The Role of a Lifetime

Several years ago I was asked to write an article about the similarities between between teaching and acting. The article, originally titled "You Are Who You Pretend To Be," was published in the second edition of Acting Lessons for Teachers: Using Performance Skills in the Classroom by Robert T. Tauber and Cathy Sargent (Praeger, 2006). With a few minor revisions to update the original version, here's a copy of the article and its tribute to Frank Dooley, a master teacher who left an indelible mark on a multitude of New Mexico math students and basketball players.

My high school math teacher did not tolerate foolishness. His class was designed to help students learn, and he used time productively. He had a sense of humor, but his humor was geared toward the task of learning algebra. He could tell good stories, but the stories led to a math problem that needed solving. He was relaxed, but his students never wasted time. I knew to show up ready to learn or confront his disapproval. I felt compelled to do my best because I knew he would never accept a second-rate effort.

I am no longer be able to solve the algebra problems I conquered in Mr. Dooley’ class. I am certain, however, that if my studies in math had continued in college, I would have been prepared for success. After all, I had a great math teacher in high school. Mr. Dooley not only taught me to solve algebraic equations, but also to take learning seriously. He made sure I excelled at every task.

The fact that Mr. Dooley was able to make such a difference in my life — and in the lives of many other students — came from something intangible. His success did not come from the textbook he used or the teaching strategies he learned at a university. He was a successful teacher because of who he was as a person. Indeed, it may be that the secret to good teaching is found in one simple idea: Good teaching stems from good people.

Students will work hard for a teacher they respect. Students know whether a teacher is in the classroom for reasons of the heart. They know whether the teacher loves the subject and has faith in students. If students sense that a teacher is working hard for their benefit, they are more likely to put a little extra effort into an assignment. They are more likely to try to learn something new. Mr. Dooley was such a teacher. Students sensed that if they did what he said, they would succeed. Students sensed he was on their side.

When I was in high school, I thought of Mr. Dooley as a mythical figure, a character larger than life. He was the basketball coach at my high school and had already won several state championships. Even so, I now realize something I would never have imagined in high school — Mr. Dooley was just a man, a human being like the rest of us. After spending thirty-five years as an educator, I now understand that the mythical teacher who inspired me to do my best was in large part a role assumed by a man who understood the responsibilities of his profession. Teachers, like actors on a stage, assume a role to play. Mr. Dooley played his role well and, in the process, helped many students.

Success for a teacher depends, in large part, on the role the teacher plays in front of students. Can the teacher inspire students and ignite flames of curiosity? Is the teacher the type of person who challenges students to do their best? Good teachers, like good actors, know they must create a well-defined character for an audience.

Good teachers also know that teaching demands full immersion in the role they are playing. The teacher must continue to play the role in the hallways between classes, at the Saturday night basketball game, and when running into students at the mall. After all, it might not be what a teacher does in the classroom that most affects a student’s life. It might be the words a teacher speaks while talking with someone at the grocery store or in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that inspires that person to work a little harder or be a better person. Teachers might even find themselves playing a role in front of a former student several years after the student has left the classroom.

New teachers must be aware that once they enter the classroom their profession will require them to play a role. Whether in the classroom or at the department store, teachers have a deep and profound responsibility to serve the needs of their students. Teachers have an ethical obligation to find a way to inspire their students, and they must never abandon that obligation.

Success as a teacher demands that the character a teacher develops must seem authentic to students. In the same way that a movie audience can spot a bad actor in the first reel, students can detect a fraudulent teacher on the first day of school. Teachers must therefore draw on the imagination of an actor to capture a sense of authenticity in the role they play. Students know whether their teacher is dedicated to the profession or is just marking time until the bell rings at the end of the day.

Teachers, like actors, must find elements of their own personality in the role they are playing. Teachers must find the part of their spirit that wants to help students and then bring that spirit into the classroom. They must accentuate the part of their personality that is honest, caring, and full of love. They must shine a spotlight upon the part of their soul that wants to give students a bright future and make the world a better place.

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” Teachers who might be distracted by circumstances in their personal lives must pretend to be focused on the concerns of the students. Teachers should hope that no matter where students end up after leaving school they will always remember their teachers as the people who never gave up on them.

Teachers are human beings, and they make mistakes. Like anyone else, a teacher might not always be the person he or she would like to be. Every teacher should try, however, to pretend to be the person who motivates students. Every teacher should try to act the part. Even if a teacher has played the part for several years, he or she can assume the attitude of a good actor and know that this year’s students have never seen the performance. Each teacher must play the part well. Nothing more than the success and well being of children is at stake.

For me, nobody played the role better than Mr. Dooley.

Note: One of Bill Richardson's last proclamations as Governor of New Mexico was to declare November 15, 2010, as "Frank Dooley Day."