How Improv Can Improve Your Teaching

Every conversation is an exercise in improv - and conversation is the core behind every improv scene. We never are 100% sure what someone is going to say next. Now, many of us have either willingly been to an improv show or dragged to an improv show - or seen Whose Line Is It Anyway. While what you saw was unscripted, the performers probably rehearse as a team every week. Before being cast, they went to class for years to learn the rules of improv - a seemingly simple discipline. So how does their training pertain to teaching and the field of education? Simple - education AND improv are both rooted in communication. MBA students are taking improv classes as part of their curriculum to increase their communication skills. If they are working on this, why shouldn't educators consider it as well? Improv classes effectively work the skills required to teach - and to do it well.

Listening and Responding

Beyond all the gimmicks and shtick of improv lies a simple conversation. The first improv rule learned in any class is 'Yes, And.' In order to properly 'yes, and' in a scene (conversation,) both parties need to be listening - really hearing and processing what the other person is saying - and responding.

How often have we been part of conversations that are agenda-driven? Or ended up with a misunderstanding that would have never happened if we initially used careful listening skills? This applies to non-verbal communication as well; after an observation at the Guggenheim, I was told that I 'read the students well.' As much as I'd like to claim that as an innate skill I was born with, it's been refined after years of practice in improv. Essentially, an improv class is comprised of activities where success relies heavily on careful listening. You learn to listen. It's very apparent when people aren't.

Teaching listening skills is not just something that just educators can benefit from. It's safe to say that everyone could be a better listener, students and teachers alike.

Dare to Fail

A lot of improv is terrible, even onstage with trained improvisers. But what makes it interesting, hilarious and endearing is the wholehearted attitude towards failure that good improvisers possess. Failure happens - it's imperative to learning. On the heels if the NYC-DOE test scores, we need to remember that more than ever.

Improv teaches that failure is ok. One of the best comments I've gotten from my students was a reflection on how freeing it was to not worry about being 'right.' Mistakes are owned and encouraged. Bold moves, impulsiveness and big choices are essential in an improv class. It's why so many activities are designed to make you fail. The outcome of failure in an improve class setting? A lot of laughter.

This freedom - and confidence the world won't end if we stray from our path and plan - continues on to the real world after class. That same chance-celebrated environment needs to be created for students, regardless of teaching venue. Our students need to feel safe to take risks and truly learn - and improv is all about failing and getting back up.


Improv is not standup. These two are constantly confused - improv is all about the team. Attend a team-building workshop as part of a professional development and you probably played variants of improv games. Aside from 'yes, and,' another improv rule involves the idea of teamwork. As an improviser, you are responsible for everyone onstage with you. It's your job to make them look better. 'Yes, and' becomes imperative - if you negate an idea (or ignore it) essentially you've negated that person. By agreeing, and working together to make it better, the scene flies and succeeds.

When I'm teaching a series of classes, I'll play the game 'Hot Spot' at the end of the first class. The whole group stands in a circle and one person starts singing any song in the center. If people recognize the song, they start singing along. When something in that song inspires another song, the center person is tapped out and a new person starts a new song. The teamwork? No one wants to be stuck in the center, so everyone is taking their turn, "saving" the last person, so someone saves them. Everyone is looking out for the group.

Imagine that mentality in your school. Not only is the administration working together with the teachers for a common goal, but also students within a classroom. Community is created as well as a support structure.

Just do it

Improv happens in the now. Within scenes, actions aren't talked about, they are just done. Improv isn't about thinking what is going to happen next or what happened yesterday. It's about responding to the right now. The anxiety of 'what next' is removed if we are invested in living in the present.

In a teaching environment, by responding to what our students and peers are giving us at that moment, and avoiding the preoccupation with dinner, tests, evaluation - we are automatically more engaged. And if students are too, think of how much more they would learn.

Improv sounds like a magical cure. It doesn't happen overnight - it's much like going to the gym for your brain. You'll work muscles you've never worked before. It'll hurt. You'll want to go home and do the mental equivalent of eating a pint of ice cream. But much like the gym, the stretch feels great and gets easier. You start to crave it and then realize its effects.

So go take an improv class. If anything, don't we need to laugh and play more?