Working as both a drama teacher and a senior lecturer in drama education, I consider my empathic skills and abilities to understand someone else’s opinions to be relatively strong. When I read a recent supply teacher’s ‘opinion’ in the Stage, I felt sorry that their view of drama in schools was coloured in the way it was. I suspect that their inability to teach drama successfully in secondary schools is borne out of a number of factors including; a professional elitist egotistical view of the role in Arts education; a deep lack of understanding of drama in schools; another deeper lack of understanding about the role of cultural enrichment; a huge lack of teacher training and education; and a self-centred view of their own importance as a teacher, which has potentially tarnished drama teachers across the UK (but only slightly!).
So here is my response to that opinion and a little defense of the wonderful drama teachers that I work with;
Let’s have a history lesson, seeing as you ‘volunteer’ to teach this subject despite your passionate hatred! 4,000 years ago, in Athens (that’s Greece to help with your geography), theatre was the centre of society and many Athenians attended the theatre as a community of people. As a result of this collective enculturation, the Athenians were able to see their own place in society because their situations could be dramatized. This enabled them to question, challenge, celebrate and explore the problems of their community and ultimately learn something; gain new knowledge. The origins of Western European theatre were driven by society’s need to learn about themselves and their place in the world. Theatre served the people.
Now, let’s move to the present day (how many years is that? I’m just trying to appeal to the fun you have teaching maths!). Many theatre productions, of which I am sure you are production manager for, have to be mindful of the consumer in order to balance the books. This is a shame. For some productions the primary aims of this ‘consumerist theatre’ is to make money rather than make the community question. One only needs to look at how much it would cost to take twenty five pupils to see a West End production for evidence of this (Woman in Black £18 x 25=_____, plus travel). The purpose of theatre and drama has changed since the ‘good old days’ of Athenian drama.
I can hear you calling me an ‘idiot’ as you seem to call every child you have worked with, and their parents, and their teachers, and poor old Jeremy Kyle (what’s he done to you?); what does this mean for drama teachers in the UK? I am sure that many drama teachers up and down the land work hard in enabling their learners to create expression, respond appropriately to challenging material and facilitate the conditions for young people to make-meaning rather than teach, explicitly, to serve your ‘industry’. Your selective industry is not as important as the young people with whom we work every day of the week.
Please try to understand that drama in education is facing some challenges, to which you infer, but clearly do not understand. Whilst teachers of drama are potentially free, responsible and able to create their own learning within the subject, often having the potential to make decisions about what is taught, why and how, basing their drama curricula upon personal experience, interest, collaboration with others, examination specifications and school/ learner context with some influence from non-statutory guidance, they are also bound and influenced by having to comply with an ever increasing dominance of measuring their impact on learning. Their ‘performance’ as teachers is linked to their pay, which is probably why you work for yourself!
The balancing act needed to facilitate drama and ensure that it survives as a subject within secondary education risks losing the potential for deep, meaningful and relevant content, particularly as teachers are continually forced to concentrate their practice primarily on two areas; the drama form, which is easier to measure and evidence in quantitative terms and thus demonstrates their impact as a teacher; and, secondly, to prove their teacher identity by meeting the requirements of the Teaching Standards. The risk in complying with these two areas not only impacts upon a teacher’s practice but also on drama education itself.
Training and educating drama teachers across the West Midlands enables me to ensure that the drama in education flag is firmly flying, as I am sure my colleagues in other areas are too. I work with a great number of committed, passionate, outstanding drama teachers who inspire, enrich and motivate pupils from some of the toughest inner city areas. They face daily incidents, which are far beyond your ‘four-kid-curtain-trapeze-act’, which, might I add is hilarious, creative, risky, original and demonstrates excellent team-working skills!
Some of the young people with whom we work face the daily challenge of street violence, fragmented communities, drugs, poverty and social exclusion. What better way to help them see that there are other ways to live, than through theatre? What better way to help them make sense of the world in which they live that through the power of drama in schools? Edward Bond (you may have heard of him, but I doubt it) talks about drama being the imagination in action and that it is the imagination – the ability to recognise the ‘other’ – that makes us human; it creates human value. This is far more important for young people, than being a ‘performer’ for your ‘industry’ and is not the only reason they attend drama lessons. For them they attend drama lessons because of the immense efforts of their teachers’ ability to do this.
So, to finish our lesson here is a little bit of homework. Go and read some Jerome Bruner, particularly his five educational ideals. Then go and look at the work of Neelands, Bolton, Heathcote, Fleming, Owens, Nicholson, Kempe, Ashwell et al. Then I would suggest spending some time with my drama teachers to see how good they are and please never ever, ever attempt to teach drama in schools again. Alternatively, get some training before assuming that your experience= teaching ability.