Natasha Vaynblat learned a lot during her four-year career teaching English in a Manhattan and Brooklyn high school. A background in theater is as good as any teacher prep program, for one. Banging a frying pan is not the best classroom management strategy. And, after a while, the system “wears you down.”
Out of the classroom now for more than a year, Vaynblat has turned that experience into a one-woman comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which begins Friday night. The 30-minute show is titled “United Federation of Teachers,” and Vaynblat plays embellished versions of co-workers. But she’s adamant that the show isn’t a knock on teachers.
“This is a look at the crazy world of teaching,” Vaynblat said.
We sat down with Vaynblat this week to ask how and why she made her way from the front of the classroom to the microphone. (This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Why did you want to go into teaching?
I did Teach for America right out of college, but I knew I wanted to pursue comedy, so I was like, ‘I’ll move to New York, Chicago, or L.A.’ And they placed me in New York and I was like, ‘Perfect! I’ll teach during the day, do comedy at night. It’s going to be so easy!’ And then of course that’s not how it works. I was there for a year before I could do anything besides teaching. But I ended up really liking it and was good at it, so after my first two years I decided to keep teaching.
Why create a show around your experience?
I found that I was amazed by the diversity of characters who work in schools, and I think teaching is really hard and will make you crazy. And if the administration is also crazy, you go a little loopy.
By the end of my first year, I was kind of at my wit’s end to control my classroom, so I started bringing in a frying pan. Like, an actual frying pan that I would bang sometimes if my students were too loud. And nobody told me to stop doing it. No one in the administration was like, ‘Hey maybe that’s not the best way to handle your students.’
After that moment, I was like, OK maybe I’m going a little crazy, too.
Give me an example of a story that makes it into the show.
We would sometimes have these staff meetings that involved us singing a song together. And the song was almost like a Weird Al Yankovic version. I remember we sang “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, but it was about co-teaching. So our professional development about co-teaching was singing this song together where the lyrics were like, Let’s co-plan, let’s backwards plan.’
I remember thinking, ‘This is a group of professionals and all we’re doing is we’re singing a song together.’ That, I think, might have inspired the show.
How do teaching and acting compare?
I think teaching, at least for me, felt very much like performing, especially when I first started out. So much of it is about showing that I was confident and could control a classroom, even though deep down I was petrified and thought I couldn’t do it. Performance is so much of that too. An audience will read if you are confident or not. Even if you’re nervous about something, you perform as if you’re not.
I had done improv in college, and I think that, more than anything else, helped me with my teaching. I was prepared for unexpected things to happen. For instance, to change a lesson because it was too confusing of a concept. It allowed me to feel much more comfortable in a classroom, which can become so chaotic and things change at a drop of the hat.
By far, my performance background saved me.
Why did you leave teaching, and what did you learn from the experience?
To continue progressing in my [acting] career, it got to the point where I had to decide, either I have to teach or I have to do this. I moved here to do this, and I can always come back to teaching.
I think the people who start in teaching are excited and want to do well. I think the system beats them down and it’s so hard to stay positive in our system because of all of these new rubrics and standards.
At my second school, I was on an incredible English team in my last year and we were doing a great job. I was surrounded by really incredible people and we were pushing our students. And then we had to rewrite everything completely to fit these new [Common Core] standards. I totally understand that they come from a great place, but it was kind of like, we could have kept improving on our own work if we had just been given the freedom to do our job well.
I think it really wears you down, and I think it’s why a lot of people leave, and it’s why a lot of the people who stay get less invested. When I first started teaching I was like, ‘I can’t believe so many people are bad teachers.’ And after my fourth year of teaching, I think I understood. I don’t think it’s entirely their fault.