In Conversation with Michael Aho
Adjunct Faculty in the School of Undergraduate Studies
Michael Aho, PDT '09, MFA '15
You’re one of the rare individuals at CIIS who has seen all sides—student, staff, faculty, and alum. Tell us about this experience.
When I moved to California, I was considering going to graduate school, but hadn’t yet made a final decision about where to attend. I took a job working at CIIS—and then another, and another. I’ve worked in everything from Operations to being an academic office manager. I even served as a staff member on the Board of Trustees.
During this time, I decided to enroll in Drama Therapy classes; as an undergraduate on the East Coast, I studied theatre and rhetoric and thought this would pair nicely with my interest in becoming a therapist. While I enjoyed the program immensely, I ultimately decided against pursuing that career path. I was increasingly fascinated by different avenues of self-expression, so I enrolled in the MFA program. It was an incredible experience.
Now I’m adjunct faculty, which is an entirely different experience—the student becomes the teacher—and one which became very real recently when I wrote my first student letter of recommendation.
Honestly, I love teaching at CIIS. I particularly love the undergraduate programs—the depth of the curriculum and the diversity of students. In my current position at the San Francisco Human Services Agency (HSA), I see the participants only once for a specific class. At CIIS, I get to spend much more time with my students because our time together is a full semester, which is meaningful.
How does your experience at CIIS influence your work today?
At HSA, I teach orientation courses for new staff, as well as classes in cultural competency, de-escalation, emotional intelligence, and a range of other topics.
My drama therapy training taught me about the importance of group dynamics—how a group functions as a whole, and how to create an optimal learning environment. I think of it like a superpower, and I use it every day in my trainings.
The MFA program helped me to develop my performer side, which is definitely useful when teaching. It also gave me a better understanding of aesthetics, which I value and apply regularly.
You teach public speaking in the School of Undergraduate Studies. How did this come about?
I did improv theatre after college, and, as a result, decided to go to Toastmasters, an international network of clubs that promotes communication and public speaking skills. It was there I realized my love of public speaking. Was I nervous at first? Absolutely. But my father and grandfather were both pastors, which is a form of performance. Performance has always been part of my life.
Whether it’s at CIIS or at HSA, I bring a theatrical element to all my classes. I consider public speaking to be a full body experience. We warm up our bodies and our voices. If you're a musician, you wouldn't think about playing an instrument without warming up first. This is an important element of public speaking as well.
Why do you think public speaking is so many people's worst fear?
I think it's evolutionary. Facing a crowd and being the focus of attention is intimidating, and probably wasn't a safe place to be for early humans. I also think a lot goes on inside of us when we're speaking. It brings out the inner critic, which is typically very harsh. This is an important part of all my classes: what is the relationship to oneself when one is speaking?
It is essential for me to create a positive environment for my students. I tell them that the best way to learn is in a supportive community of fellow learners. In Cambridge, I took a class with Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist's Way. Cameron says that creativity flourishes in an atmosphere of safety, and for me that's a core value. In my class, we call it a "brave space." In that setting, students become more comfortable with public speaking—often much to their own surprise.
What do you do in your spare time?
I met my wife while singing sea shanties on a historic ship at Hyde Street Pier. We're couple of nerds who enjoy reading, board games, singing in choir, and learning about new things. I’m also working on a memoir and involved in a local writers group.
I feel really lucky, and I love everything I'm doing. What I'd like to have more of is down time for creative self-expression. I've spent a lot of my life helping other people find their voices. I'd love to continue finding my own.
What books are you currently reading?
Quite a few at the moment: The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker; Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon; The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey From Helplessness to Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman; White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson. For my public speaking students, I always recommend Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott and Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.