Improv(e) Your Teaching

When I left the improv world after 10 years, I was never going back. I had just gotten a job at my first NYC museum (NY Transit Museum!) and was back in school for art history, ready to put acting far behind me. Time went on and the more I learned about museum education pedagogy, the more my brain connected it to improv. Fast forward a few years, museums, internships, freelance jobs, and tours later – I found myself convinced that good museum teaching went hand in hand with everything I learned as an improviser.

Giant Improv Class by CM
Giant Improv Class by CM

NPR recently aired a story about MBA students taking courses in improvisation. But why improv? For the very same reason every museum educator should be trained in improv: communication. That is not saying we should all be “onstage” when we teach, cracking jokes and making our students laugh. On the contrary, many improv principles are qualities we strive for in our teaching – things that are not taught when we learn a collection or study museum education.

The idea of an educational toolbox is something we hear at every professional development conference and class. What are we really filling it up with? The multi-modal teaching strategies and classroom management skills are essential. But have we been paying enough attention to how we say what we are saying and how to sharpen and enhance our listening skills? Or flex our collaboration muscles? Improv courses do exactly that. It’s like going to the gym for your brain – those revered careful listening, honest responding, fearless and flexible teaching skills are all enhanced by improv ideas.

Yes, And…

One of the first things educators learn about inquiry is the idea of asking open-ended questions that allow for many responses, then scaffolding information on top to deepen the conversation. This idea is echoed in improv. The first ‘rule’ of improv is the phrase ‘yes, and’. A scene partner offers information. You take it, affirm it, and add something to it, and your scene partner repeats. This back and forth is the foundation of improv. Negation ends the scene – and in inquiry, defeats the students. It’s about saying, “Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better” instead of “no, I have a better idea.”

yes-and2The ideas of ‘yes, and’ and inquiry only work when people are listening to one another. If you are not paying close attention to what your scene partner is saying, you may miss the information needed to propel the story. The fact is true with inquiry as well – if you repeat what the student is saying incorrectly or miss their point, you will change the meaning of their observation or interpretation.

During beginning improv classes, instructors lead students in several affirming exercises. It’s all about taking a gift, agreeing, and adding. It is also raising the stakes. By scaffolding more details on to a suggestion, a scene immediately becomes rich and interesting. Sharpening those careful listening skills is essential to any improviser. Responding skills are also put to the test and enhanced through speed games that not only quicken response time, but also better public speaking skills.


Improvisation is a group sport. Teams will practice weekly in order to get to know each other and build trust. Interaction is key to improv – which is why so many companies will hire improvisers to teach team-building. The activities teach individuals how to interact effectively, operate under pressure and, most importantly, trust one another. Also important in improv: the notion that you always want to make your scene partner look better – you will in turn look better as well. We want to affirm our students ideas and teach them to practice critical thinking. Working together builds on the idea of a team: you and your group are living the art in that moment, experiencing it together. These values: trust, interaction, and poise– even when 15 more students than you expected show up for a field trip in a tiny museum – are imperative in good gallery teaching.

Failure is Ok

75% of improv is bad. Real bad. You may see a show after reading this and think “Wow. I do not want to look like that.” But how they look is not the point – improv is all about removing the sense of failure. In order to grow, you have to fail. In some improv classes, when students get that feeling of “I screwed up” they take a ‘failure bow’ – a bow, paired with the declaration “I failed!” The rest of the class will clap and cheer, affirming the chance that was taken. When people are less afraid at failing at improv, it connects to their lives, and we learn to handle setbacks with grace and ease.

As educators, we aim to create celebratory spaces that embrace student work. But how can we create these spaces if we ourselves fear failure?

We improvise every day of our lives. We have no idea what the next word is that might come out of our mouth when talking to a friend or co-worker. These skills taught in improv classes will only make for better educators – ultimately better communicators – all while having fun. If only our theses made us laugh this much. The same week I finished school, I was welcomed back by my old improv troupe – and rarely miss a single rehearsal or show. The difference this time? It’s my professional development for teaching.

Have you ever taken an improv class or used it in your teaching? Or do your peers or colleagues have any experiences with improv as professional development? Share your perspective.



25 thoughts on “Improv(e) Your Teaching”

  1. After many years training tour guides, but without any theater background, I often found myself trying to identify that “untrainable” presence that can take an informed guide to the level of a real audience engager. A workshop in improv for our fellow guides at the Walker began to get there, but I think we all need someone to connect the dots in a more concrete way between improv and what happens during a tour. Thanks for beginning this process.

