must go on – and whether the result is applause or boos…at least you know they were listening.

  2. By “this,” do you mean that intensity and emotional energy is only experienced by teachers who are concerned with student reactions/interactions? Interesting…. Are there teachers who don’t care? But they must be motivated by something (if not the students): what could it be?

    I so agree that the performance must always go on. And when I am exhausted, I try to give myself a pep talk in advance, because I don’t want to bring exhaustion to teaching. So, in advance of class, I never say internally: “I can’t wait until this is over.” I might say: “This is an important assignment, and I can really help them learn it.” And: “Smile!” — I got the smile one from Grace several years ago, btw. I don’t always do it automatically, so I prompt myself to turn on when I enter the room.

    Emily, I have sees you coach. You are full of energy and push, with a big smile. That can motivate your swimmers a lot!

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