Only one of the students pictured is a native English speaker. Most struggled just to read their scripts let alone create a meaningful interpretation of the roles they played. I did not write the script in a simplistic way. It was not tailor-made for ESL students. I wrote the script with an international audience in mind but with the same level of sophistication that native English speakers could expect in high school productions.
Some were Korean students who have to battle against a culture that does not elevate or easily support self-expression. They were ecstatic about their achievement. I too was really happy because of the risk I took in placing such a high expectation on those students. Some ESL staff felt it was too challenging for the students, but the students did not feel this way.
I fully acknowledge student effort and student accomplishment but I am rightly proud of my own efforts. You can't make this sort of performance happen without a great working relationship with students. It is this aspect of drama-teaching that I want to focus on in this article.
Because of the nature of the subject, drama is an area that can very easily lend itself to the development of friendships, particularly with the prolonged close contact that comes from school drama productions. What sort of relationship you develop with your students depends very much on your particular personality and philosophy as well as the teaching environment. This is one aspect of teaching however that I encountered problems with right from the start and had to learn from hard experience.
Essential Principles of Student/ Teacher Relationship
I was so arrogant when I first started teaching that I ignored the advice of wiser, experienced teachers. The outcome of my initial ideas on student/teacher relationships was so painful that I quit teaching after 6 horrific months, never ever intending to return. So lets get to the 'nitty gritty' of what I believe to be essential for your survival and real success. Keep in mind that I am not saying to create 'rules' but rather principles that will become the foundation of how you will interact with students.
There are alternative style schools where this advice is not relevant but, if you are in a traditional school environment, this is my advice. Get it very clearly in your mind. You are not a friend to your students. You should be warm and friendly but you should never become friends with your students. You can be an advisor or counsellor to a limited extent but take my advice and maintain a professional distance in relationships. This may seem a hard stance and you may recoil from that statement, I can understand perfectly, but give me a chance to clarify what I mean.
In reality you will be of more benefit to your students if you keep a professional distance than if you try to be friends with them. Why? Just look at your own circle of friends and acquaintances. How many close friends do you have? How many close friends can you cope with? Unless you are an exceptionally outgoing person it is likely that, in order to maintain your sanity, you can only effectively deal with a limited number of people in your inner circle of friends. For many people that may be a dynamically changing group over the years. You cannot possibly establish a friendship with all the students you teach. So if you establish it with some and not with others, how do the others feel? How does that affect your working relationship with them? This can create real relationship problems, with accusations of favouritism, exclusion; not to mention the difficult and complex; and sometimes very risky areas (especially for the drama teacher) you can get into if you become personally involved with a student‘s personal life.
Let me make it perfectly clear, I am not saying to become cold and distant but make the relationship clear by your expectations. One area is how students should address you. As a novice teacher I assumed that if I was really friendly and allowed students to call me by my first name they would automatically like and respect me. That was a big mistake. Instead I became a joke amongst the student body. They saw me as an easy target, someone whose classes they could play around in and have lots of fun. I now choose to be called Mr. Tawse. I wish that wasn‘t the case but I have learned from bitter experience; and no longer believe in addressing teachers by their first name in a traditional school environment. In alternative school environments there may be an exception.
Establish Your Personal Space and Physical Contact Limits
You will also need to establish clearly your personal space and physical contact limits with students. Don‘t allow students to think it is alright for them to hang out with you at recess or lunch time or come and chat with you after school as a normal thing ( I'm not saying never). They will exhaust you and you will not have enough time or energy for effective planning and organisation. You will become too much involved in their personal lives and try to solve problems you are simply not able to do. There are professional counsellors with specialist training who are better able to deal with those things.
There are students who develop dependent relationships very easily. You have to diplomatically and sensitively create clear boundaries for accessibility to your person and time. Once the relationship boundaries are established you will be able to operate more effectively within those parameters and find that you have a great relationship with your students. They know that you are accessible, there to help them, but always within the parameters you have established with them.
Another area of concern is actual physical contact. I have found this a very difficult area to establish any definitive rules. I have been fortunate to have taught in a very broad range of social and cultural contexts and have worked with students from all over the world and all age groups and can tell you there are no easy answers.
Each student comes from a different social context. Cultural groups have different ideas about this. In Asia it is expected that the relationship between student and teacher is very formal. Students struggle with informal verbal exchanges with teachers, let alone any form of physical contact. In the Middle East you could find yourself in jail if you laid a hand on any child, particularly female. I found that young Aboriginal children can be naturally very touchy. I actually like the ease with which they will hug you, hold your hand or put an arm around your shoulder.
One negative however is that sometimes you may feel your personal space has been invaded. Unfortunately there are obvious problems with physical contact with students. There is world-wide concern with paedophilia and it is tragic that in most school contexts you would be 'entering dangerous territory' to show physical affection of any kind towards students.
The School Production Relationship
This is particularly difficult for a drama teacher when working on a school production. When you are working in close relationship with students, the most natural thing may be to give students a huge hug when they have triumphed in performance, or even just to throw an arm around their shoulders to comfort them when they are having a hard time. My best advice is to let the lead in this come from the student. Some students are more physical than others. However, it is essential to keep in mind the sensitive nature of this in any school environment.
Of course you should establish one very clear rule. Never be alone in a room, with a closed door, with any student, at any time. I know of good teachers who got themselves into deep trouble because of untrue accusations laid against them by female students who maliciously set out to destroy their reputation. One teacher I heard of, who was eventually completely exonerated, never fully recovered psychologically from the horrific experience of being accused of sexual misconduct with a student.
As a Friend You May Not Bring Out the Best
Finally you will never elicit the best performances from your students if they see you as just a friend. It can be hard enough, at the best of times, just to get students focused and motivated, but if they do not respect you as a teacher, and someone in authority, rather than a friend and equal, they will not really give their best.
Sometimes the best course of action in rehearsal is not to support and praise but to challenge and cajole them into greater efforts. They may hate you for a short period but when you stretch them to embrace that new level of performance and they start to experience real success, they won't need your praise, they'll know absolutely what they have achieved.
Aim for the Paradigm Shift
I have had students weeping because they were able to achieve performances that would not have been possible within the cultural and educational context of their native homeland. What they experienced was a paradigm shift! Isn't that what we all want? Nothing beats the thrill of reaching beyond your previous level of performance in a, life transforming, serendipitous, moment of spontaneous creativity that catapults us to new levels of expression.
I would love to live in a world where these things are not an issue but unfortunately they do matter greatly. Use wisdom at all times and find the right balance in your relationship with students.