One of the greatest challenges for any high school Drama teacher is how to keep the subject popular. Often Drama is one of the most liked subjects in the junior school, but then gradually fades into a study that barely meets minimum class numbers in the senior school. The question is why?
Culture: Every teaching department at school has their own culture and Drama is no exception. To keep Drama healthy, a culture of respect and academic excellence is necessary. Drama must not be seen as a soft subject where easy grades are awarded and little or no work is perceived to be done. Similarly, we must avoid taking the fun out of Drama by going too far in the opposite direction. Balance is the key. A positive culture in Drama is also essential. Students will avoid studying Drama wherever possible if they do not respect the teachers, the subject or the learning program. We sometimes forget that smart students talk to other students who have previously studied our subject. They receive “reviews” about Drama in the corridor, on the train, and at lunch. If a Drama department does not have a culture that the student body approves of, then they will vote with their feet and few will undertake the study at the pointy end of high school.
Peer Pressure: While I may have been teaching in girls’ education for the past thirteen years, before this I have taught at coeducational and boys schools. Plus, I was a student at two Catholic boys schools, myself. Studying Drama can sometimes be a tough gig, particularly if you’re a boy. Unfortunately, peer pressure is still alive and well. Straight boys are often labelled gay by their peers if they study Drama. When Drama ceases to be compulsory (if it is) in the junior school, many boys think very carefully about the possible social consequences of choosing Drama in middle school and senior school. Consequently, this can be a reason why Drama numbers dwindle in the senior years. One of the best high school musical casting decisions I have done was placing the captain of the senior school football team in a show. I couldn’t believe my eyes when he appeared at an audition, all revved up with hidden talent. So I cast him as the Sergeant of Police in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. The entire football team bought front row tickets in the dress circle of our high school theatre. They then proceeded to hang their hand-painted banner over the edge so their friend could see it when singing. Stage lights and audience darkness meant he couldn’t see a thing, but this didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. They came to support their mate. Wow, did we break a few stereotypes that evening! I use this as my best example for boys who love Drama. Follow your passion and don’t give a damn about what others may think about your choices in education.
Traditional vs Non-traditional: I can’t stand it when people (often fellow teachers) refer to subjects like English and Mathematics as academic. All subjects are academic or they wouldn’t be on the school curriculum. Often these people do not mean to offend, but when saying this to me they are referring to Drama as being non-academic and making a difference between one subject and another. In a good teaching and learning program, Drama is just as rigorous and challenging as any other subject at school. Because it involves creativity and use of the imagination does not make it any less academic. The problem here lies with the fact that our school systems are not set up to measure creativity in a standardised testing manner, so somewhere along the line Drama loses credibility as a result. While Science and Mathematics have been around for centuries, newer subjects on the school curriculum sometimes have a tough ride. Here in Australia, Drama has been on the school curriculum for about 45 years, the first decade or so as part of the English program. Because Drama is not a more traditional subject such as Science, students often have a hard time convincing their parents of its worth when they wish to pursue it in the senior school. All of a sudden a subject like Drama is seen as less important to a student’s career path post-compulsory education than the so-called “bread and butter” subjects. “Education” is the keyword here. We need to educate parents more about the value and importance of Drama in high school. We need to clearly articulate the benefits of our discipline at school showcases, parent-teacher evenings etc. We need to actively promote drama education to our school community through newsletters and school websites. At the end of the day, we teach a subject that lends itself to promotion, and this is where we need to take the lead over our colleagues. But so many students have difficult discussions with their parents over wanting to take on Drama as a subject in the senior school. I believe the perception of Drama as a subject in high school is changing in a positive way, but being a newer, less-traditional subject in The Arts is just one of the reasons why keeping Drama popular in the senior school can be a genuine challenge.
Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments section, below.