Engaging Students in Drama/Theatre

It’s the age-old problem, haunting many of us since the dawn of drama education …… how do I engage my students in my Drama/Theatre class(es)?

The bad news is, this problem is not unique to any specific year level at school. If you’re struggling to engage your Year 7 junior Drama students, then unfortunately this doesn’t mean your Year 11 senior class will be immune from it. The only difference is the students’ reaction to their lack of engagement, often based on their age and maturity level.

Sometimes, our students show us their disinterest in obvious and less than tactful ways, while at other times it is more subtle. As teachers, we have to learn to read these subtle signals LIVE (as in, it’s happening in front of you while your talking to the class). Whenever I see my students disengage in what I am teaching before my very eyes, it truly is the worst of feelings. It is here, that flexibility becomes your best friend. Like the television interviewer who decides to abandon the scripted questions when his live interview is disintegrating, we too have to adapt instantly to the situation. Now who is better than a Drama/Theatre teacher at improvising (and adapting)?!? So now we have no excuse at all.

There’s no magic recipe for engaging students in a Drama class at school and what I do is not particularly special. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share with you some helpful ways to at least get you on the right track if you’re struggling to engage your students (hope this doesn’t sound too ‘preachy’, as it is not intended to be):

  • Firstly, I have never met a Drama/Theatre teacher who could honestly say they have not suffered from the challenge of engaging their students. Every Drama teacher struggles at some point, no matter how long they’ve been teaching. It is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about and it is definitely not a weakness.
  • Student disengagement in the Drama classroom is not directly related to discipline problems. You may have the best lesson in the world happening with a completely troublesome bunch of students, who today are really immersed in the drama. Or, take my example, where I teach at a well-behaved girls’ school and have consequently disengaged my students in the most perfect of circumstances dozens of times.
  • All classes are not the same and all students are different, so really get to know your students early on and think of possible strategies unique for a particular class who are not displaying engagement.
  • Know your subject matter. If you’re an experienced teacher, remember we never stop learning and drama education is evolving as we speak. If you’re a new or returning teacher to Drama, you may feel you’re only a few steps ahead of the students. In reality, even on your worst day, you’re a football field in front of them, so back yourself on your less detailed knowledge of Drama/Theatre and run with it.
  • Be motivated and have energy. Think of it from our students’ point of view. For them, there’s nothing worse than an unenthusiastic Drama teacher. If you think they won’t spot it, you’re wrong. It will be written all over your face the second you walk into the classroom. As an example, I can be a bit moody at times (although I hate to admit it). One day, some of my students admitted to me occasionally they have an informal silent competition of sorts, as they try to determine my mood on that particular day, just by looking at my body language entering the classroom, and before I have even opened my mouth to teach (a lesson in Drama already?). On another note, on more than one occasion over recent years, a student has told me about 15 minutes into the first lesson of the day to leave a Year 12 Drama class and grab a strong coffee from the staffroom (which I promptly did, as the student/s pointed out it was going to be better for all of us if I did!). Most students really like Drama class. The very fact that it is so different to every other subject at school, alone makes it a breath of fresh air for them. So they expect (or at least anticipate) us to be energetic and keen to teach them.
  • Be confident. Teach your lessons with confidence, even at times where things aren’t exactly going according to plan. Whatever you do in that classroom, teach it with assurance (not brashness) and your students will soon have faith in your teaching and knowledge. It is OK to readily admit to your students you don’t know everything about Drama (who does?). I did that one day and it was one of the best things I have done in my entire career. I didn’t have anything to prove from that day forward. I got over it, moved on and taught with a new sense of confidence.
  • Having said the above, it is also a good thing to know your limits in Drama teaching. You’ll find your students quickly disengaged if you’re trying to tackle all five acts of King Lear in the Drama classroom. A more managable project may well have engaged them better in your teaching and their learning.
  • Be truthful. You must be true to your subject, yourself and your students (no matter what their age). Most importantly, don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and let your students find the real you (leave the role-playing for the scripts).
  • Be interested, but don’t be their best friend. Those of us who have been teaching a few years can tell you trying the ‘buddy’ thing with students just puts them right off you and your teaching. But I find being genuinely interested in my students’ world is a positive thing. Obviously, as teachers we are not interested in all aspects of teenage life and maintaining our professionalism as educators is paramount. But just little things like remembering a particular student’s favourite band, wishing someone good luck for a music exam, seeing their work in the school art show etc helps develop a healthy rapport between teacher and student (which may have little to do with your subject, but more to do with the person you are teaching). You’d be surprised, when your students discover you’re human after all, how over time they too become genuinely interested in you (and what you’re teaching).
  • Be consistent. I suppose just like effective parenting, students appreciate consistency in the Drama classroom or any other subject for that matter). This could relate to how you cast class plays or how you grade performance projects. Oh, and Drama students in particular, despise the teacher who has ‘favourites’ in the classroom. Even if they highly respect a teacher and secretly wished to be her favourite pupil, they’d much rather not be a favourite if there are clearly no favourite students in the class at all. Warning! Be careful of not appearing to have favourites in casting school productions. Treat it like a job interview, be wary of casting the same students in principal roles three years in a row and with a fresh and open mind, treat each candidate on their merits.
  • Be respectful. Every day, every lesson, each of my Drama classes (no matter what year level) begins and finishes with respect. I ask my students to respect themselves first, their fellow students second and then I’m more than happy to come in third place. Of course, I always have respect for all my students at the outset (its assumed; a given). Respect in the Drama/Theatre classroom is very important. It will assist in student engagement, as it will directly impact how students treat each other, the dynamics of the classroom, the discipline etc.
  • Be passionate. Your passion for Drama will mysteriously ooze out of your body and into the bloodstream of your students. Trust me. Most students appreciate passionate teachers. When you’re teaching a subject like Drama, students may even admire you for it and soon your levels of student engagement will go through the roof!
  • Let your students know your expectations. If you clearly have expectations in a number of areas in the Drama classroom and are consistent in how these expectations are administered, then they will appreciate your teaching and be engaged.
  • Learning is fun. I’ve said this numerous times on this blog. The quicker we allow our students to genuinely see learning can be fun and enjoyable (not arduous or a burden), then they will surely be engaged in the teaching. If something is not working out as planned, it may be the method of delivery. Is there another way you could teach the same material? My colleague and I sometimes give theory notes in Year 8 junior Drama in ridiculous foreign accents! Instead of ‘do we have to write down boring notes from the board?’, I now get requests for the German accent, and off we go…!

