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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Clowning and the Heart of Teaching

Exploring the Self that Teaches
Catherine Bryden, Germany

In this article, Catherine Bryden who works as a language teacher at a Rudolf Steiner school in Germany, looks at the links between Clowning and the art of teaching.
She describes how clowning has enabled her to accept and live with the responsibilities of being a teacher, to find lightness, to embrace conflict and to build a balance between her inner and outer world.

"The overall objective of language teaching in a Waldorf school, is to give pupils individual experience of the reality of language in the psychological sense intended by Steiner. This means that the essence is neither conceptual, nor literary, nor utilitarian, but sensory. J. Kiersch goes on to explain that while language students are generating a rich store of inner experience, they are at the same time "learning to identify with the perceptions and feelings of others. Thus, ideally speaking, Waldorf language teaching is a schooling of empathy. It is education for peace which 'raises consciousness' not through discussion or the spreading of information, but through improving the faculty of perception." Johannes Kiersch (Language Teaching in Steiner Waldorf Schools, p. 22)
"Can you refrain from moving until the right action arises?"
The teacher is within,
So you have to learn to be still.
You have to live your life
So that you are listening within
No matter what you are doing.
"We must continue to open in the face of tremendous opposition. No one is encouraging us to open and still we must peel away the layers of the heart." Chog˙am Trungpa

In The Courage to Teach Parker J. Palmer shares his inspiring vision of teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life. He speaks of the importance of exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life through reflection, discussion and brainstorming and explains how this is done through the creation of community where complex truths can be observed and investigated, where the inner life of teachers is supported to grow and change. He states that good teachers have one trait in common: "they are truly present in the classroom, deeply engaged with their students and their subject." Above all, good teachers "are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts - the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self."

I am presently working as a language teacher at a Rudolf Steiner school in Germany. I have been involved in teaching in many forms, both informal and formal. When teaching, as in my day-to-day life, my intention is to stay connected to myself, rooted in truth, and in contact with others as completely as possible. My dream is to work with others with a soft open heart, to teach from the space where intellect, emotion and spirit converge. I believe that this is a learnable ideal. Many questions have surfaced as I explore this direction. First, how to reach such place and how to teach from this place? How does one learn to be fully present in the classroom? How can I stay connected to myself, to function on a daily basis, and to practice being in contact with heart full places where I know good teaching flows?

Practicing an open heart

My enthused, sometimes overly enthusiastic, approach to all aspects of life has led me to a fairly regular practice of meditation and yoga. When I meditate or do yoga, I am able to deepen my connection to myself, find a deeper sense of balance and I can stay in soft and open heart-space. However, this is a solitary exercise. I have realized that the true challenge is to remain in this meditative space once I am in contact with other people. According to Buddhist philosophy, contact with 'other' can be a source of great confusion and pain. As I encounter another, even a stranger on the street, I see myself shut down in order to function. It's a form of protection which serves me to a point so I am able to 'keep it together', but where does this leave me in relation to my students?

Clowning: a safe playground in being

A search for a practice beyond meditation and yoga brought me to the art of clowning. The workshops are described as an opportunity to find one's inner clown. I would say that inner clown and inner being are one and the same. From what I have experienced, clowning has involved continual contact with myself, with other partners on stage and with an audience. Through these workshops, I found a secure, albeit occasionally uncomfortable and disconcerting play ground where I can dive into my inner pools with others.

I have found clowning to be an exercise in learning, growing and playing with others. It is a bridge between being alone and with other people in a secure open space. Both the warm up exercises and the clowning work to strip away preconceived ideas of the inner and outer world bringing a person closer to a sense of truth, closer to oneself and to the others.

An example

One of the first clowning exercises following a series of warm ups involves getting on stage where an object has been placed in the center. The task is to come on stage, look at the audience and without planning anything before hand meet and connect with the object. I step up to the stage. Stop. Wait. I feel stage fright, panic, and waves of anxiety. Slowly I turn to face the audience. Their sympathetic faces are only a minor comfort because I am struck with a bolt of expectation from the audience. I feel even more unnerved. I take a deep breath then face the audience again, my body no longer holding back the panic. I know I am all red and my palms are sweating. I start moving towards the object. Blank. No need to worry about not planning anything, my mind is blank. I look at the audience. They laugh. They know. It doesn't feel funny to me. I look down again at the object. Years are passing by. Don't wait. Make contact with the object - gentle probing from our facilitator. I reach down and touch. Soft. Fuzzy. Heavy. Soothing. Comforting. Audience. I scrunch up under what is actually a piano cover. More comfort. Relief. Look at us. Look up. Snickers and giggles. My newfound comfort must be more than obvious. I hold up my 'blanky' sheepishly. I curl up a little tighter and enjoy the security. Remember to breathe. I hesitate, and then reluctantly move out from under the blanket and off the stage. One split second off the stage and my mind floods with critical thoughts of how childish the 'performance' was, how embarrassing to be seen so needy, so young, so naked. Someone calls out 'natural,' another 'endearing.' I try to take in the moment, to land. I'm sweaty and lightheaded as I turn to watch the next adventurer stepping on stage.

