Open Forum

Community Tips: Advice for New Theatre Teachers

By Ginny Butsch posted 11-26-2019 00:00


There are undoubtedly a good number of you out there who are just beginning your career as a theatre educator. First of all, let us extend a sincere welcome and CONGRATULATIONS! You have entered into one of the most rewarding (and at times, challenging) careers that exist. You are undoubtedly bursting with excitement while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed and wondering how on earth you are going to manage to keep all the balls up in the air. Have no fear, we’re here to help! As you delve deeper into the Community, you’ll find incredible resources, new friends from all over the world and answers to questions you didn’t even know you had. To start, here’s a list of tips sourced from some of the top Community members:

The most important thing every new theatre teacher needs to know is who their students are. Once you really get to know your students, it will inform all your work.

-Hugh Fletcher, Troupe 89019, Bronx, NY

Four things: 

  • Think outside the box! You are capable of doing so much more than you ever imagined.

  • Ask your students – they are very creative and often have fantastic ideas!

  • Don’t try to be a one-man show. Build a team. It will take a while but once administration and parents get to know you and trust you, they will be on board!

  • Don’t select a play or musical on the basis of what your students can do – select it on the basis of what you WANT them to do. Raise the bar and they will always meet it or go beyond. Expect the best – push them to do diverse roles and they’ll grow as an actor.

-Connie Sandoz, Troupe 7879, Henderson, NV

Be flexible. Have an arsenal of skills and strategies that you can pull up at a moment’s notice so that you’re not thrown by the unforeseen stuff that happens. This can really help with managing a classroom, adapting to the students’ responses to an activity, shifting your curriculum to be more engaging and responsive to the students’ needs. It can also be invaluable when the inevitable surprise occurs - an actor missing a rehearsal, a snow day shifting a schedule. Learning to adapt to challenges or respond to the unseen turns that can occur gives a theatre teacher control over the process. And never let them see you sweat! 

-Michael Bergman, Troupe 7639, McLean, VA

Be prepared to teach administrators and colleagues about what you do.  It’s common for theatre teachers to be a one-person department, and our needs and our triumphs may not be easily understood by others. 

Of course it’s important to form alliances with your colleagues in your building, but don’t forget to seek out allies outside your building as well. (The communities on EdTA’s website are a great start, as are conferences, and making friends with other theatre teachers and theatre professionals in your community).

If you are an actor, get on stage every once in a while.  Not all the time.  You probably won’t have time for that, especially when you’re new, but treading the boards periodically can remind you what excited you about theatre initially and create tremendous empathy for what your students go through regularly.

-Ryan Moore, Ferndale, MI

Hold on tight, don’t try to be perfect, stay calm, and stick it out. If you’re married and/or have kids, they come first. Involve them in your program as much as is feasible. If you can get your head round the staggering list of expectations and responsibilities of running a small business populated by teenagers, the intrinsic rewards are equally staggering.

-Phillip Goodchild, Ontario, Canada

Make sure you say no occasionally.  We’re go-getters, we love the action, we want to help and do and make and be… but we can’t do all of that and keep sane.  So, sometimes you have to say no to an extra committee, sometimes you won’t be able to do that special PD (unless it’s one you really have been longing to do), and sometimes you won’t be able to be the one who organizes that Halloween flash mob in all of your free time at school.

-Amy Sidwell, Woodburn, OR

Whether you've been teaching one year or teaching twenty years, you're going to have good days and bad days. How you deal with those bad days impacts what you can accomplish on your good days.  Mistakes will be made. Learn from them and continually strive to improve yourself and your students. Don't forget to make some time for you, if you're not happy, your students won't be either.

Take the time to do it right.  But don't forget yourself.  You will dedicate more than you realize in time, effort and money before the year is over.  It is easy to let your work envelope your life.  Don't live or die with your failures or successes.  Grow from them and continue to find better ways to do things.  Remember tradition, if there is none, create it.  Be true to your values and have faith in the kids and they will have faith in you. Stick to what is best for the program but be flexible to the needs of those who desperately seek help.

This was all purposely contradictory because as theatre teachers we need to be ready for anything and everything.