My final tip is to never underestimate, as teachers, the influence we can have on our students’ lives. It’s a scary sort of power we may never have asked for or never been told about at university, but I believe that fun-loving, energetic Drama/Theatre teacher can really have an impact on our students (both at school and many years after they have left). So we must treat our craft responsibly and have some fun along the way while our Drama students learn as much as possible.

And it all starts with engaging the students in our teaching. Drama/Theatre is one of the coolest subjects in school. As Drama teachers, we have our challenges like any other teacher, but we have a serious head start on the rest of the field. This is Drama, after all! Remember how much YOU loved Drama at high school? That’s the very student you want in your own Drama classroom tomorrow. When your students enter your classroom with smiling, beaming faces or when they complain about what subject they have next as they leave your lesson … that’s when you’ve got them engaged in Drama.

3 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    Thanks, all these tips have just boosted my confidence for teaching theatre performance at the senior level. I have been teaching just the juniors for 3 years. I’ve really enjoyed it and haven’t been afraid to show that to my students, and the kids really responded to my enthusiasm. This is a great reminder for myself that I am a great Drama/Theatre and that teaching the senior kids doesn’t have to be any different. Sometimes I feel that with the senior classes I have to be more serious but thanks for the reminder that I just have to be my self! Thanks!

  2. Jade says:

    Thanks. This is a great read and something to reflect on in all planning.

  3. Daniel Borbely says:

    Awesome to see you back blogging Justin! How you find the time is beyond me, but keep it comin you good thing!

    One thing that works for me is acting with them and for them. For solos, I often mirror them, and imitate them, show them what I mean, rather than just talk about it. I have found that this pus them at ease. Acting out a short scene or improving with them makes you just an actor, rather than a detached critic, so it puts them at ease.


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