114. Hamming It Up

There have been people who have told me that I must be great with children, because I’m so funny, or because I’m such a dramatic guy. I rarely reject a compliment, but whenever I accept that one, I try to correct the donor’s misconception. To me, it’s like saying I must be great at tennis, because I’m so good at chess. There are overlapping skills, but the two are really different games, and in fact, someone who doesn’t know how to play chess can still be great at tennis. Being funny and dramatic is fine, but it is neither a prerequisite nor a reliable advantage in working with children.
Some children do not deal well with pizzazz. They don’t know what to make of it, and it makes them uncomfortable. They would rather have things be calm and easy to understand. We funny, dramatic people need to adjust our approaches if we want to connect with these children. If we don’t, they will be overwhelmed by us, or tune us out. It took a few years of teaching for me to completely come to terms with this truth. But I’m glad I did, and so are some children.
Even on stage, it’s important to be aware of children’s different styles. My favorite children’s entertainers balance their acts so that children get some whimsy and some serenity. Some madness, and some method.
I once read about a study that suggested that children get more out of listening to a story if it’s read in a calm, undramatic voice. Not monotone, but not the way I like to read to children – doing my W. C. Fields impression when I say Templeton’s lines in Charlotte’s Web, or imitating Alfred Hitchcock when I’m Thorin in The Hobbit. It was only one study, and it didn’t get me to change my style, but at least it got me to stop thinking teachers who just read the stories were doing it wrong. When children hear words, they paint pictures in their minds, and if the words are well-chosen, voice, facial expression, and body language may not be big factors.
This article is not meant to put down the hams of the world. We can be good teachers, too, and often are. Some children learn a lot from us. Rather, this article is meant to reassure the soft-spoken teachers who quietly care about children, and communicate that caring in their teaching. You don’t have to be a star to be in our show. You don’t even have to be in the show. You can just be there for the children.

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