Advice For NQTs.
Whether you are just in your first Drama post with a supportive Head of Drama, or you're on your own with a small department or even an English teacher who has been asked to teach a little Drama, then I hope you will find some of the advice here pertinent. If there is a topic that is a burning issue and you would appreciate an objective point of view, then by all means E-mail me. There also follows some advice about organising your first school production- all learnt the hard way I assure you!
There are a lot of considerations over classroom management in the drama studio and you may not have covered these to your satisfaction during training. A major problem is that you cannot force someone to take part in a role play. If they are supposed to be writing then if they are coerced it does at least mean that something productive can be achieved. However, when a group are working on a role play, it is counterproductive to force a student to participate as they will simply mess about or even refuse to do what is necessary for the drama to proceed. The best policy would seem to be to try and make drama out to be a privilege that the vast majority of students are enjoying. If a student is fooling about, make them sit outside or just to one side. When they see how much fun the rest of the class are having then they are often willing to abide by the rules to join in. This can be reinforced by the teacher who points out to the student that they are bored and that if they behave they will enjoy the lesson much more. We are at an advantage here in that the vast majority of students are appreciative of the opportunity to do something different that Drama affords and this can be a powerful behaviour management tool.
For groups that lack confidence and are terrified that they will make fools of themselves before their peers, it is often best to start the first three or so sessions with activities that allow them all to work at the same time whilst you go round and watch what they are doing rather than stopping the group and asking for volunteers to present their piece. Note the vocabulary there. Present is less intimidating and allows you to stress that this is not at performance standard which would require some weeks of rehearsal and should be polished. Try and identify a confident group with good material who you can try and persuade to present their work first. It is very important that students are made aware that they shouldn't criticise each other during or after a presentation. Don't accept any jokey critical attacks. Always ask for what they thought worked well and what they enjoyed. After taking a few comments you can then point out alternative ways of staging or approaching the scene which is a way of delivering your teaching points. If you don't have enough time to view all their work or if a group is not happy about the quality of their piece, then ask a spokesperson to describe the plot and how it related to the task that they were given. It may also be possible to award merits or points for groups that are willing to go first or to students who participate for the first time.
Start sessions off with students sitting in a circle. As you take the register, ask them to raise their hand and then you make eye contact with them. This helps you to learn names and identify problems. Without a class plan based on desks, it can take a long time to learn names. A digital camera can be a quick way to put names to faces and if all the photos are on a handy sheet in your register it will prove invaluable. Always stress to students that they are not to move until you finish giving instructions. The fatal phrase " get into groups of about four" will provoke an immediate flurry of movement and subsequent instructions will be lost. Preface your instructions with " Don't move until I have finished speaking" . The old adage that you need to repeat everything three times because the first time you say something they are not aware that you are speaking, the second time they know that you said something but don't know what it was and the third time they actually hear it they just don't get it, is a true one and that's why teachers are such boring company amongst other adults.
Protect your voice. As teachers it is our most valuable tool and yet rarely do we receive any training or advice on how to use it effectively. If you work in a large school hall your voice will have to work incredibly hard and over time it will learn to cope but a few simple steps can make things easier. Don't shout instructions out whilst the group are busy working. Stop them with a clear signal, either a hand clap or drum/whistle, then ask them to sit down or freeze. When they are attentive you can give instructions. Use gestures and eye contact to reinforce what you are saying. Just before they start, ask if there are any questions. If the place is in chaos, don't shout and yell, it's counterproductive, start with a few students and get them to sit on the floor in silence. Move round the space asking them all to do the same and then when they are listening, calmly explain that you cannot shout over thirty individuals and that if they are all yelling at each other , no-one can hear what is going on and the drama will be poor. You should be able to talk to them in a normal voice. If you find you can't then you need to act, otherwise they will get used to working in this way over time and it will be difficult to change in six months.
The old methods of control are no longer appropriate for today's class room. Many classroom management strategies are based on aggressive confrontation and the reality now is that we don't have any power to back up such threats and the students know it. A more fruitful approach is to use assertive techniques allied to an overall air of competence and confidence. Never put yourself or your teaching materials down. Never ever say" I'm sorry this tape is poor quality but you'll just have to listen carefully" as this implies that you are presenting them with poor materials . We are always saying things like that as teachers and it gives a subliminal message that we are not good enough to be in front of a class. Give value to what you have to offer and so will they.
