This is a blog about Drama class. It is a letter from me, a longtime high school Drama teacher, to you.
You teach high school Drama. Maybe for the first time, and you have no idea what you’re doing tomorrow, or how you want to build your empire. Maybe you’ve been the trenches for awhile, and you need new stuff. Maybe you’re an English teacher or a teacher in another subject area who got this thrown at you, and you don’t know where to begin. Maybe this is a temporary means to an end while you pursue your own artistic work, and you want to make it count.
Maybe, like me, it’s not your day job, it’s your dream job,
Regardless, this blog is for you. And those wonderful little people out there in the dark. Your students.
As Drama teachers, we have amazing opportunities to create inquiry based, creative learning environments for students. Our classes have a reputation for being fun, and they are. We often enjoy an incredible amount of autonomy, mostly because many other educators don’t understand exactly what it is we do. We get to work with kids over the course of their high school careers, and form strong bonds with them that the kids remember. We are lucky.
And we are lonely. In the increasing culture of public school PLC’s, we don’t fit into the system. We work odd hours, and that often prevents us from participating in the mainstream culture of the school and sometimes our own personal lives. The fun which is a byproduct of the incredibly meaningful work we do with kids is all some see, so we get written off as activity leaders rather than teachers. We care about strange and sometimes unpopular things, and we often deal with the bad kind of drama from kids and parents.
In order to strike that balance between lucky and lonely, in order to thrive, not merely survive, we need our program to sell itself. This means that we, as the sole center of our programs (unless you work at one of those rare schools that is lucky to have more than one Drama teacher, and even then) need to practice a very important principle in our work.
Teach good classes.
I was introduced to this concept by David Grote’s book, Play Directing in the Schools: A Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide (1998) – when he just says it flat out. It seems obvious, and of course as teachers, we are sure that we are teaching the best Drama class in the world.
I like to say I was called by God to teach Drama. I am not particularly religious, but teaching Drama is something I can’t seem to get away from, so that is my only explanation for it, and it is a better one than admitting that I feel the most comfortable when I’m in a dark room telling people what to do. When I started teaching Drama in 1997, having worked in youth theatre for several years before that, I was pretty sure I was the best Drama teacher ever. I came from a performing arts background. I had student- taught Drama as part of getting my credential, a rarity in California. I had curriculum.
I was really surprised when students didn’t perform to my expectations, when it was hard for me to explain assignments, when I couldn’t settle on appropriate assessment practices, when I couldn’t reach disengaged students, when I would just lose it, when kids cut my class because I wasn’t connecting to them, when my classes became almost totally meaningless during tech week and sometimes the week before. When people in the larger school community were disinterested, condescending, or downright hostile towards what I cared so much about.
Being a drama teacher made just being a teacher way too difficult.
It took me a long time to get it. To realize that, ala Haim Ginott, I am the decisive element in my classroom and to learn to manage myself accordingly. To forgive and engage students who are quiet, shy, disengaged, unprepared, or defiant without constant battles. To figure out that drama class, unless every single one of your classes is working towards an actual production, requires that you not only plan what you want to teach from a bewildering array of choices, but how, and when, and in what order. To practice communication that requires that students, not just drama students, parents, other teachers, and administrators know that drama classes are good. Helpful. Valuable. Not just fun. Because drama class produces good results, both interpersonally and objectively.
Like you, I mostly love what I do. So I ask myself questions about my teaching practice all the time, and if I don’t like the answers, I adjust. Because the rest of what we do, the faculty expectations, the multiple preps, the productions, can really take a toll on us. We don’t need Drama class to be a struggle. So I invite you to ask yourself questions as you’re designing or refining your drama class this year.
- Am I getting good results? In class? During class performances? On the main stage? Do I enjoy watching my students work?
- Do I feel in control of my class? Do I feel like I am in the right place? Is my classroom a working community?
- Do students from all socioeconomic, cultural, and academic backgrounds enjoy coming to it? Do they feel safe? Are they learning at a high level and meeting my expectations for rigor in the room?
- Do I know where the curriculum heads next and why? Or am I allowing the production schedule to dictate curriculum for me- not necessarily a bad thing. But if it is, are there solutions?
- Am I meeting kids where they are? Am I supporting the students in front of me, and if I’m having trouble doing that, am I asking for help and getting it?
- Am I creating learning opportunities for kids that are not found elsewhere at school? Do the students, other faculty members, parents, and administrators get that this is what is happening? Am I doing this for myself?
If not, if no to any of these questions, if maybe, if yes, I am writing to you.
You are worth it. You know that. We know that we are worth it, that our rooms are worth it, that our kids are worth it.
We can celebrate our great works. We can give each other the support that’s often lacking when we work in isolation. And we can examine our teaching and work to get what we want from our programs. So that they thrive.
Drama class is a good class. This is about how to make it that way and keep it that way, from a teacher like you. A Drama teacher.