Education, at its most engaging, is performance art. From the moment a teacher steps into the classroom, students look to him or her to set the tone and course of study for everyone, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic students. Even teachers who have moved away from the traditional lecture format, toward more learner autonomy-supportive approaches such as project-based and peer-to-peer learning, still need to engage students in the process, and serve as a vital conduit between learner and subject matter.
Teachers are seldom trained in the performance aspect of teaching, however, and given that every American classroom contains at least one bored, reluctant, or frustrated student, engagement through performance may just be the most important skill in a teacher’s bag of tricks.
I asked Teller, a former Latin teacher and the silent half of the magical partnership known as Penn & Teller, about his years as an educator, and the role performance played in his teaching. Teller taught high school Latin for six years before he left to pursue a career in magic with Penn, and in the 40 years since, the duo have won Emmys, Obies, and Writer’s Guild Awards, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As our conversation meandered through Catullus, Vergil, Shakespeare, and education theory, he explained why he believes performance is an essential, elemental aspect of effective teaching.
The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.
As that symbol, Teller argued, the teacher has a duty to engage, to create romance that can transform apathy into interest, and, if a teacher does her job well, a sort of transference of enthusiasm from teacher to student takes place. The best teachers, Teller contended, find a way to teach content while keeping students interested. “If you don’t have both astonishment and content, you have either a technical exercise or you have a lecture.” Teller’s educational philosophy is rooted in the philosopher A.N. Whitehead’s “rhythm of education,” a theory that asserts learning happens in three stages: romance, precision, and generalization.
Romance, argued Teller, precedes all else. “I’m 5’8” and was about 160 pounds those days, so I was not the kind of person who could walk into a room of rowdy kids and [they] would just pay attention to me. What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.”