Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Teaching is Similar to Directing

Stern schoolmaster facing class of young hard-working children

It has been one of my life-long dreams to become a movie director, seconded by a career in writing. In terms of directing I had my first taste when I made a short film alongside a friend of mine and the experience was wonderful and rewarding. At the same time, I got to sense some of the difficulties that may come with this line of work.

Anyhow, I ended embarking upon a teaching career. In fact, there are a few similarities between the two professions. The idea came to me when I realized that apart from every teacher having their own style, quirks and trademarks, the same lesson plan can have completely different outcomes, the same way two directors with identical scripts will not produce identical movies.

One of the decisions film-makers must make is the pace of their work. Does or should the movie follow a deliberately slow or an action-packed fast pace? Is the film able to consistently keep the interest of the viewer?

Pacing is the rhythm of the work / class. Most of it is related to instinct and experience. A seasoned director will notice that certain parts of the movie may slow it down unnecessarily or that some segments do not contribute to the main flow of the storyline. Although digressions may work in some instances by adding variety to the work, too many of them will confuse, bore or irritate the viewer.

In a classroom the lesson plan is your script. You will have time allotted to each activity, but the estimated times are only approximations. In reality, you will often have to adjust to the students' needs and their previous knowledge. Some activities may be extended while others need to be reduced or modified. The drawback of teaching is that you will not have a lot of time to reflect since, unlike a director, you cannot cut and edit a finished work in the studio; as an educator, you have to do it during the class itself.

The experienced teacher will also realize which activities work and which ones should be scrapped. Some will incite interest and participation, while others will feel like beating a dead horse. Whether you have spent sufficient time on an activity, whether you have “milked” it all the way, is what the teacher needs to decide on the spot, which makes it important to ...


To be creative is one of the main requirements of certain professions, especially in the arts. Both teaching and directing revolve around the ability to spontaneously react to situations and challenges.

I cannot speak much about directing due to my lack of experience in the field, but there were moments where we had to solve unexpected and unforeseen problems on location. Due to the fact that the shooting days were limited, we needed to come up with a solution quickly. What may cause feelings of distress in some is a welcome challenge for others.

As a teacher you may be very well-prepared, but there are always what I call the “technical pitfalls.” For example, you bring a transparency or slide to the classroom but the projector does not work. The DVD or CD you brought skips and stops without warning. As a rule, I always have a Plan B (and sometimes even “C”) when I come to class because I enter with the expectation that something “will go wrong.” But even though I abide by Murphy's Law, I am still caught off guard every now and then.

So I improvise. I quickly grab hold of the situation by coming up with something that will not only fill the allotted time but that is educational and intellectually satisfying and stimulating for the students. Yet this does not only apply to “emergencies” or “unforeseen circumstances.” Since we as educators are purveying and gauging the mood of our students, we often need to change our plan on the spot to achieve a better outcome.

A director too has to be on his toes at all times. A line that may have looked great in writing does not always translate or ring true from the mouths of the actors. Then you need to change it, improvise. Also, it would be a good idea to give your actors / students a certain amount of autonomy and control. Get them involved in the decision process but be sure that they do not take over. That's why it is important to remember that you are the one who is ...

Calling the Shots

Let's face it: Ultimately you are in charge. Whether your film or class is successful depends mostly on you. As teachers we tend to blame the students, their lack of interest, knowledge, motivation, participation, but all in all, we are responsible for providing an interesting and stimulating class to them. That is our job.

A director cannot distance himself from his work either and excuses will get him only so far out of his responsibilities. The class in retrospect, just like the movie, is a finished product. And when they are falling apart, you are the one who needs to take control and guide the whole thing in the desired direction.

Obviously, digressions are a welcome relief from a fixed structure, but keep in mind your main goals and objectives. Have my students accomplished what we set out to do? If there is disturbance, say an unruly student, you need to ensure that it does not throw off the direction of the class. Those are moments when the teacher-director is called upon to be strict and to demonstrate who is running the show.

That does not mean that the actor-students are left out of the creative process. Quite to the contrary, they actually enrich it all. It is their ideas that add salt to the class environment. Without students or actors, our line of profession would not only suffer but be, in fact, impossible.


John Myste said...

What do you teach and at what grade level, sir?

Where you teach, who decides the curriculum and how?

And is this your primary profession?

Arash Farzaneh said...

I have taught at a few universities before, but have mostly worked at language institutes. I mainly teach English, but have also taught French, German, philosophy and sociology courses, my favorite one of the humanities being on the "Human Condition" ...

I have been working at schools where there was no curriculum as well as other places where everything was more organized and standardized... They each have their own appeals, charm and challenges...

Yes, teaching is my primary profession, while blogging / writing is my hobby-horse...