BY HANNAH PURNELL
“I worked for a district where, despite my constant invitations, admin never once in five years visited my theatre,” says EdTA community member Elizabeth Rand, who has managed high school theatres for more than six years and worked in tech theatre for more than 30. “I got no support regarding safety concerns and conditions of the theatre, nor any understanding about the real-life skills my students were experiencing. I was placing myself in a position of liability. Eventually, I just had to quit and move to a district that was more supportive.”
Rand’s story might sound extreme or exceptional, but the job stress, lack of administrative support, and eventual burnout she describes is common — particularly among creative arts instructors bestowed with the dubious honor of being “one of a kind.” That is to say, they’re the only person tasked with the year-round production schedules unique to teaching theatre, in addition to managing personal and family obligations — on top of apathetic students, difficult parents, and a laundry list of other day-to-day responsibilities.
The pressure can become overwhelming for even the most seasoned educator. For Martha Louden of West Virginia, who made the difficult choice to retire from the classroom after 26 years, the deciding factor came when a colleague tragically took his own life. “I don’t know all his reasons for choosing that option,” Louden says. “But it crystallized my need to find myself and to not let the job eat me up.”
Stories like these underscore a very real need, not just for educators but also for communities, to look for ways to help teachers avoid burnout, by managing critical stress and finding the resources they need to maintain a healthy, energetic approach to shaping future generations of students.
“I didn’t have much actual support from administration,” says Louden, whose final eight years were committed to teaching theatre full time. “Although spoken support was there, it was almost more ‘If you needed help, why didn’t you just ask?’”
It seems logical: If you’re facing overwhelming job stress, why not enlist help from those around you? But for theatre teachers especially, that’s something of a loaded question.
Administrators easily issue blanket assurances and “open door” policies, but many theatre teachers admit to taking a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to managing their programs, just to escape grueling administrative processes. No one wants to endure the demoralizing experience of painstakingly outlining plans and defending creative decisions, only to have them shot down by administrators who lack interest, resources, or motivation to support the creative arts.
At the other end of that spectrum are administrators who become a little too involved in their school’s theatre efforts, blocking productions and imposing censorship for even the most minor offenses. Such a scenario is well known by former EdTA Board member and incoming vice president Gai Jones, whose career in theatre education has spanned five decades. During one particular “year of censorship,” her Thespian troupe met with opposition from an administrator who demanded they change the ending of Grease — presumably to save Sandy from her tawdry fate — and remove “Jesus Christ” from another production, despite the fact that the name was a literal response to a character’s question, “Who is the chief body and soul of the Christian church?”
After Jones organized a meeting between parents and administrators, cast members wore light blue arm bands (matching the color of the play script’s cover) to an all-school pep assembly in protest of the censorship. Soon after, the Los Angeles Times called to interview Jones and the playwright about the controversy. “I handled the stress by keeping my cool, contacting my union rep, documenting every meeting, and reading every memo to and from the administrator,” says Jones, who admits to letting her guard down at home, talking and sometimes crying to her husband after a particularly tough day. For Jones, community was the most important factor in overcoming one of her hardest years as a teacher.
“Networking was so important. I worked behind the scenes to help students understand what was happening, and I spoke with fellow theatre teachers who had undergone the same kind of censorship.”
Such actions on the part of administrators don’t usually stem from any anti-creative persuasions or even bad intentions. In many cases, school administrators simply do not under-stand or assess the educational value of theatre as easily as they can with activities like swimming, football, or even chemistry labs.
What would happen if you (gasp!) take a day off?
Many teachers fall into the trap of thinking that if they take some time off to focus on their lives and families, everything at school will fall apart, even in the face of personal crisis or family tragedy. For Jeana Whitaker, who teaches theatre at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona, the pain and shock of her mother’s passing was compounded by bad timing. Her theatre students were counting on her to direct the spring musical. “Of course I was worried that everything would fall apart without me,” says Whitaker. “But I needed to be with my family and pay attention to my own emotional needs at that time.”
Whitaker took that much-needed break and was surprised when she returned to school two weeks later to see that her students and fellow faculty had jumped in to take the reins. The production was on track for success. “I learned that I can let go, and that I can have confidence in my students, in their abilities, passion, and drive to succeed,” she says. “As a result, I’ve given more responsibilities to my students and their parents — and I’ve gotten much more parental involvement this way.”
Seeking help, setting boundaries
Reassurance and guidance can be found in online community forums like the one at the Educational Theatre Association’s Schooltheatre.org. No matter how great the challenge you’re facing, it’s likely someone in your network has experienced a similar scenario and can offer advice for keeping your composure in the face of enormous pressure.
Amy Oestreicher is an arts advocate as well as an actress, artist, and writer whose work has been featured in Backstage and Huffington Post. At 18, Oestreicher’s plans for college and a Broadway career were derailed by a life-threatening blood clot. Twenty-seven surgeries, one coma, and an excruciatingly lengthy rehabilitation process later, she considers herself not just a survivor but also a “thriver,” whose “beautiful detour” inspired her to use all aspects of creativity to heal and seek positive outcomes.
Oestreicher described a recent speaking engagement where she spoke to a group of nurses, saying, “You always hear that you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. But when you’re really passionate about what you do, you work selflessly and you’re often overextended, collecting everyone else’s problems.”
Nursing is not very different from teaching theatre in that respect, Oestreicher said. “You’re asking students to be very vulnerable. The natural side effect is that those students feel like they can trust and depend on you — not unlike a nurse or therapist. The relationship between director and actor then becomes a very precious one, but we need to make sure we’re putting up a kind of shield. Because in a lot of ways, it’s not as important to ‘fix’ someone as it is to listen to them and then make sure they know the work is still on them to fix their own problems.”
Oestreicher emphasizes the positive benefits for students that come from access to classrooms where teachers set and maintain such strict personal parameters. “I took a class in set design a long time ago, and my professor was this busy guy who was involved in something like 15 Broadway shows at once. The very first day, he said, ‘Listen, I’m here because I love teaching, and I think it’s so important to pass these skills on. I’ll give you my email, but I’ve got to tell you the truth. If you have this great revelation about how something I said changed your life, that is awesome, but don’t you dare email me to tell me about that, because I’ve got too much going on and I won’t be able to appreciate it.’ He was being very clear that he has to maintain certain boundaries between himself and his students, to take care of himself.”
Oestreicher also points out that “people gravitate toward people who take care of themselves.” Taking time off, involving parents in your program, and reaching out to your professional peers for support can help set boundaries and minimize stress. For teachers, avoiding burnout can be a balancing act that is both challenging and crucial to a long, healthy, productive career.
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Read more Teaching Theatre.