-Alan Strait, Council Bluffs, IA

Pace yourself and allow yourself to make mistakes. Do not try to change the world in a day. Find ways to keep teaching fun and exciting for you. Never stop desiring to learn more. As educators, we should strive to set the example of being lifelong learners.

-Charlene Thomas, Matthews, NC

R-E-L-A-X. My fellow faculty members always comment on how relaxed I seem during show week, and how fairly unstressed the cast and crew is. These are called plays, we should be having fun. We may be making a statement, but we’re not curing cancer here. Maybe it’s my radio background. Until the show starts, we’re not late. And ultimately, the show is not about me. A good friend once told me a manager has only three jobs: cheerleader, bulldozer, and umbrella. That is to say we encourage, clear obstacles, and shield our performers from distraction. When the curtain goes up, my job is over. It’s their turn.

-Scott Piehler, Lilburn, GA

It depends on if the person is starting a program from scratch or inheriting one. For an inheritance: It's your department now. It's okay to go in, make changes, and do something that's never been done. And  take a close look at your budget and insure that all prior debts are settled before you start spending money. You never know what was left behind. For a new teacher: Scale back on some of your ideas. Take a breath and know that you can create something amazing without killing yourself or your budget. Big isn't always better and (most importantly) delegate BEFORE you work yourself into a nervous breakdown. ;)

-Shira Schwartz, Chandler, AZ

Evaluate and inventory your available resources including people: students, colleagues, administration, parents; and things: spaces, textbooks, scripts, costumes, props, tools, supplies, technology in order to help you clarify vision for your program.

-Suzanne Livesay, Tampa, FL

Never forget you are teaching children: Try to remember how dopey you were in school when they do the silly things they will do.

-Greg Alldredge, Cypress, TX

Wear great shoes!  Trust me. When you are a young teacher (and poor), you will want to wear cute, impractical, cheap (affordable) shoes.  Don't do it!  You are one of the few people in a building on your feet 16+ hours a day.  You never walk on the same surfaces (carpet, tile, concrete, stage floor, dance floor, riser, ladder, lift, cat walk...); you stand more than an average worker; you dance; you run, etc.  It is imperative you wear a supportive, balanced, great shoe.  There are lots of companies making beautiful, comfortable support shoes (no more schoolmarm shoes!).  Do some research.  Ask.  It is important to you and your health. All of that abuse on your feet (connected to your knees, connected to your hips, connected to your spine) may not be noticeable when you are young, but you will notice it before too long.  If it is your intent to have a very long career in the theatre, wear great shoes. So, forego the Starbucks for a month and buy supportive shoes!

-Raenell Smith, Whiteland, IN

Don't direct any of your favorite titles that first year. Maybe even the first two. Don't take anything personal.  Develop good rapport with student leadership team.

-Scott Hasbrouck, Denver, CO

Read everything you can, and steal ideas from seasoned veterans!  Also, EDTA is an excellent resource when you want to narrow down "everything" to something more manageable.

-Kristen Statt, Liberty Township, OH

Collaborate and have an open door policy. Since, most people (students and other teachers) are going to regard what you do as "pointless," don't let it get to you. The best way I've found to counter this view is to be a strong collaborative resource for the "important" teachers (i.e. Math, Science, Social Studies, etc.). When time allows, develop Drama lessons that incorporate what kids are studying in those classes then invite those teachers to bring their kids to see how those concepts are taught through Drama.  For example, we had a wonderful time learning about American history and politics through a series of short lessons on "1776" and "Assassins."

-Josh Ruben, Tunnel Hill, GA

The best advice I can give to a new teacher is to stay in the moment and be yourself! I am a planner, but I have learned not to over-plan down to the last detail and to always be willing to go with the teachable moment. As far as being yourself goes, the students will quickly see through anyone who isn't authentic. We learn and grow from our mentors, but we must be true to who we are to truly be successful."
-Garry Tiller, Washington DC

Trust yourself, but don't be afraid to ask for help. Especially if you start teaching young (I was 22), your students are going to question you. That's okay. Let them; but show them that you know what you're doing or you know where or how to find the answer. At the same time though, realize that your students are sometimes more creative or know more than you in a particular area. Use them! There have been dozens of times on stage when a scene has come together better than I ever thought possible because they had better ideas than I did.
-Annie Rice, Spring Hill, TN

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