When I first began teaching at USC, I was hesitant, afraid. “Those who can’t…” kept ringing in my head. I didn’t want to focus too much time and energy training other people to do what I was still focusing on perfecting myself.
The past few years of teaching acting has proven me very wrong. Rather than sapping my attention away from my skills, it has only honed them and made them all the more available to me in my professional career.
It reminded me of the time I spent helping my friends with their homework in grade school. My friend Danny was not very good at math. So I would sit with him and work through the problems, step by step, going through the process we had learned. Doing this allowed me to solidify the process in my own head. When it came time for the test, I now had double the practice and confidence to do well.
If you want to improve something you know how to do, all you have to do is teach it to someone else. Here’s a list of things you’ll find:
Teaching Requires Articulating. Oftentimes actors (singers, dancers, writers, etc.) have an innate understanding of how they do what they do. They have a process, but they’ve never taken the time to articulate it for themselves. Or maybe they sort of have a process, but it’s vague.
If you teach it to someone else, it forces you to take the time to really spell out the steps you take or the thought process you go through in order to make something happen. Doing so will allow you to see the gaps in your process, the strengths and the weaknesses. It will show you where you, yourself, are a little fuzzy and allow you to make adjustments and corrections.
Teaching Time is Practice Time. When you’re teaching something to someone else, particularly over the course of an extended period of time, you are actually practicing yourself. By going over and over the steps you take and corrections you make to your craft for the other person, you’re simultaneously doing it for yourself.
Research shows that your brain retains information that it revisits on a more regular basis. That’s why – when learning something new – it might be difficult for the first day of trying, but when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning, you find it more easily available. Because the brain holds on to repeated information.
By teaching someone a skill, you are creating repetition for yourself, and therefore the skill will become more readily available for your own use as well.
Teaching Others is a Shortcut to Teaching Yourself. Being outside of my students, I am more able to see their habits and their shortcomings. This also allows me insight into my OWN habits and shortcomings.
Almost all actors share the same fears. Fear of taking risks, of making big choices, of really committing. Seeing these fears manifest in my students gives me an outside perspective of how they manifest in myself. Furthermore, attempting to help my students move beyond these fears and venture outside their comfort zones helps me create the self-talk that I can use to do the exact same thing.
Teaching Creates Liability. This was the biggest surprise for me. After a couple semesters of articulating my process for other people, and practicing it on a weekly basis with them, I was presented with a professional opportunity to go and put it to the test. I found myself keenly aware of whether I was able to now do the things I had been teaching to my students.
I gave myself the mindset of “Well, I better practice what I preach.” I felt liable to my students (and myself) to prove that what I was teaching was useful. Doing so allowed me to go beyond my previous abilities as an actor. I found myself taking big risks, making big choices, and working more easily from a consistent process.
In short, I had taken the lessons I gave my students and used them all myself. The teacher had been taught.
It doesn’t matter at what level you teach someone to do something. Give it a shot. Start small. Even helping one person learn a new skill will give you the confidence and practice to do it yourself – better than ever before.