It’s Tuesday morning and East Kentwood High School English teacher Tracey Kooy’s students are moving their seats into a “big theatrical U,” as Kooy calls it, to watch her perform an impromptu fashion show of costume options for their in-class play Oedipus Rex.
“Just so you know, if the Greeks were here they would say this is a disaster,” Kooy said of the misaligned desk formation. But, after a brief comedy of errors trying to situate the desks, students settled into their seats to watch Kooy don the blind prophet Teiresias’s creepy coat, Oedipus’ wife and mother Jocasta’s fluffy hat and a crown of green leaves for the tragic hero himself.
Fast forward to Wednesday evening at Ladies Literary Club in downtown Grand Rapids. Kooy is performing a special show in partnership with downtown art competition ArtPrize. With her is 11-member comedy team, River City Improv, a troupe she helped create in 1993. In a big, blonde, curly wig she plays a British talk show host challenged by the audience to explore the topic of moles.
“The little animals or the things on your skin?” she asks with a cockney lilt. There’s no clear answer, so troupe members begin to discuss everything from hairs in moles to using moles in art.
Throughout the two-hour show, Kooy becomes characters like Serena Williams, a bride-to-be and a lovestruck woman’s best friend.
Reacting in the Moment
Kooy is a teacher and comedian: a British and contemporary literature instructor by day and a member of a quirky, funny, slapstick-y comedy troupe by night.
Along with the fact that she’s juggled both jobs for years while raising two children with her husband, Jim VanPoolen, what’s amazing are the parallels between acting and teaching that keep Kooy on her toes. “When I think of improv and teaching, it’s hard for me to separate the two because the foundational skills are the same,” she said.
What she’s so good at is modifying her presentation for the audience, spicing it with humor, dramatics and glimpses of her exuberant character, all the while testing what works and what doesn’t with certain classes and students.
“The element of improv has to be in a teacher’s to-do box,” she said. “When you truly talk about the science of improv, you practice and practice and practice and plan and plan and plan and then you execute, adapting to what the audience needs.
“You don’t just make it up on the spot. You truly have to build relationships,” she said.
It’s about perfecting timing while constantly monitoring the audience reaction. Things have to connect in order to work.
“If I’m noticing the faces in the classroom are looking confused, discouraged, frustrated or tired, then I can’t continue doing what I’m doing,” she said. “You do that on stage as well. If you have a schedule for a set of games and you’re looking out at the audience and they’re all 12, you have to modify because they won’t think some of the games are funny.”
East Kentwood math teacher Luke Wilcox, who, like Kooy, also works as an academic coach for other teachers, said Kooy is very good at responding to what students need.
“As a teacher, Tracey captures the hearts of students,” he said. “She has an incredible ability to read and react to the people in her room. Then she is adaptive and flexible in her teaching so that she can best meet the learning needs of her students.”
‘I Didn’t Want to Be a Teacher. Ever’
Kooy went into teaching after a brief stint in an office job. She had graduated from Calvin College with a degree in theater communications, and was working at a title company.
“I didn’t want to be a teacher. Ever,” she said. “My mom was a teacher, and she was my teacher in ninth grade. In high school, we were quite similar so I didn’t want to be like her. I wanted to do my own thing.”
But it was her mother she called one day and said, “Is this everything? This is what I went to college for, to sit in an office? This can’t be it.”
At night she pursued her passion, performing with River City Improv, a group she helped found at Calvin in 1993, and stage managing 41 productions in Grand Rapids, including at Circle Theater and Civic Theatre.
She also worked with Calvin Christian High School directing plays for four years. It was there she realized she wanted to be a teacher. “I learned a million things about teenagers and I loved it. I loved working with kids.”
So she went back to school at Michigan State University to get a teaching degree. After working as a student teacher at East Kentwood, she applied 36 times to land a full-time job there.
She has now spent 17 years teaching English classes including Shakespeare and college writing. She serves as an academic coach for other East Kentwood teachers.
“Mrs. Kooy makes it so we stay interested,” said junior Anaya Powell. “She puts her flair into class and then lets us put ours in it too. By getting the class up and doing things, she makes it interesting.”
Putting It All Out There
Kooy loves bringing 1,500-year-old text to life in class, or delivering the perfect line at just the right time in improv.
“The joy in the work of improv, the point is to be sort of realistic, and you end up laughing. Well, what kind of job is that? Who doesn’t want to go to work and laugh all the time? And if you’re working with young people, you better have a sense of humor,” she said, her eyes widened.
And laughter is contagious. “When we laugh together we can learn together,” she said.
She also knows an actor’s tricks. The loudest, most disruptive students are often hiding their fear of failure. Reaching them, the difficult ones, takes a series of improvisational tactics.
“She’s a great teacher. She can connect with us, she’s funny and she can relate to us,” said junior Paul Luu. “She makes class fun. She gets us involved… I thinks she cares about the students.”
The ‘Irony’ in It All
Kooy’s recent class on Oedipus explored the topic of irony in literature. Kooy sees examples of irony in teaching every day, and not just that she has to keep her sarcastic “verbal irony” on a tether.
She notices the irony in working so hard to meet different students’ needs and then laying down the same standardized test in front of all of them.
She feels the dramatic irony of knowing what students are going through long before they realize why they must.
“You have to fail a few times in life to find out who you are as a learner and who you are as a human being,” she said.
She adds: It’s about taking risks, putting yourself out there and trying again and again. Comedy and teaching have taught her that lesson.
“That’s improv. I have to be able to jump off a cliff and land on my head and be completely ruined,” Kooy said. “If I’m not, I’m never going to succeed.”