Is ‘good teaching’ one-fourth preparation and three-fourths ‘pure’ theater?

Should you imbibe the philosophical undercurrents of this inspiringly misleading line as a teacher?

“Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.” — is a line attributed to Gail Godwin, an American novelist, and short-story writer.


I had first heard this ‘inspiringly misleading line’, on my first day at school, during the staff-orientation, as an enthusiastic and hopeful novice teacher.

It was my first assignment as a school teacher. As much as the paycheck was not appealing, the idea of finally getting to be a school teacher made me highly receptive to any thought that would eventually make me a good one. I always wanted to teach in a school, because I loved the idea of the attention I would get from children as a teacher. I wanted to be that teacher my students looked up to, watched in awe, and loved to listen to. I happily believed this line then, wanting to be a school teacher at a point in Indian schooling history where good teaching meant appealing teacher charisma, ability to hold the rapt attention of a class of 40 kids for 40 minutes, and fluency in English.

The other day again, I heard a teacher educator use this line during an online webinar while admonishing the viewers around the importance of being creative in teaching. “Good teaching is 1/4th preparation and 3/4th theater! Do you believe in this?” she asked, without waiting for an answer, going on to explain why teachers need to be creative and charismatic, talking about the body language one must use while teaching. She also went on to explain why teachers must engage children with their charisma and creativity, making them think and learn. Luckily for me, unlike during my first encounter with this line 17 years ago, by now I had already read The Odd Woman, by Gail Godwin.

While brilliantly going right where Gail Godwin wanted us to go by holding on to the thought of a charismatic teacher, we are completely missing the point if we think teaching is all about theatrics!

What is wrong with using this quote to inspire good teaching?

The Odd Woman is an amazing read. It is the story of Jane Clifford, “a cool but timid “Researcher” of other people’s lives, … drawn to those who are dramatic, turbulent visionary, and self-assured, and is constantly measuring herself against them.” This ‘famously misunderstood quote,’ that has been the content of many an internet memes, is from The Odd Woman.

When Jane Clifford had finally met Sonia Marks in the Novel, the later gave her a lecture on Good Teaching, strikingly similar to the one I had listened to the other day. Sonia told Jane:

“Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater,” Sonia said. “It’s in the very physical structure of the classroom, and I’m referring to the old-fashioned structure, not this ‘we’re all in a circle together’ junk that the half-assed, ill-prepared, uncharismatic teachers adore so much. In the conventional classroom, what do you have: students in the ‘audience,’ teacher ‘up front.’ I make it my business to utilize that separation, and it hasn’t seemed to be so unpopular around here.”

Do you see the irony, now?

The following two phrases that Sonia had mentioned in her teaching philosophy particularly stand out for me: One, “not this ‘we’re all in a circle together’ junk” and two, “I make it my business to utilize that separation.” Do you see what I see?

This famous quote that we mercilessly use to inspire good teaching is in fact the sum of a fictional character’s misconceptions about teaching. Plain and simple, the 21st Century Skills that we so fondly want to promote in our schools cannot be developed in classrooms where teachers consider the ‘separation’ between the ‘audience’ and ‘the teacher’ as something that needs to be dramatically leveraged on. Sonia wants the attention that her charisma would bring as she is leveraging on the separation between the student and the teacher. She is not particularly bothered about the learner as she is looking down on those teachers who struggle so hard to bridge the gap between students and teachers, making circles of learning.

Should you believe this line as a teacher?

Here is the million dollar question for me: as a teacher, should I imbibe the philosophical undercurrents of this line and make it a part of my teaching philosophy?

Traditionally, the Indian schooling system, subtly and loudly, demonstrates certain feudal tendencies. Drawing from the powerful imageries of our favorite Gurukul System, we assign certain pseudo-nobility to teaching as a profession. When you say “Good teaching is 1/4th preparation and 3/4th theater,” it just adds to the feudalism that we promote in schooling, making us develop this wrong notion that ‘good theater’ is what makes learning happen and therefore charismatic teachers are great teachers!

From where I see, this notion just encourages the narcissists and the megalomaniacs among us to promote teaching as show business.

Is teaching a talk show, where it is all about leveraging on the presence of that bottomless pit that parts the audience and the teacher? From where I see, teaching is more a series of conversations between the teacher and the learner than a one-sided talk show.

I hope by now you are getting a sense of the damage this quote does to teaching and teachers. The danger of aligning teacher professional development to the philosophical undercurrents of this quote, I hope, is evident as well.

What damage does this notion cause to teacher development initiatives?

The success of teacher professional development depends on the kind of lenses we make educators hold while looking back at their own classroom practice. ‘Theater’ is a bad lens to hold while looking at classroom practice as it aims to promote the ‘separation’ between the ‘audience’ and the ‘teacher. The aim of good teacher development, therefore, must be to help teachers figure out ways to pull the walls that separate students from teachers during lessons down.

Trust me when I say this, you are not going to promote 21st Century Skills in a classroom, encouraging this dramatic separation. “This ‘we’re all in a circle together’ junk that the half-assed, ill-prepared, uncharismatic teachers adore so much.” is the only way in which we will help our students to be creative, critical and reflective thinkers and problem solvers.

My long story as a teacher very short, the attention I would get is not the reason why I teach anymore; learning is!