Born to be a teacher

Dr. Barbara Tannenbaum – Senior Lecturer Theatre Studies and Performance Arts, Brown University – Providence, RI

Feature | Providence, RI | 06 July 2021
Dr. Barbara Tannenbaum says that she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was in high school. In addition to lecturing at Brown University she also has a communication consulting company which has designed programs in six continents for a variety of different clients. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I always thought I wanted to be a teacher way back when I was in high school,” says Dr. Barbara Tannenbaum (PhD) a distinguished senior lecturer in theatre arts and performance studies, at Brown University in Providence Rhode Island.

“We took a preference test for what you wanted to be when you grow up,” she goes on to explain, “and mine determined that I should be a literary social worker,” she exclaims with a laugh. “I think that's what I’ve become. I love books, knowledge and I love helping people.”

Tannenbaum earned her PhD in Communications from the University of Massachusetts, and her MA and BA from Syracuse University. Since then, she has spent her entire academic career working at Brown University in a job she truly loves. “I have been fortunate enough to find a dream job. They liked me and I liked them, and it only got better from there,” she reveals.

In addition to teaching her students in the classroom, Barbara also has her students participate in confidence workshops, which she conducts in her home, as well as other skills developing exercises outside of the classroom which are important to the overall learning experience. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
In addition to her work at Brown University, Barbara is also the President and Owner of Dynamic Communication, LLC which has delivered communications programs across six continents. The programs are designed to teach participants how to maximize the power of their communication, and also focuses on empowering women to communicate effectively. Her clients include the likes of Microsoft, Google, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and many other notable companies across a range of industries.

At Brown University, Professor Tannenbaum teaches communication and persuasion skills, which she says helps her students grow and set themselves up for success. “The growth is intoxicating!” she exclaims. “The students see each other's growth and then I urge them to record themselves so they can see their own growth as well,” Barbara explains. “At the end of the semester they do a paper talking about what they've accomplished, and they all feel that they've grown enormously.”

With the skills and techniques that they acquire from her teachings, Tannenbaum says that her students are able to “go into every profession imaginable,” from technology, education, the for profit, and non-profit space, and everything in between.

“I see my students going into places where I'm also doing lecturing so I can bring what I learn about that endeavor into the classroom. When we do a lecture on interviewing, which is an important part of communication, I can talk about certain places or certain areas, because I'm also doing lectures and doing coaching work there,” Barbara explains as she describes the benefit of practicing and designing communication programs across diverse industries. This serves as a great advantage to her students as she is able to add value by offering insights into those particular fields and industries of interest to them.

Her passion and dedication to teaching and her students goes beyond her classroom. “In addition to the work that I do in the classroom, each week I have students over my home for confidence workshops, and we do a lot of things outside of the classroom too,” Professor Tannenbaum says.

In discussing the impact technology has had on her teaching approaches, Tannenbaum states “ I think the general principles have remained the same. We still are dealing with audiences and humans still respond in human ways.”

She uses presentation slides to add to her lectures to demonstrate the importance of presentation skills in communication. “But basically, we're still doing the human stuff,” Barbara underscores. “We start with what to do when you meet someone. How to act when you encounter another person in any number of ways. Then how to think about audience-centered communication which goes all the way back to Aristotle, probably before,” she says with a knowing smile.

Having an understanding of various cultures is important in order to understand your audiences and goals especially when working globally and with different clients Tannenbaum says. She also says that because humans respond in human ways, technology has not impacted her approach to teaching much. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“I have been able to post lectures online at Brown to gives access to more people but it's hard to coach someone especially if the fear for many is speaking in public. I can't do individual coaching and recreate a public for them. I need to always have a larger audience for them to practice in, and I'm not sure that online is going to make that easy,” says Barbara. She stresses the importance of in-person interactions and likes to demonstrate how technology and online interactions just does not have the same effectiveness.

In addressing her work on gender issues and communication globally, Dr. Tannenbaum stresses on the importance of cultural compatibility and understanding audiences. “It is important to keep culture in mind when working internationally,” she states. “Understanding the culture and making those choices on goals and audiences,” she says cannot be overstated.

She recalls a particular example of a USAID project she worked on with women in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia and what worked for them, and how their perceptions differed greatly in comparison to women in the US.

“I think that women need to be able to do self-promotion in a better way,” Tannenbaum points out. “Men will apply for a job when they think they are 60% qualified and women only do so when they think they are 100%.” She believes that women who are applying for jobs, interviews or promotions need to be empowered to better “sell” themselves to potential employers.

Dr. Tannenbaum’s love for teaching, her students, and sharing her knowledge, does not go unnoticed or unappreciated by her students. “It’s very emotional I get wonderful feedback,” she shares. “One of my students early on in my career said, ‘Barbara was born to be a teacher,’ and that’s the highest compliment I can imagine.”