  2. Oh and….thanks also for the “failure bow” concept. We all have had those failure tours for one reason or another and it is important to just take a bow and move on.

  3. I am an educator at the Auckland Art Gallery and we often feel that our work is performative in the fact that you are forever ‘on’ and present – that constant flexibility, responding to and building on students responses is really well caputred in the term improv – because it can never be rehearsed thats for sure. I find that the most satisfactory sessions I teach are the ones I go in with a completely open mind, as soon as I feel that I am scripted, I focus on what I am saying, not what the students are saying, and then I miss the moment, just like you said. Great posts on this website, our team of ten read them avidly! Thanks!

  4. Thanks for sharing this – I can say that as a museum educator I once auditioned for and joined a comedy improv group, and realized ever since how connected it was to the practice of teaching. We did longform stuff, “Truth in Comedy” was our sacred text, and my brain was never so pushed in those moments of fear-panic-action-trust. Tuning in to a “group think,” working on your sense of timing, building an experience with (not for) your audience — all valuable skills improv can add to that toolkit. I’m filled with nostalgia and inspired. Should I see if I can work some improv games into my docent training? “Yes, and …”

  5. Thanks for the great comments! It’s exciting to see so many people with positive responses to improv. It is one of the reasons I started teaching improv for educators classes here in the city…I know we are out there!

    Whenever you are talking to more than two people, you have an audience – learning how to read them. how to listen to verbal/nonverbal and connect on their level is so crucial to good teaching practices!

    J Marshall – also, playing to the top of your intelligence! So many ‘rules’ of comedy apply to education!

  6. Thanks so much fo sharing this post. It’s always interesting to look at our work as educators through a new lens, and now I want to take an improv class!

  7. Thanks Heidi and Kathy! I’m actually heading out to Denver (today, eek!) to teach a bit of improv to educators at the Denver Nature and Science Center. Classes are so much fun, and really flex your brain muscles! Have a blast!

  8. Improv for educators, I would love to take that workshop! As an educator, I’ve often found myself wanting to take classes in “performance” (i.e. storytelling, improv, etc.) in order to create more meaningful and memorable experiences for my audiences. But, like Susan Rotilie said, I’ve not found good resources that also connect the dots from “performance” to “teaching.” Does anyone have recommendations for good sources that expand on this idea?

  9. Hi Alfeigen!
    There actually isn’t a lot of dots connected yet-I’m starting to, because I identify as both an improviser and a museum educator. If you find anything I missed, let me know please! Also, if you are in NYC I have a class coming up-currently in Denver, will be heading to Philly in February hopefully!

  10. “Improv thinking” (like design thinking?) is so useful in so many situations. I just read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and love and recommend her section on using improv in the workplace. After reading this post, I definitely have some new ideas for using it in my teaching. Thanks!

  11. Hi Greg!I loved Bossypants! Favorite line: “Studying improvisation literally changed my life. It set me on a career path towards Saturday Night Live. It changed the way I look at the world, and it’s where I met my husband. What has your cult done for you lately?”

    And thrilled the post inspired you! Let me know if you do anything that knocks it out of the park…or if you need a fellow failure bow-er. =D

  12. Hi, I’m a new teacher waiting on my license approval (cross your fingers) and taking a teacher leadership class as part of the masters program. We have to do a 15 min presentation for the class on something meaningful that fellow teachers would be interested in. With my mind focused on creating authentic experiences/relevance and classroom management, I am thinking about improv skills for teachers. I am a novice and don’t have that depth of knowledge that you all have yet, but I know its not a good idea to send students to the office because I can’t manage the classroom. I’ve found the book, “The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom” and I’ll read Bossypants. So much to learn. — ann

    1. Hi Ann!
      Bossypants is a great read, as is the Second City book. Also, definitely look around for improv classes in your city. There are beginning classes that will help you build skills and connections. I perform (still) almost every weekend at an off-Broadway theatre and I’m STILL learning every rehearsal and show.

      Got my fingers crossed for you!

  13. Thank you for the great post, Jen. I read your post weeks ago, but have been thinking about it ever since.
    You’ve inspired me to seriously consider hosting an improv session for our docents and teaching artists in place of one of our weekly trainings at Carnegie Museum of Art!

    While still thinking about it, I ran across this great piece about how our neighbors at Carnegie Mellon University, are having their Entertainment Technology Center grad students taking improvisational acting classes to help them get jobs in the entertainment technology industry.

    I love when great minds are thinking alike across disciplines. I’ll let you know if we get the improv session off the ground here — and how it goes!

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