Friday, October 31, 2014

De Mansers & Daughter - Welcome to the firm

There's been cause for celebration in our family this term because the middle child has started her first full time job. A child's financial independence is always an exciting time for parents but this one is special. Not only has Sophie landed a job - she has joined the family business and become a teacher! And for this term, she is working in our school, with us!

This was the child who swore black and blue, despite her obvious aptitude for teaching, that this was a job she would NEVER do. Bought up in a household with two teachers, she always had a very realistic view of what life at the chalkface is like. She knew about the long hours, the lack of recognition, the absolute certainty that she would never be rich on a teacher's wage. She knew that many times the needs of other peoples' kids had come before her own and she swore not to take on that sort of commitment herself. When she finished school with a score that put her in the top 2% of the state, she had the choice of any course she wanted, so off she went to make a million dollars in the media industry.

And then, suddenly, she grew up and realized that life is not all about making money. That a life fulfilled is one that makes a difference to the world and one way you can contribute to a better planet is by creating better people. She remembered that whether by nurture or nature, she was already a great teacher and so off she went to get another degree.

And now, not only has she joined 'the' family business, she's teaching in my old classroom! In the same classroom that I taught her. A room that still has her rainbow fish art work on the wall from year 5 and 2 bookshelves cluttered with teaching memorabilia from my 16 years at the school. 

 This is a little confronting for me. My teacher mortality radar just switched into panic mode. Sophie is teaching the kids of kids I taught before she was even thought of. She has decades of a brilliant teaching career in front of her and I have....... not so many. I'm being replaced by a newer, shinier, albeit less experienced but with the potential to be a much better version of myself! She's tidied the shelves, thrown out most of my disorganised rubble and, for the next term, she's going to be working from the same desk on which she once left her mother cute notes!

I'm brimming with pride at her professionalism and enthusiasm. I love the fact that her teaching style is so like mine - she's already raising an authoritarian eyebrow with flair - and that she's at work early so the day is organized and she's willing to adapt to any task, with any class because she knows that she's a teacher of students, not subjects. But, I'm also a little afraid for her.

Teaching is a tough gig and it's getting tougher by the year.  I've spent countless nights looking after sick kids on camp, countless dollars providing materials and food and experiences for kids who couldn't afford them. In my 35 years in the classroom, I've been sworn at, spat on and kicked. I've had chairs thrown at me and I've been abused on the phone and in my own home by parents who haven't liked me calling their children to task over minor or major misdemeanours. I've counseled and cajoled, pleaded and pushed kids to get their work done, hand their homework in, learn their lines, do their best. I've cleaned up tears and urine and faeces and more vomit than you can imagine (Did you know it's impossible to get all the vomit out of the eyelets of leather boat shoes?). I've written countless referrals to doctors and lawyers and human services looking for help for kids with special needs. Even after they've left school, I've written glowing references and sourced scholarships and work placements. I've survived 6 major curriculum changes driven by politicians who don't have the faintest idea about education and on top of that I've taught fire safety, road safety, cyber safety and safe sex. There are days when I despair and wonder if I wouldn't be better off in a child free, 9-5, leave your work at work sort of job. 

Do I really want this lifestyle for my own child? 

You bet! Because even on the worst days, there's the happy drawer (see the next paragraph) and the absolute confidence that no matter what, you've done your best to improve the outcomes for the kids you teach and surely some of that care and love has rubbed off on them.

So, on World Teachers' Day, here's a little indirect advice to our newest teaching graduate and all her cohort of eager, enthusiastic young teachers. Hindsight is valuable and there's some lessons in teaching that you don't have to discover on your own!

