A couple of weeks ago I wrote about all of the struggles that public school teachers face in the city. Besides the constant scrutiny and being told that we don’t know how to do our job by pretty much everyone, we also deal with a student population with more adult issues to worry about than school. Teaching in a New York city public school will always be the hardest job I ever have, but it was also very rewarding. That’s why I didn’t abandon teaching entirely. I love working with kids, I love seeing them grow and become adults right before my eyes. Teaching is near impossible to get right, but when you do, and you see a kid understand something that they didn’t five minutes before, or someone comes to you for help because there is no one else they can trust, that’s why you stay. I’m pretty sure that’s why we all stay.
The best part about teaching at my old school for me was the after school theater program. I started it in my second year (because I was 23 and what did I know about what I could and couldn’t do!?), but it really grew when another teacher, S., joined the staff. By the time I left, S. and I were switching off directing and stage managing all of the after school productions. In my last year we did three shows. The theater program was unique because we had kids who actually wanted to be there, who wanted to be better performers and grow in a safe place. One year we did Romeo and Juliet, with S. directing and me stage managing. When we look back on it, I don’t think either of knew what we were thinking, trying to tackle Shakespeare. The weeks leading up to the show were the craziest, toughest, and busiest times as we scrambled to all but learn the lines and blocking for the kids. We laughed, we cried, we yelled at the kids, we yelled at each other, we broke things. But when that show went up, I was overwhelmed with pride. Watching Mercutio give her Queen Mab speech, and Romeo and Juliet finally, if tentatively, kiss for the first time, every challenge and near miss that we had faced floated away. And then after the show when we had cake and congratulated each other, I was so happy to not only have given the kids such a unique and fun bonding experience, I was thrilled to be a part of it myself.
The theater definitely connected me to the kids and kept me sane through my years as a teacher. Sometimes it felt like I was only showing up to work so that I could stay for after school. I was so excited to be able to take a group of kids to see Bye, Bye, Birdie on Broadway just a few months after they had performed the show themselves. Watching them watch kids their own age up on a Broadway stage was amazing. I felt like they could see their own potential reflected back on them. And then after the show, I took them to the stage door and watched them tell the actors that they had done the show and knew the songs too. After meeting the cast, the girl who had played my Ursula, and my student stage manager came over and gave me a hug and said thank you. They had loved meeting the cast and seeing the show. Teaching in general is a pretty thankless job, so having a student not only enjoy themselves, but thank me as well, is a moment I treasure.
Without the theater program I probably would have left teaching completely, and I definitely thought about doing that. But the kids in my theater program showed me the possibility that exists when you devote your life to helping kids. You are part of their development, growth, and confidence. The kids I work with now are just like the kids from my theater program. They are hardworking, animated, energetic, but also many of them face problems in their real lives that I would crumble under. What they have in common the most though, with my theater kids, is that they let me in. They want my help, the appreciate it. Most times its hard for kids in the city to do that because they are very worried about being hurt or let down, as they so often are. But for us teachers, out goal is to make a real and lasting connection with a student. When you build the trust that makes it possible for learning and growth to take place, the whole world opens up and you can make your students believe that anything is possible.
So, teachers, what is your “theater program”? What makes teaching worth it for you in spite of the challenges?