With some time to digest and watch the other participants inch, dance, crawl, slide or hurdle themselves across the stage. And to see the object become a baby, mud, and bridal gown, the knot in my gut relaxes. With some laughs and supportive feedback, we all are a little more at ease with our initiatives on stage. As more time passes, I realize how long it has been since I felt so many raw emotions in the presence of other people. I see how the biggest challenge is to stay with the feelings, be present to what is going on, keep connecting to the audience and sharing what I am experiencing, and then to learn to be patient and wait for the object to speak to me. The structure in the exercise is the form that we all follow. The beauty and spontaneity come from staying connected to oneself and to the others, and this touched, colored and seeped into my life after the workshop.

I can't say exactly why, however, following a weekend of clowning, I have felt as though an undercurrent of energy seeping into my conscious life. The result has been a sensation of life opening up to my impulse, spontaneous interactions and wonderful moments of insight which has had me feeling more directly in contact with my students.

Reflections on the spiritual nature of clowning

My feeling is that the art of clowning takes place somewhere between the spiritual and physical worlds, perhaps like in the inner circle of a Celtic cross, the place where the horizontal and vertical sections intersect. This intersection, this circle, is the delicate place where I am connected to the depths of inspiration and my soul, while reaching up to the heights of the limitless creative possibilities, all the while keeping my two feet firmly planted in the physical world.

The rules of clowning

The rules in clowning are sacred and actively touch on an impressive number of sacred aspects of life that can be applied within the classroom.

For example, there are the social aspects that come from working in a group and with others and touches on ritual, community and communication in which you confront head on questions of your freedom and that of others. Through presence, listening, receiving and giving you learn to work together to resolve conflicts.

Clowning also offers a playful exploration into the emotional realms of my life. What is the place for joy or fear, gratitude, terror, for empathy, sympathy and antipathy in my life? The expression of my emotions requires self-awareness and authenticity.

Its theatrical aspects brings an awareness of sound, rhythm, structure, stillness, silence, activity, space, movement, contact, action.

Then there are all the lessons that simply come from playing your life on stage, chaos, humility, absurdity, security, insecurity, paradox, creativity, reality, spontaneity, transformation, mistakes and resolution. I will look at some of these below.


If I, as a language teacher, aim to school a student in empathy, I must first practice and develop my own skills in this area. Many of the exercises in clowning involve heightening listening skills, honing skills in observation, intuitiveness and spontaneity. Exercises are regularly followed up with a chance to look back at an exercise, share impressions and observations. As a result, the process becomes a concrete learning process for developing reflection, self-reflection and listening abilities. Learning to listen to myself in action and listen to other.

"The inner life of any great thing will be incomprehensible to me until I develop and deepen an inner life of my own. I cannot know in another being what I do not know in myself

…..the real issue is teaching ourselves to listen. br> (The Courage to Teach p.110) .

In a classroom, I have interpreted this as turning towards the students in the sense of learning to receive what they are offering, learning to take them in, and respond to them in an authentic creative way. Moving away from fear, resistance and reaction, towards surprise, awe and mystery.

When I arrive in the classroom with an open heart, prepared but in a state of receptivity, it is as this moment that true teaching takes place. Teaching which reflects the present moment, the magic of interaction between the teacher and the students, the creation of a class. With this approach, each class becomes an original work of art.

"to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." br> (The Courage to Teach p. 90)
Creating a learning space….

The space should be bounded and open.
The space should be hospitable and "charged."
The space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
The space should honor the "little" stories of the students and the "big" stories of the disciplines and tradition.
The space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of community.
The space should welcome both silence and speech.
(The Courage to Teach p. 74)

Clowning has helped me initiate movement in deep levels of my soul. I have experienced shifts in my behavior patterns that have extended far beyond the weekend workshop in clowning. The only explanation that I have is that practicing clowning untangles deeply bedded knots in the soul and shifts stuck energy in places that are not easily accessible. The results are difficult to describe, but highly tangible. The practice of putting myself on the line, facing my fear of standing on an empty stage with a miniature mask, has invited a transformative process on unconscious levels which in turn manifest on conscious levels.

Living with the mess

…"if we want to work for change, we must learn to live with the mess."
(The Courage to Teach, p. 176)
…" "Clowning is a celebration of all the things in life we try desperately not to be."

