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Disruptive Audiences: Advice from Someone Who Knows

I must admit that I don’t cherish the thought of giving tours to adolescents. First, because I don’t find it easy to face a group that, as a whole, towers over me by perhaps two feet or more. Second, because they are not shy in showing their dismay at having as their docent a person as short as I am— and with a strong foreign accent to boot. They sometimes roll their eyes, whisper to each other and giggle, and I even had a group that burst out laughing as they stood in front of me.

All of this can be a little demoralizing. However, from my background in special education I know that those who want to be successful teachers have to start by trying to develop a tough skin. So, I just play it cool and take command of the situation at once. Otherwise, the kids may try to work me over and the tour will not go well.

After the usual introduction and welcome, I say something like. “Because I am so short and have a foreign accent, there may be times when you cannot hear or understand me. I will appreciate you letting me know when this happens. I will be happy to repeat, if you ask me.” Openly talking about what they may perceive as my shortcomings seems to bring them around, but this doesn’t mean that everything will be smooth sailing from then on. As you can understand, I frequently have to deal with tour disruptions.

For example, as I was leading a group to a gallery I happened to look back just in time to see a very tall boy trying to make himself as little as I am. This to the great amusement of his classmates. I asked him to come to the front and walk by me. When he rather defiantly asked me why, I prevented a potentially explosive situation when I replied, “Because I need your moral support.” The boy complied saying, “Many people need that.” After that, on his own volition or because someone in the group reminded him, the boy walked by me as we moved from gallery to gallery. The tour went well and ended on a good note.

Another time, a girl began to disrupt the tour with long and loud yawns. When she was indulging in one with her eyes closed, I suddenly stopped talking. The penetrating silence made her open her eyes, and she was startled when she realized that everybody was looking at her. She smiled sheepishly and apologized, and I said, “I did not want you to miss what I am trying to explain about this painting.” From then on, the girl paid attention and even participated. I use this “technique” also with those who tend to disrupt the tour with constant talking.

I dislike ever having to utilize my status as a volunteer to make teenagers behave, but in one extreme case I did that in desperation. This was a group of high school girls. They couldn’t be less interested in a tour, and in spite of my efforts I could not get them to stop giggling. Finally, 1 said, “You know, I am a volunteer, and gladly drove quite a few miles to give you a tour. Do you think that it is unreasonable to expect the attention of my audience?” Appealing to their sense of fairness (something that, as you may know, is very strong in teenagers) did the trick. The girls stopped giggling, and we had a good tour.

So far, it may appear that my approach is mostly as a disciplinarian. However, the preceding anecdotes are exceptions to my basic method. I normally try to take the initiative in a positive, active way rather than a reactive one. I practice something else I learned during my teacher-training days: The best way to capture the students’ attention and maintain their interest is by getting them involved. I do this primarily by showering them with questions — and I insist on getting answers. My experience so far has been that the first response from a student breaks the ice and interaction begins. I then try to maintain the momentum by conveying interest in what they say, and by establishing a friendly, but no nonsense. Environment for the remainder of the tour.

Depending on the group, all these things have worked for me to a lesser or greater degree — but they have worked. So far— and I knock on wood — I have not had to discontinue a tour because of my inability to handle the group.

Gloria Perry has conducted tours in both English and Spanish for the North Carolina Museum of Art since 1979. Originally from Columbia. South America, she received her undergraduate and Master’s degrees in special education from Eastern Michigan University.

Perry, Gloria. “Disruptive Audiences: Advice from Someone Who Knows,” Docent Educator 2.1 (Autumn 1992): 17.

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