Being new to teaching drama or theatre in a school setting can sometimes appear daunting, so here are a few tips to help get you started on your journey as a drama educator.
Professional Learning Communities
What constitutes a professional learning community in education often means different things to different people, schools and other learning institutions. That being said, a professional learning community, or community of practice, has the aim of exchanging learning, ideas and dialogue among its participants for the purpose of sharing knowledge through collaboration and improving and enriching outcomes for all involved. This could be a professional teaching association for drama who offers forums, seminars and workshops for its members, a group of drama teachers from different schools in a particular region who meet regularly, or even a group of teachers in the same school who teach different subjects. We never stop learning in teaching, so discovering new ideas from others in the profession is always a rewarding experience. Triple that if you’re new to teaching, not just drama teaching! I highly recommend new drama teachers join your professional association as soon as you start in the classroom and take advantage of the various resources and professional learning on offer throughout the year.
Few things in teaching can beat the value of a good mentor and I personally believe the positive effects of mentors on new teachers is underrated. If you are new to teaching drama, find a mentor in your school or educational institution that you admire and trust. Many schools offer formal mentoring systems as part of teacher initiation program in your first year, where new teachers are buddied up with a volunteering mentor on staff who usually has many years experience. If this doesn’t exist at your new school, then make it happen unofficially. Sometimes it can be useful to have your mentor in your own subject area, such as the Head of Drama or similar. Alternatively, it can also be valuable having a mentor who is not in your department. Do what suits you, but be aware that teaching without a mentor in your first year can be a scary experience. I even remember having two or three mentors in my early years of teaching who were external from my school setting, such as a former university lecturer I could ring up for advice every now and then.
In my first year of teaching, I was the only drama teacher in a large school of 1,500+ students. My first mistake was that I did not attend many professional learning opportunities or really understand the value of networking in my early years. Initially, it was a rather lonely experience. But if I got one thing right in those first few years of teaching, it was arming myself with loads of drama education teacher resources. I remember spending a large portion of my department budget in the early years on drama books with student activities, units of work, topics to cover in class etc, plus plenty of teacher reference texts. We’ve all heard the saying “knowledge is power”, so I bought up big and read till the sun went down.
Drama and theatre teachers are often renowned for their ability to think quickly and creatively, yet sometimes let the team down when it comes to being organised in the workplace. First and foremost, get organised early and do it for yourself in order to survive what for may can be a pretty rugged first year in the drama classroom. Creativity and organisation can most definitely exist together – just think of how organised a drama teacher has to be when running the school musical production – months of preparation and rehearsals involving many people completing a diverse range of tasks in order to get to the opening night. Plan your drama lessons in advance, be flexible in the classroom to modify as you go and most importantly set timelines with realistic deadlines for tasks and projects. If you are disorganised as a drama teacher, unfortunately the very nature of the subject lends itself to one big cluttered mess with you at the bottom of a pile of costumes wondering why things aren’t running smoothly in your drama classroom? Sacrifices in your personal life outside school hours are common in the first year of teaching, especially in the field of drama where you could be running after-school or weekend play rehearsals.
Avoiding burnout goes for teaching in any subject, not just drama or theatre. The English Literature teacher may go home with a pile of essays to correct on the couch on a school night, but you’ll arrive home at 6 o’clock with a splitting headache from a musical rehearsal with fifty students after school. I have friends teaching drama in other schools who rehearse school productions after school, on weekends, and during school holidays. Where’s the work-life balance in that? If you are going to be any good for your drama students then you have to be happy, refreshed and motivated in and outside the classroom. What good are you being tired and burnt out? Personal health is paramount. Look after yourself as a new drama teacher and minimise the impact of outside-class play, musical and concert rehearsals. These are part of a drama teacher’s job, but exactly how many hours you spend rehearsing after school and on what days or at which times may well be up to you or open for negotiation with others. If a performance project involves a group of students you teach during the day at school, then consider getting your students to use class time more efficiently to reduce extra rehearsals after school.
The very nature of drama, from classroom content to the physical space, easily leads itself to healthy relationships between staff and students. Use this to your advantage when you can, but never fall into the trap of thinking students are your friends. There’s a big difference between being friendly and considering a student a friend. Always remember you’re their teacher and maintain professional standards at all times. Avoid silly stuff like being Facebook friends with students until after they graduate. Never have favourites in the drama classroom or it will be your undoing. Students see teachers who have in their eyes “favourite” students a mile off and you will lose respect as a result. Treat all students equally, from the outstanding student who will give their all for drama to the student who skips drama class and thinks it’s a bludge. All students should be treated equally in the drama classroom.
Managing your classroom in drama is critical. You might think only the Science teacher has to be super careful when it comes to students undertaking experiments in the lab, but the drama teacher must also be very careful in managing his or her classroom properly. Occupational health and safety in the drama classroom is very important. Ensure students are not running around without your permission or playing unsafely with props and costumes etc. Trust me, a blink of an eye is all it takes in drama for a situation to go from great to dangerous, especially if you are a new teacher of drama who is naturally focusing more on content than classroom management.
Be Ambitious But Realistic
Many motivated new teachers, particularly those straight out of college or university, want to change the world in their first year or two of teaching. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s dreams, but it ain’t gonna happen! You’ll only burnout due to a ridiculous workload because you put your hand up for everything on offer and in the process annoy a few of your colleagues along the way. You’d be better harnessing all that motivation and energy into fewer projects that are completed to a higher standard. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone in your first year of teaching drama. Let others accept you for who you are, stay true to yourself at all times and enjoy the enormous amount of fun drama teaching really can be. Know your limits and stay within them.
As a natural extension of classroom drama, live theatre is seeing those skills learned at school being put in practice by professionals. Attend theatre shows as often as you can in your first year or two of teaching. You may be a little exhausted with the workload at school, but drag yourself to the theatre to be enriched. Treat it as a reward for yourself and you’ll love every minute of it. Come back to the classroom and discuss theatre shows with your students. Better still, go to see theatre with your students!
Sometimes overused and undervalued, passion is so important in teaching, especially with a subject such as drama. If you’re fresh out of university, then make up in passion what you may lack in content knowledge in your early years of teaching. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you see your drama students as passionate as you are in the classroom. Pat yourself on the back, because you’ll be a large part of why that is occurring.
Is There A Better Job Than Teaching Drama?
No! Drama teaching is the best job in the world. Big statement, I know. So find out for yourself. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!