1. Leave your ego at the door. Kids are difficult and discerning customers. If you do your job properly you become invested in the kids you teach. They become part of your life. As a class teacher you often spend more time with them than their parents do but you are not and never will be their parents. To be a good teacher you need an ego that is robust enough to let you think you can teach anyone, anything but you must also be egoless enough to know that you'll rarely be credited for the success. Occasionally, you will come across a grateful child, a thankful parent. Their gratitude will feel like sunshine. Drink the wine they give you, (the real gems will know that you like red wine, not white; dark chocolate not milk), and keep their thank you notes. Put them in a 'happy drawer' and whenever you have a really bad day, get them out for another read and let their words wash over you. One day these kids will become engineers and nurses and doctors and lawyers and electricians. Some of the best will become teachers. Watch their progress on LinkedIn and bask in their success from afar.

2. Keep your cards close to your chest. If you think some of the kids are tough, wait till you meet their parents. The car park mafia are your greatest enemy. In the carpark waiting for pick up, at cricket training or netball on Saturdays, at dinner parties, in the supermarket, on Facebook, these are the places where teachers reputations are built or destroyed. All parents were once school students and some of them feel this gives them absolute knowledge of what is right and wrong with the education system and your teaching. If you continue to teach in the country, there is no escape from this. Be careful how much of yourself you divulge in the first few years. Kids have a wonderful ability to misinterpret and put their own perspective on your words before they repeat them at home. For this same reason, also be wary of the stories they tell you about their parents!
Of course, parents will also be your best ally. When parents and teachers work together and support each other, kids thrive and you will come across many wonderful parents. You'll learn to tell the difference between the snakes and the champions but it will take you awhile. After 35 yrs, I still get it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, be polite, be fair; even in the face of irrational anger or accusation, respond always with calm logic and good pedagogy. Just like you, parents just want what's best for their child.

3. Get involved. This is not news to you. Some of the richest learning, for students and teachers, happens outside the classroom. Camps, productions, sport, school events, shared interests; in these environments you really get to know your students and can teach them lessons that relate to their present and future lives. Embrace every opportunity to share extra curricula experiences. 
You already know that not all teachers are created equal and you will come across the 9-3.30, 'don't let the door hit you on the way out' variety. This will frustrate you but it's the way of the world. Every organization has a blend of those who do a lot and those who don't do much. These teachers have empty happy drawers. Model innovative and inspiring practice and sometimes others will follow.

4. Practise your mask. Teachers are always 'on'. The kids don't care that you had a busy weekend, that your dog died, that you've had a fight with your partner. They need a smiling face, an enthusiastic voice and an engaging activity. The classroom is a performance space and you have to be able to transform character in a blink. At any given time you'll need to be a psychologist, nurse, confidante, bus driver, cook. Don't be afraid to dress up, get dirty, play games and laugh. The kids will still know you're the boss when you're wearing a dinosaur onesie.

5. Be kind. As Maya Angelou once said, 'They may not remember what you taught them but they will remember how you made them feel'. Teaching is an emotional business. It's hard to deal restoratively with a kid who's just sworn at you, wrecked your lesson and distracted everyone else but staying calm and dealing with the behaviour rather than the child is vital. Be kind, be compassionate, give authentic feedback and suggestions for improvement. Remember that for some kids, school is the safest place they know. Start each class afresh and never hold a grudge. Even the worst behaved child might surprise you one day.

Keep learning; never stop. Build networks with your friends, your colleagues, online. Read, discuss, think, reflect. Enjoy.

Welcome to the firm Sophie. Happy World Teachers' Day.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Just follow the Yellow Brick Road.

We've just bumped out our school production of 'The Wizard of Oz'. It was a great show and got terrific reviews from the people who came to see it ( even some that weren't related to the cast ;-)

The planning for this year’s play started about a week after we bumped out from ‘Oliver’ last year.
At that stage, the VCE Theatre Studies students compiled a list of possibilities, taking into account the very specific requirements of our company. These requirements include;
  • ·      A chorus of thousands!- Our company is open to all comers. We audition for the leads but everyone is welcome in the chorus.
  • ·      Enough lead roles for all our senior students and junior stars.
  • ·      A musical range that we can cope with.
  • ·      A great story. Not only do we want the kids to perform, we want them to think, to analyse and understand the story.

