Improvisation for Teacher Leaders (or Proof that a Great Haircut Can Change the World)

Written By smcneely

On January 25, 2011

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One evening last week, I headed to the stylist for some overdue maintenance. Typically on these trips, I allow myself the senseless pleasure of catching up on celebrity gossip via the glossy magazines sprinkled throughout the salon. But on this night, I was feeling scholarly, or something like scholarly, with a tendency toward better hair.

I’d been referred a text about teacher leadership, which if you’ve read any of my past posts you know is a bit of an obsession of mine. The book, How Teachers Become Leaders (Lieberman and Friedrich; 2010), is rich with vignettes of teacher leaders dotted by author musings in between so it’s an easy book to skim, scan and extract from even with the whir of a blow dryer in your ear. About 45 minutes into my reading, I jotted the following in my notebook: “Teacher leadership requires both pointed, planned activity and improvised action.” (This is a paraphrase from the text, but you get the point.) What happened next was a ridiculous rambling of scribbles where my brain, rapid-fire, started pulling my other life as a performer together with my current life as an educator. (I love it when that happens.)

Here’s a glimpse of my color-stained notes:

Teacher Leader notes

The idea of improvised action occurs in the day-to-day work of teacher leaders…standing at the copier, discussions amidst hall monitoring, waiting-for-the-meeting-to-begin conversations, etc., and this, I believe, is where all the difference can be made. These improvised moments of leadership are about knowing how to respond when the curtain is down and the audience is just you and the person (or persons) you have in your company. No spotlights, no elaborate sets, costumes or props…just you and the art of leading. This idea isn’t news to me. I’ve been jumping up and down about it since I began training teacher leaders several years ago. What struck me was the parallel between this notion and theatrical improvisation, and that’s where my brain started swirling.

In the world of acting, there are several “rules” by which all improvisation revolves. Depending on whom you ask and where you train there are at least 5 rules, and some sources will refer beyond those to 10 basic improvisational commandments. Here’s a compilation list of both rules and commandments that immediately resonated with me in regards to teacher leadership:

1.       Don’t negate an existing reality

2.       Tell a story and add some history

3.       Make your partner look good

4.       You don’t have to be funny

5.       Enter and exit with a purpose

6.       Be very specific

Think for a moment of when you were called to lead at a moment’s notice and you recall making a real difference. Which of these principles came into play? Did you honor the voice of a smart colleague that rarely gets adequate air-time in front of peers? Maybe you shared a personal story of accomplishment regarding a student other teachers have written off. These subtle moments where for a split second your improvisational muscles flex for the greater good, are the very moments you play the most significant part in leading your peers. We’re all called to lead in our own way, whether we’ve been cast as leaders or not. Brush up on your improvisational skills, and see what kind of scene you can make.