A Middle School Theatre Teacher's Survival Guide

  • Courtney Talbott

Surviving middle school is tough the first time around, and for those of us who are crazy enough to go back and teach there, some days can feel like a circus. Between dealing with rampant pre-pubescent hormones, administration, parents, and staff, teaching what we love can seem impossibly hard.

I've been teaching for 14 years, and in that time I've picked up a few tricks that I wish someone had told me during my first few years. So without further ado, I give you my best pieces of advice:

Make friends with the custodians. If you're anything like me, your classroom will be a disaster area the week of your show. Often, I am just too exhausted after rehearsal to pick up one more errant sock from the floor. My custodians and I have a deal: they ignore how horrible a condition things are in for a week without complaining to the administration, and I bring them homemade biscotti and make their lives easier by helping out around the school the rest of the year. Also, this comes in handy when you feel the need to use confetti during a show. Guilty as charged! Confetti and glitter are a nightmare for custodians, but they tolerate it because we are on good terms and I give them a heads up.

Make friends with your bookkeeper. There is nothing that will get you in trouble faster than mistakes with funds. My bookkeeper had saved me several times when I miscounted, or something went missing. Additionally, my bookkeeper advocated for me my first year when I came into a drained account and big dreams of a large production. She was able to find some extra funds that could be reallocated, which was a lifesaver.

Always assume the best of parents. It's easy to think that when we have a problem student that their parents are not disciplining them at home, but I have found that this is not usually the case. Often, the kids are totally different at home, and if our first contact with parents is a negative one about what their child is doing wrong, we are already starting behind. It also goes without saying that we never know what is going on in the household that kids aren't telling us. A child may be living through a divorce, a job loss, or a death in the family by acting out in the only way they know how. Ask parents how you can help. Ask if they are noticing anything different. You never know when your good relationship with parents will pay off. I had a parent changing my lights in the auditorium 10 minutes before my recent show!

Assume the best of students, too. I will admit to frustration when students won't participate, but I have found the best approach is to smile and tell them they can join in if they change their minds. Nine times out of ten, once they see how much fun their classmates are having, they will want to join in. It may be that they are scared of looking foolish or simply having a bad day. Respect that they are people just like us.

Advocate for yourself. If something isn't working for you, speak up. Your average administrator doesn't know what you need unless you tell him. Don't be afraid to rock the boat, but always approach problems respectfully. It will get you much farther, and it helps to have an understanding administration when parents accuse you of teaching paganism. (I wish I were kidding!)

Good luck, and don't forget that at the end of the day, you are sharing something that has the power to change people's lives. Despite the ups and downs, you are making a difference, and you will find that students will realize it later on, even if they don't appreciate you right now.