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Philosophy of Teaching

Philosophy of Teaching 

Stephanie Sandberg 

Assistant Professor of Theater, Dance, and Film Studies

Washington and Lee University

Winner of the 2010 FEN teaching award for integrating diversity into the classroom at Calvin College


The courses I teach cover all areas of theatre and media, with specializations in theatre history, non-western theatre, applied theatre, and directing.  Professionally, I work as a playwright and director, and a so a good deal of my philosophy also stems from that work and involving my students in that work.  The teaching I’ve done for the past twenty-two years of my life has taught me so much about how to be a more effective teacher.  Indeed, I learn about teaching through teaching, and I’ve also spent the time reflecting and researching, and watching master teachers at work.  I have great passion for this work and for compassionate teaching where I teach by example.  I live a good, whole life in the theatre, I and can teach them the same things…to care for themselves and for their fellow students.  A big part of my teaching philosophy is this teaching by example and never accepting mediocrity as a possibility.  We all have the ability to achieve, if we recognize our gifts and use them well. 


My goal is that students will become perpetual, lifelong learners by sparking a student’s interest in some subject; African dance theatre, or Shamanistic performance in India or Bollywood Film or Modern Screenwriting.  This happened to me in a classroom twenty-five years ago when a professor in my undergrad program taught me about the theatre of Greece in my first theatre history class ever, and I fell in love with learning.  I remember this spark of a moment distinctly because what made the teaching effective was the simultaneous knowledge and enthusiasm of the professor.  I wanted to know everything about the Greek theatre so I read every extant play and many fragments of plays, I went to the Getty museum to see the vase paintings of Greek theatre, I saw as many of the plays as I could on stage, I looked at pictures and models of every ancient theatre I could find, and I consumed every scholarly book I could lay my hands on.  Consumption of scholarship on the Greeks led me to interest in North African theatre and then to Indian theatre and then on to the theatres of many indigenous peoples around the globe.  The goal is to create the spark and then to let the students fan their own flames of learning. 


When you take my class, the first thing I recognize in each and every student is that they are a unique learner.  Yes, there are some aspects of learning in higher education that we all do in a similar manner such as reading texts and interpreting images, but humans are so different when it comes to cognizance and how knowledge takes hold in the brain. I work with each learner to help her find a way to grasp the material and love learning because it’s enjoyable.  Teaching’s absolute goal is to create learning that sticks.  In twenty years of teaching a range of theatrical and media subjects, I’ve discovered three ways that make learning a sticky substance.  In seeking a framework for how to bring these into the classroom, I landed on three anchoring principles.  These consistently remind me that what I’m creating in the classroom is not just learning in THIS moment, but perpetual learning.  Recognizing myself as a perpetual learner with my students, I am always improving my own abilities.  I know that the best teachers never stop learning and are in continual collaboration with their students.  I listen to them and learn alongside them, finding new ways to apply knowledge together. 




The first principle comes from Horace’s poetic letter Ars Poetica where he discusses how to make meaning with art.  Utile et Dulce translates roughly as “useful and pleasing.”  When I bring this principle to teaching, I find ways to make the material fulfilling on both sides.  If it is of interest and it’s also pleasurable to study, that makes good teaching and learning. We learn FOR something, in most cases for life, so this learning is useful. However, in order for that learning to stick it must be pleasurable.  I employ any number of different teaching tactics to make this happen.  I engage students in debates, I encourage performances, create workshops, and teach my students to teach themselves.  As an example, in my course on Applied Theatre, we read the history and theory of the craft, and we explore all the exercises discussed in the books.  These exercises make the theories and history actually stick with the students.  Then, the students work each class period to create an Applied Theatre workshop for some particular subject on something like mental health, addiction, disability, or any other number of topics.  They bring themselves to the table to make the workshop work.  It’s thrilling to watch this kind of learning happen.  In theatre history, I don’t lecture too much because it’s not effective teaching. Rather I tell the story of theatre and engage students in telling that story through applying their own research.  Students must be absorbed in the knowledge so they can put it to use. To make it pleasant for them, so that the information sticks, we create learning that leads to the experiential acquisition of knowledge. 




I learned the principle behind this phrase the first time I taught a class, although I didn’t have a name for it at that point.  It translates as “learning by teaching.”  I taught a class on Brecht as part of my grad school studies and finally understanding Brechtian stage theory holistically because I found ways to embody it in my teaching.  In that moment I knew that I had to get my students up and teaching as well, so I asked them to learn about Brecht and create a workshop production to show how the theories work.  Asking students to give presentations with Powerpoint slides doesn’t give them a real chance to learn.   In theatre history, my students devise new productions of old plays, finding ways to make them relevant to a contemporary audience.  In my directing classes, the students turn devised material of old plays into actual material onstage. In acting classes, I teach a principle first, and then I have the students teach me and teach one another, so that they become empowered learners through teaching.  




When students walk into my classroom, they know that they are going to experience something that day and will not be just dozing through a lecture or a discussion.  They are just as likely to be on their feet making something in a play analysis class as they would be in an acting class. This phrase, experientia docet translates “we learn by experience”; it is at the core of my philosophy of teaching.  I begin the class informally by telling them about an experience I had in the theatre and then allow the story to build into a teaching moment by asking them questions or seeking out whether they’ve had experiences that are similar.  For example, teaching about Shamanism in theatre history, I told the students my experience of growing up in West Africa where I saw and experienced traditional healing ceremonies on a day-to-day basis and watched the Shamans perform their rites.  I show them images and film footage and we talk about what’s going on there and then we move from there to discuss the work of a playwright like Wole Soyinka or Efua Sutherland and how their work draws upon the ancient traditions of Shamanism in West Africa.  Even further, we will re-enact scenes and create performance spaces right there in the classroom.  It’s great fun and the learning really sticks.  One colleague walked by my classroom overhearing the activity and enjoyment and remarked, “I’m jealous because I never remember laughing when I took theatre history!”  


Teaching this way is enjoyable to me.  The way to make my classes valuable to my students is to communicate with them effectively in the classroom, and take them through a process of learning where I consistently give them feedback.  I make this feedback positive and ask my students to work on how to turn negative criticism into positive feedback as well.  I teach by example.  One of my former students recently told me that the most important thing she learned from me was how to integrate body, mind, and soul in the theatre.  Teaching this is not easy, and it requires consistent integration of ideas and academic rigor.  What I love about it is that my students are with me on this journey. We learn together, we teach together, and we create together.  

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