The VCE students are asked to complete a theatre brief on each of their chosen plays and to present these to Lyle, the director. She then investigates the availability of the scripts and the music before deciding on‘The Wizard of Oz’.

Over the Summer we hold a number of planning meetings to decide performance dates, rehearsal schedules etc.

When school starts, the 5-7 and 8-10 performing arts classes start looking at the script. Main roles are cast via audition; minor roles go to younger students who show aptitude, willingness and who take the initiative in role plays and drama games. Everyone else makes up the chorus.
Our music teacher, Kath, begins looking at the music and trying to get it into a key that we can manage. The hard slog of learning lines begins.

At this stage, Lyle starts creating her beautiful drawings of the set, the costumes and the props that will later bring the story to life on the stage.
Our Yr 12 technician Brad and the 8-10 production group start making the set and the props. Kath and I start working on the choreography, Geoff works with the senior cast and VCE Drama students on their expressive skills and Olivia starts learning where all the music tracks begin and end.
By second term, rehearsals move to the local hall and we start blocking out the play. Jenny, one of the cast parents, creates meals for everyone, every week. We try to work around footy and netball training, swimming lessons and all the other extra curricula activities our kids are involved in.

The senior students make a trip to Block Theatre in Ballarat to hire the main cast costumes while our own team of costumers,  Lyle, Wendy, Mirren and Janet, start working on the chorus costumes. With a cast of 60, all having two or three costume changes, this is a huge effort.
Once we have the costumes, Kerry and Wendy start sorting, fitting and labeling.
Kate, one of our talented mums, transfers Lyle’s drawings to the sets and she and her helpers spend hours in the shed getting the painting finished.
The sound desk

With a month to go, rehearsal time becomes frantic as we try, (in vain), to get all the way through the show. 
On the Sunday before performance week, we bump in. This is a full day exercise for as many helpers as we can find. An extension stage to fit our huge chorus is set up, all the sets and props are transported from school, the back rooms are scrubbed and carpeted and Geoff works out how Lyle's vision will become a reality on the stage. After many hours of saying it can’t be done, it is done. Brad and our IT tech Joel spend the next day setting up the lights and sound (not an easy task in a building built in the 30's!) and then, finally we get a chance to rehearse with the set. This means all the chorus scenes have to be reblocked because of the logistical nightmare involved in getting 60 + kids onto the stage in an auditorium that has no wings!
Bumping in.

At our last rehearsal we finally get all the way to the last scene and find out how the story ends! The kids move into their 'dressing room', a small, drafty concrete storage room that leaks when it rains (and it always rains!). The space is designed to fit about a dozen but there is little complaint from our 50 who squeeze themselves shoulder to shoulder & keep all their costumes in little boxes under their chairs. During the downtime they keep themselves busy with their iPads, books and card games. The big kids are promoted to the real dressing rooms backstage. These are also ancient and tiny but closer to the stage and with the added bonus of wall hooks!
Dressing room mayhem
Then the real fun begins. We have three night performances and two matinees. The matinees are wall to wall sell outs with kids bussing in from several surrounding schools. The night shows also attract big crowds and the cast rise to the challenge, producing their best work when it matters. Miraculously, they remember all the words, they sing like angels and the set movements go (almost) like clockwork. The chests of the new year 5 kids swell with pride and the main cast take on movie star status , even posing for photos with the audience after the show.

The last night is bittersweet. After so many weeks of rehearsal and nagging and cajoling, everything has come together beautifully and we aren't quite ready to leave Oz. And there's also the realisation that this will be the last show for our Yr 12 student, Charmarelle. The Production company is like a family and the kids who spend 8 years in it with us are very special. It's hard to say goodbye and tears are inevitable!
Charmie's last show :-(

It would be nice to run the show another week but I doubt the kids or the staff would have the energy. The teachers who work on the show put in 12 hr days for every rehearsal, 15 hrs on show nights. On top of that is the setting up, the packing up, the costumes, communication with parents and other staff at school, all while managing full time teaching duties and mid year reports. We're lucky to have an ever growing team of great parent helpers but nevertheless, the show takes a toll and we're ready for a holiday. For Lyle there will still be several more long days, returning everything to it's rightful place and washing and sorting costumes. As much work as the rest of us do, she does triple. She is the creative and driving force behind the show and we worry that one day she will retire!

