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Why ‘Teacher in role’ doesn’t have to be scary

Posted on October 15, 2015

Why ‘Teacher in role’ doesn’t have to be scary

Why ‘Teacher in role’ doesn’t have to be scary


This is the first of a series of blog posts by Open Minds Theatre Company discussing pedagogy, Drama in Education and the use of drama techniques to increase attainment.

Sometimes when we begin working with a new teacher and we suggest working in role their eyes narrow and their forehead furrows. “Oh, I can’t act!” they quickly inform us. Working in role, however, doesn’t need to be scary and doesn’t necessarily need the teacher to ‘act’ any more than they would ordinarily in the classroom.

Working in role can be as elaborate as dressing up in full costume and make-up, producing ‘secret’ containers containing magical possessions, altering the voice and body language and staying in this role for the duration of the lesson. It can equally be as simple as the way the teacher questions the children and uses non-verbal signals that are different to the norm.

Teachers play many roles recognisable to their children throughout the day: The concerned parent, the pragmatic nurse, the encouraging coach; the knowledgeable professional or perhaps even the silly clown. Often just altering the ‘perceived’ role or ‘attitude’ to something less common-place in the classroom setting is enough for the children to ‘buy-in’ to the role-play and therefore the Drama. Open Minds Theatre Company’s practitioner, Simon Wells uses a powerful yet simple teacher-in-role technique, often changing his ‘attitude’ to one of humility – an almost child-like role – so that the children offer advice, assistance and solutions in the developing drama. Carefully crafted questioning is the key to this role. More often than not, questions aimed at children by adults can be seen as a threat. They can be interrogative, authoritarian or ask the child to search the grown-ups mind for the answer: “Does anyone know…?”; “That’s not what I was thinking of….”; “Can you tell me…?” Whereas taking on a naïve, curious and ultimately clueless persona as an adult disarms even the most stubborn child who will want to help the teacher in role to ‘understand’. Phrasing questions in role as ‘Simple Simon’ when discussing a character he might ask, “I wonder what he’s doing here?” The “I wonder…” type of question is very neatly oblique, inviting rather than demanding a response and is the style that softly spoken Dorothy Heathcote employed 30 years ago. The naïve questioning and change of attitudes can be used to set up the drama and the space in which the drama will unfold: “Is this the school hall where we have our dinners? It feels strange to me!” (Frightened); “I wonder what that pile of rags is doing here?” (Curious); “What do you make of this then?” (Puzzled); “How on earth are we going to cross that old bridge?” (Baffled). Without elaborate dressing up or props, the teacher is now in role and has shifted out of the interrogator into the ‘I’m as curious as you are’ mode. This simple ‘one who does not know’ role can be extended to become the ‘outsider’, the ‘doubter’, the ‘devil’s advocate’ or the ‘antagonist’. This simple changing of attitudes will not prove scary for the non-acting teacher as they adopt different attitudes during the course of the school day anyway. Adding simple mannerisms such as wringing the hands anxiously or wiping a tear from the cheek can add to the overall effect.

You may be thinking that the children know you as their teacher and know that you are knowledgeable but this is where your drama contract comes into play. All drama assumes agreement from the participants. The children will have been coached by the teacher ‘out of role’ previously that at some points the teacher may adopt a different character or persona. This may be indicated by a simple clothing prop; a scarf is tied around the neck or a hat is worn. When the teacher is in role the children agree that they will respond to the teacher as that character. They will act as if that character doesn’t have the knowledge or experience of their teacher and the character may or may not know the children. If the character does know the children, he may engage them as different characters themselves. Simon often reminds children before a session; ‘You are not year 4 today, you will become other people as the drama unfolds’ and then allows the children to work out what sort of role they should adopt by the way he approaches the children, the language he uses and the attitude he assumes. Metaxis comes easily to children (moving between the world we live in and the fictional, drama world) and they very quickly learn to operate in an ‘as if’ or fictional world. You may find that they become absorbed in an ‘as if’ world, so that it becomes to feel real: not real in the sense that it is actually happening, but real in the sense that the problems faced and the outcomes matter. Because the drama matters the children will be challenged to find the language which suits the purpose within the ‘as if’ context.

Of course, teacher (and student) in role can be much more elaborate and that will form the basis of another blog post. This post was prompted by a discussion with a teacher who is attending Open Minds’ new half-termly ‘Drama in Education’ network meetings who asked how minimal the preparation for teacher-in-role could be and how non-actors could employ the technique.

If you would like to attend our next Drama in Education network meeting to discuss drama techniques including Teacher-in-role then please email

(The next meeting is in the ROAR project studio, 4.30-6pm Thursday 19th November, Westgate Chambers, Westgate, S60 1AN)

To find out more about the work we do with teachers in schools please download our training packages flyer ( ) or contact


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