AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Teaching Authenticity

Teaching Authenticity - Margery Evans, Chief Executive Officer of AITSL, 11 June 2014.

I was fortunate to attend some of the shows put on as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. There’s something about stand-up comedy - just the comedian and their audience, often in a small room where people are a little bit cramped, sitting in close confines. 

The experience starts with that pre-show air of expectation mixed with an element of trepidation. People want to be entertained, to be transported, to be made to laugh. They want to go along with whatever it is the comedian has in store for them but everyone knows that this could go horribly wrong and there are few things worse than being right there when a comedian bombs. A lone performer on a stage with only a microphone and a spotlight for company, throwing out jokes and all they’re getting back is crickets.

Sound familiar?

Having been witness to a few shows, good and bad, it became clear that the funniest comedians invariably start with an opening patter that connects them with their audience - ‘What’s all this about Melbourne trams and rhinos, then?’ There’s nothing like showing the audience you’re familiar with them and their locale to build connection and empathy.

Once the comedian has you on their side, by showing you they’re on your side, they can take you virtually anywhere - but that initial connection is vital. You’ve got to pay deference to your audience, show them you really care about who they are and where they’re from. Comedy is a serious business!

It strikes me that good teaching can be a comparable kind of experience. I go in and out of lots of classrooms. I see the amazing learning spaces, dynamic teachers who know when to intervene and when to pull back, kids learning together, technology-enriched classrooms and much more. But when I see teaching and learning at its best, I see a relationship, a connection, something that tells me the learner knows the teacher knows them and is on their side. The Canadian Education Association ‘What did you do in school today?' report (2009, page 35-36) talks about this very thing – the importance of positive relationships. A follow up report in 2012 (page 6) found positive relationships to have one of the strongest connections to intellectual engagement. Both reports are worth a good read.

During the festival, I saw one show where the comedian, an Aussie, began one of her skits by talking about her experience of living in London, long distance relationships, a new love interest and missing home. It all got very complicated and a little bit uncomfortable as she related some deeply personal stories but all the while the audience roared with laughter. She was very, very funny.

After the show I found myself asking, ‘What just happened here?’ What we had experienced was an intimate moment where the comedian had shown her human side, her vulnerability, and then used it to bring home the understanding that, far from faltering, she remained at the peak of her comedic powers.

When I think about it, those moments in the show were planned, even contrived. Without careful rehearsal and an enormous amount of practice and learning, the comedian could never have pulled off such a moment, never turned it into an act that began by building empathy and then took us on a journey that had everyone in the room hanging off her every word and laughing with her. 

Her show took place in a small venue and before curtain up, I observed her rehearsing with her entourage. I recognised some of the people involved in her preparation were comedians too. This performer, despite the fact that her act was so individual and personal, surrounded herself with people who shared her professional aspirations and helped her hone her show. That is to say, she collaborated closely with her trusted professional colleagues.

My other observation is that her comedy worked because she was genuine. Up there on stage, you could tell she was speaking from experience. Exaggerated, yes, to get her point across, to highlight the comedic elements of her story, but real too. It wasn’t just an act. It was researched, planned and polished, yet it still felt a like an intimate conversation with someone who knew you. You could definitely empathise.

And so it struck me again... a bit like a teacher performing the serious business of teaching: the sense of risk; the importance of connecting, of knowing the audience and giving of ourselves yet remaining in control; the need to continually research, rehearse and learn; the value of like-minded professionals; and, above all, the power of authenticity. 

If you’re looking for some practical advice on how to polish your performance and better engage your audience, have a look at the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

As always, I look forward to your comments.



Submitted by Michelle Hughes (not verified) on

As a pre service teacher I found this a very interesting concept. I believe you do have to know and gain the trust of your students by building a relationship with them. My husband often laughs at me and says you should have been a comedian so maybe there's hope for he yet! Great article, Thankyou very insightful!

Submitted by Simone Coogan (not verified) on

Margery does it again. A new perspective on an ancient art. Great piece. Thanks for the wisdom.

Submitted by Cameron Upcroft (not verified) on

This is some really sound advice that is often an overlooked element of teaching. The building of a relationship is a prerequisite for solid learning. Little emphasis is placed on this in teacher training and little talk is made of it in professional development. Thank you for this article which I think should get far more airplay.

Submitted by Kerry (not verified) on

Inspiring and that is a hard ask on a Friday evening. Now I'm off to a comedy show for some PD! Great way to reflect on aspect of teachers' repertoire of expertise. Thanks Margery

Submitted by Julie Murray (P... (not verified) on

I enjoyed the connections you made to the art of the comedian in relation to teaching.
It made me recall the notion of teaching being much like acting. For an actor to go over well with an audience, they need to somehow connect. This is certainly true for live acting. With teaching, being able to make that connection is purely built on the establishment of sound and respectful relationships with students.

What drives the relationship must come from the passion teachers hold in their hearts for the work they do and for the children/students they engage with.

I was recently at a forum where heads of schools of education from a range of universities were questioned about what it is that makes a teacher. In the panel discussion that followed these points emerged:

Beyond the Standards, a raft of personal habits of mind or dispositions were explored:
* courage to be adaptable, flexible and engage in ongoing learning over the course of a career. (Teachers must be teachable.)
* emotional intelligence
* accumulated wisdom and life experience
* enthusiasm and energy

To be concise - to be passionate.

Like an actor who is passionate for his/her craft, so too a teacher needs passion to underpin those dispositions held in the heart. This is what breathes life into the Standards.

Submitted by Michael Morgan-... (not verified) on

This is a very good comparison and highlights the importance of relationships, planning, empathy and most importantly timing. Great teachers, like great comedians understand the timing.

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