Six tips for teaching in role.

A little while ago I shared a post with suggestions on how to introduce children to a teacher in role for the first time. Here’s the promised follow up – six tips for teaching in role. This includes advice on what seems to be many teachers’ greatest fear – what to do when children resist, or reject the teacher in role.

Tip 1 – assume the best. In my experience, children challenge a teacher in role very rarely – much less often than teachers fear they will! So the first piece of advice is not to use your fears as a reason to write off teacher in role as ‘not for me’ or ‘not for this class’. You may be surprised how readily children are prepared to ‘buy in’. And if you don’t try, you’ll never know!

Tip 2 – give it time. Don’t dismiss the approach if children don’t ‘get it’ first time. As with any other new set of skills you ask children to adopt to help their learning (using a new digital device, for example), you need to be prepared to give them time to become familiar  with it. It gets easier with practice!

Tip 3 – explain the rules of the game. Using the three step transition into role will set you and the children up for success. By explaining the rules of the game you make it more likely that children will get on with the game rather than focussing on working out what the rules are – what’s real, what’s not and so on. Often it’s this ‘figuring out’ process that can be disruptive.

Tip 4 – pull out don’t push on. If you’ve clearly signalled the role, you are protected by the ability to transition OUT of role at any time. It doesn’t mean you have ‘failed’. This is not a naturalistic theatre performance where you are on stage and must stay in character. There is no pressure to ensure ‘the show must go on’ in that sense. Rather, it’s a feature of process drama and mantle that the fiction stops and starts. Participants spend more time OUT of role than in it… So, if a child responds to your transition into role by saying “you’re not really a police officer.” DON’T reply “Oh yes I am!” unless you want a power struggle or a chorus of “Oh no you’re not” like an old fashioned panto…! Instead, step out of role for a discussion (see below). This ability to step between the worlds of the fiction and the classroom, renegotiate and revisit is all part of the approach.

Tip 5 – get past the giggles. Children will often respond with giggles or laughter when they experience teacher in role for the first time. This is a natural response to something strange and new. How you respond to giggles is a matter of judgement. If it is only one or two children and if it seems more important to progress the drama (for example, if you are bringing an important message from the client or introducing a key tension) you might trust that the giggles will gradually subside as the children engage with the tension. You could appeal to them from within the role (‘I’m sorry – I thought I was dealing with a professional team here, was I mistaken?’) Or, if the children seem to be stuck you could pause the drama, step out of role and take the opportunity for a discussion about the tricky feelings that come up in drama work. Be careful of your language though. Rather than ‘telling off’ a child for laughing or resisting a role, try asking them what’s going on for them. Acknowledge that it does feel strange at first to work this way (‘It’s tricky, isn’t it?’) and suggest that if they can work out how to use their imagination and work with you within the drama then interesting things might happen. I remember hearing one teacher saying to her class, “You know, I’ve got the feeling that just the other side of that giggle there’s something really interesting, let’s see if we can move on and find it!” – a lovely way to appeal for focus without demeaning the children.

Tip 6 – treat resistance as a teachable moment. Just occasionally, despite your best efforts and clarity, children will resist the role.  This will probably be for one of two reasons. Either a) they genuinely don’t understand what’s going on or b) they are interested in subverting the usual authority structures of the class and having a joke with the teacher. It’s sometimes hard to tell which of these lies behind the resistance but in both cases the situation can be handled in a similar way. The scenario below illustrates this. Imagine a teacher (female) who has just stepped into role as a male (Wiremu). A student (Alex) challenges the role. Here’s how the teacher could respond and turn the situation into a learning opportunity.

Alex: I didn’t know Wiremu wore lipstick and earrings!

Teacher: I’m just going to stop for a moment and come out of role.

Removes signal prop – a hat

Teacher: Now, someone just raised something quite important there that I think we should talk about. Alex, can you repeat what you said a moment ago when I was in role.

Alex: No, it doesn’t matter

Teacher: I think you were saying it’s tricky to see me as Wiremu when I go into role …?

Alex: Well you aren’t Wiremu. You’re not even a man.

Teacher: Alex is quite right, isn’t he? I’m NOT really Wiremu. That’s exactly what ‘taking on a role’ means. Like I said before, this only works if we agree to use our imaginations. And that’s quite tricky … So,  perhaps  there is something else I can do to help you imagine that I am Wiremu. What do you think?

Alex: Maybe use a deeper voice…

Teacher: OK, let’s try that. I’ll put the hat on and use a deeper voice and you remember to work with me as if I’m Wiremu. Ready to try again?

Alex (nods)

Teacher goes back into role….

This example is from a real classroom interaction in which I was the teacher. In this case Alex (not the student’s real name) was very familiar with the teacher in role strategy and I think he was resisting the role as a way to explore his agency in the situation. He was grinning as he spoke and then looked a bit embarrassed when I came out of role and asked him to repeat himself. His statement, ‘no, it doesn’t matter’ was a signal that my authority as teacher had been restored without ‘telling him off’ and we could probably have finished the conversation there. However, the next bit of the conversation also served a purpose. By reframing the exchange as a positive thing (‘that’s exactly right – that’s how role works!’) what could have been a ‘behaviour management’ moment turned into an opportunity for discussion about drama techniques and how these help us work with someone in role. If you re-read the exchange again, I think you’ll see that the same approach would also be appropriate where participants are resisting the role because of genuine confusion. I have certainly used the same tactic in such situations (though this has only occurred a handful of times in many years).

So there you have it – six tips for teaching in role, including what to do if children resist or reject the role. If you have other suggestions or pointers, please share  in the comments!

Summary of key points.

  • Tip 1 – Assume the best Don’t assume children won’t accept the Teacher in role – most do so really well.
  • Tip 2 – Give it time Understand that working with a teacher in role, like any new skill, takes PRACTICE.
  • Tip 3 – Use 3 step transition  Explain the rules of the game so they can get on with the game.
  • Tip 4 – pull out don’t push on If children resist the role – step OUT of role to renegotiate expectations before stepping back in
  • Tip 5 – get past the giggles This might happen naturally or through acknowledging ‘it’s tricky isn’t it!?’
  • Tip 6 – treat resistance as a teachable moment Say ‘yes you’re exactly right’ not ‘no, you’re wrong’. This reasserts your authority AND reinforces how role works without telling children off.

2 Responses to Six tips for teaching in role.

  1. Cris Sanders September 18, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    Love the ‘yes, you’re exactly right’ message. A kind way to treat difficult kids and help include them.

  2. Kathleen Rose Mendes September 19, 2017 at 7:10 am #

    Wonderful advice. Thank you so much

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