So, what is it that keeps us coming back each year to produce our blockbuster musicals?
It's simple. We've been at it for quite some time now and we've seen the results of the children who are exposed to dramatic arts on a consistent basis. Almost without exception the production kids exceed their own potential in all sorts of areas, especially academic ones. Not only do we observe this, we can prove it by comparing their VCE scores with their externally assessed GAT (General Achievement Test) scores. And international research says the same thing, like this study by UCLA that found that kids involved in the arts do better academically. 
Why is that? What are the students learning by doing the play that helps them to achieve great things academically? What does their drama work add to their ability to become leaders?

Here's just a few that I've noticed;

Self- Confidence - Standing up on stage singing your heart out to an audience requires bravery and teaches kids to trust themselves. The confidence gained by doing this applies to school, career and life. This is especially true for boys. Singing and dancing isn't stereotypically encouraged amongst boys in the country but when they are supported to be involved then they often reap twice the benefits that the girls do. Our performing art's boys grow up to be self assured, confident, articulate and charming young men.

Cooperation & Collaboration - A successful performance can only be achieved through team work. In our company, kids from age 10 - 18 work together to produce something amazing. This has a great spill over into normal school life where these kids continue to ignore age and year group barriers.

Concentration - Learning lines and dance steps, practising and performing develops a balanced focus of mind, body and voice. I've seen non readers learn to read by having to learn a script. ADHD kids (while a nightmare in the warm up room!), often find strategies for self control that transfer to the classroom later on.

Communication Skills - Drama enhances verbal and non verbal communication. It improves articulation of words, projection, persuasive speech and fluency of language. It promotes listening skills and the ability to improvise. The graduates from our company can get up and speak anywhere, anytime, to anyone - in class, to their footy team, when accepting awards, running assemblies, making speeches at birthdays and funerals and presentations in the work place.

Physical Fitness - Movement improves flexibility, coordination, balance and control.

Resilience - Not everyone can have the lead role so auditioning is risky and requires kids to overcome their fear of failure. And once you've twirled around the stage in a white cape pretending to be a snowflake, you can do anything!

Perseverance - Learning lines is hard. Rehearsing can be boring. There's a lot of waiting your turn and putting up with other people forgetting their lines. You have to commit and turn up every week. There are no quitters in our team.

Memory- Memory is like a muscle, it improves with practice.

Emotional & social outlet - So many social situations can be learnt through Drama. Aggression and tension can be released through 'play acting' in a safe and controlled environment. We have several children on the Autism spectrum in our company. They are super stars on stage.

Imagination - Today's world needs graduates who can imagine and create. Drama feeds imagination.

Relationships - Working together to achieve a common goal builds relationships between staff and students, students and students, parents and staff. The production gives teachers a chance to see kids in a different space than the classroom. It gives kids the chance to know their teachers as people and team mates rather than opposition. Members of this company are friends and mentors for life. Those who stick with the company until year 12 are inducted into our Hall of Fame and these students often return to support the show and are always available as mentors for our younger students.
A backstage visit from some 'Hall of Famers'.

We put the show on 6 weeks early this year because some of our kids are going to Leadership School and on exchange next semester. It was a good plan because we seem to have avoided the annual production plague that often decimates the chorus during show week! It was also a special production for our family, because after 10 years of going to every rehearsal and learning every line, Taine is in year 5 and old enough to get up on the stage. He was an awesome munchkin/crow/ozian/winkie ;-)

Taine's first show!
So, that's the story of our little (grand) school production and some of the reasons why we're passionate about it. We're very proud of our show. For a school of just 250 kids, with no funding and no facilities, we do an awesome job and the payback is well worth all the hard work. 

If you've got kids, get them into performing arts.

Cast and crew of 'Oz'.