I’m not talking about how to get a laugh (although it’s always a pleasure). No, but I’ve been listening to some great interviews with comedians recently, and what struck me was the way in which they talk about honing their craft, succeeding, failing and getting better. They could easily be talking about teaching. I particularly recommend this series of interviews from Marsha Shandur.
A few quotes.
“It takes ages to learn how to do stand-up, because you can only practice on stage…you can try to imagine it, and write it, but the business of getting your stage legs takes ages.”
“You can’t fake talent, but you can gain experience. You just can’t fake those first thousand gigs. You have to do ‘em. ….and then after that you start to become more like you are off-stage than on ”
This came up time and again, through all the interviews, along with the idea that the first few gigs were great and then things suddenly came crashing down. We can find exactly the same ideas in the literature surrounding teachers’ career pathways; expertise is transitory, one can reach a plateau, or start to go backwards. Like teachers, most of the comedians talk about their work as a craft, something which needs to be polished and developed through practice, yet the craft can only be practised through the act itself… something which takes a thick skin and enormous self-confidence.
“If I’m playing the wrong crowd now I can go to absolute silence, whereas other times… a sort of hysteria is created in the room.”
Even an acclaimed, successful and talented comedian can fall flat on his face from time to time – and it might not even be his fault. He may simply have taken the wrong gig. Teachers, too, may occasionally come up against a class with which they can do nothing right.
Another common theme is diversification. Comedians seem to come to comedy from all over the place, and once they get there take on any number of roles to make a living. I get the sense that, as with EFL teachers, comedians change things up because they have to and because they like to. In my own research I found many instances of teachers who had chucked it all in to move to a new school, a new country, a new ‘gig’… to keep things fresh. Clearly ELT is an unstable career, change is often forced upon teachers who have to follow the work with the students and the seasons. I wish that there were more security, and I could plan my life with a little more certainty. But I think many of us secretly like it that unpredictability too.
So, what we can learn from stand-up comedians is that professional development is not unique to teaching. That those professionals who reach a level of succcess in their careers (and I am not talking about the superstars, but just those who make a decent living, do what they do well, and find happiness – my definition of professional success), have something in common. Confidence in their own ability, resilience in the face of knockbacks, flexibility, and a love of the job.
A final word from Dan Antolposki….