Discussions among teachers often gravitate towards digging up solutions for the problems we encounter in our teaching, so we can get rid of the problem and move on. One of a clown's many strengths is the ability to stay with a problem or a seemingly problematic situation. Clowning is a practice of not ignoring a problem, but being with a difficulty or glitch. It is this ability to remain present and fully involved in a situation that enables the clown to find creative resolutions in unexpected and often absurd places. The clown is able to remain in an area of discomfort, not push away or run from the problem, and therefore the clown is not swallowed up by fear and anxiety. Clowning is a practice in becoming completely enchanted with the struggles life offers.

Living with conflict

I have noticed that some teachers have a fear of public conflict and confrontation. A difficult situation is often avoided, not seen as an opportunity for growth, and this bypassing a situation creates a barrier or a break down to open communication. The practice of clowning provides helpful training for staying in the moment, particularly when the truth of the situation is not such a comfortable place to be standing in. For example, in front of a group of 40 frustrated grade 9 students, instead of getting defensive and feeling overly responsible for the situation, I can breathe. Stop. Listen to the students. Watch their reactions attentively. Let them share all they need to share so they feel heard. Wait till a natural and gratifying solution takes form instead of jumping in with a pat prefabricated solution. Clowning is a perfect reminder that conflict is a paradoxical path to health and harmony.

Living with change and the unexpected

Teaching can be done with a preset list of objectives that one teaches or feeds to the students. The students consume the material and the outcome is relatively predictable. I have noticed that both my students and I have felt particularly enriched however when we are faced with surprising facts or situations which have led to a novel outcome. These are often the times when my lesson plans do not go as planned, when the students are late, when they walk in after a defeating test in another class or have found out they have a free period after English. Instead of holding on to my plan for dear life and instead of feeling like a failure at the turn of events, I am learning to accept the change and see what opportunity is present. I can even go into the classroom knowing that this is the arena where change will take place if I make room for it. Again it bring me back to being receptive to the actual situation.

Transforming problems into opportunities for learning

Another pleasing side effect of clowning I have noticed is a personal change. As I face problems and feel more comfortable with uncomfortable moments, the situations are transformed, energy is freed up which no longer has the opportunity to fester in underlying layers of my self. The lightness and unpredictability offers a sense of fun that also diffuses negative energy. As a result, I am less likely to be delivering hidden or subtle messages to the students, messages that could potentially be damaging to the full development and expansion of a child.

Serious, but not

Both teaching and clowning is a serious business. Living up to my self-generated ideals can be a nightmare. I seem to gravitate between over governing myself with responsibility and control and sending my mind reeling into a whirl of panic as I fret about the impact - healthy or not, growthful or not - on the future of the students. Reality can be daunting.

Clowning is a mix of reality and the surreal and sprinkles the seriousness of life with touches of absurdity and lightness.

As an example of this absurd mix of reality and the surreal, I remember an improvisation where I ended being little Red Riding Hood. At one point, I got to Grandma's house and was desperate to find a way to get into her house. I found myself having to run around trying to jump through a window that kept moving away from me. The window was in fact an empty picture frame held up and moved around by none other than the Big Bad Wolf (my partner on stage). The picture frame, my running around and my frustration in trying to get into the house were real. The situation of a moving window was absurd and surreal. This absurd mixture of drama and lightness creates laughter and is what clowning invites you into.

Developing awareness of breath, rhythm, gesture and emotion

Clowning offers the possibility of learning about oneself in relation to others. Through various exercises, I have been able to develop a clearer sense of the effects of my rhythm, of my gestures and emotional expressions on an audience.
Clowning has transformed the way I see myself and the way I see others, creating a shift in my perspective. The time spent talking with the facilitator and participants is as valuable to the learning process as the exercises themselves. These discussions honor the mistakes, the feelings, and the growth process. The simplest of actions and interactions offer a wealth of humour and insight.

Who is the self that teaches?

In this article, I have described how clowning has enabled me to accept and live with the responsibilities of being a teacher, to find lightness, to embrace conflict, to build a balance between my inner and outer world, and to dwell in the middle circle - the connection between the two worlds.

Clowning has helped me answer the question asked by Palmer "Who is the self that teaches?" and "How can educational institutions help teachers sustain and deepen the self-hood from which good teaching comes?"
I am certain there are many venues for doing this and many more to come, but one tool within easy reach is clowning.

I would define clowning for teachers as an active and creative communicative meditation process that offers the distinct opportunity to practice being present, receptive and open while interacting with others. The activities and exercises involve concrete chances at personal transformation through introspection, laughter, communication and silliness.

Clowning has helped me move closer to my intention of being a teacher and an artist; the practice is assisting me in the process of being connected inwardly and outwardly, and in exploring the experience of being fully present, fully aware and fully open.

"Wouldn't the world be beautiful if the smallest things were important?"

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