It is always hard in your first year as you are having to establish your routines and expectations amongst students who know you are new. Quickly learn the discipline procedures in your school. What are the names of the Pastoral Heads? What are the proceedures for detentions and other sanctions?If you can quickly communicate to the class that you belong to the school it will make your job a lot easier. Let them know that this is your space and that you control the expectations and behaviour in it. By appearing relaxed in your own territory you have an advantage. Speak of "my Drama Studio or Hall" , give them clear instructions from the very first lesson i.e. "when you come to my studio, line up outside until I call you in. When you enter, put your coats and bags over there in a corner, collect a chair and come and sit in a circle in the centre of the space." If you are then sat on a chair as part of the circle with the register in your hands and an expectant look on your face, most of them will sit quietly. Rather than use anger, use surprise that they have behaved in an inappropriate way. Raising a quizical eyebrow at a student who is messing around as if to say "why would anyone wish to do that?" is a much better approach. Use the same quizical tone when challenging misbehaviour. Try " Why are you messing around, don't you understand what you're supposed to be doing?" as a puzzled question rather than an angry demand. If they then come back with a smart remark, again avoid an aggressive challenge. Try "there's no need to be silly, I just want you to create a good piece of Drama. Now what is your plot and what do you need to work on in order to make it work?" The reality is that if you quickly switch to an aggressive challenge the student will reply with an aggressive response forcing you to escalate and so on until the situation is dangerous. At the end of the day you have to remember what task you are trying to get them to do and use firm directional techniques. In an absolute confrontation don't lose your temper. You are the adult and must keep control of yourself. Never snatch anything from a student. Hold out your hand and ask for the item firmly. If it is not surrendered, again use the puzzled questioning tone " are you refusing to hand over that piece of paper?" If the student pushes it, then again don't lose your temper, just move calmly up to the next sanction. Ask them to wait outside or go and sit in the corner. Tell them that you will speak to them once everyone else is busy enjoying their drama. If they still refuse to co- operate, then send for them to be removed by your Head of Department or a senior member of staff. When you speak to them about the incident adopt a disappointed not an angry tone. Stress that all you want to do is to help them and the class enjoy Drama and that that sort of behaviour is spoiling it for both you and them. Clearly state your reasonable expectations of them and never say "O.K?" or " allright?" as it invites an argument and weakens your point. Never touch a student when they are angry as they may lash out, point to the door or gesture where you want them to go. At other times however, appropriate touching of students can reinforce your authority. For example, a light touch on the shoulder as you talk about another student who is standing next to you to the rest of the class,a light touch on the shoulder as you guide someone across the room, these show that you are an adult who has different rights and behaviour modes to them. It is the same principle as the students not being allowed to use your first name. There has to be a distinction between you otherwise you have no right to insist that they do anything. Knowledge of your subject is important. You will gain esteem if you know your stuff and are enthusiastic about communicating it to them. If you don't like the subject matter then either change it or lie! Remember if you are bored and disinterested then they certainly will be. Keep moving about the space. Keep an overall awareness of what is happening, especially when involving yourself with just one group. It is when you are deeply involved in sorting out the plot complexities of one group that the group in the corner starts messing about with your lighting desk. When the whole group starts working, zero in on the group that you know is reluctant or is going to have difficulty. Don't make the mistake of ignoring them because they have difficult characters in. Start with them and make sure they have a good idea that they can work on.
There is always a problem with the boys and the girls working together, especially in K.S.3. They have very different ideas of what will be dramatic and you find that the boys and girls are working on separate scenes within the same group. Start by insisting from Year 7 that there are no single sex groups. Explain that Drama is about life and that we have a mixed society. Girls don't play boys and boys don't play girls- they should learn to work together. Ask them to find a partner and then combine the pairs to make groups of four. Odd numbers can be put in a three and then combined with a pair. If there is a large imbalance of boys to girls, try and balance it out. When the girls rush over to tell you that the boys are messing about, as they always do, you will find this is because the girls have sorted out the story without reference to what the boys want to do, so the boys respond by messing about. Stress the co-operation and if someone has been given a horrible role explain that this is unfair and a compromise has to be reached.
You will find that you have a high "chaos tolerance level" as a Drama teacher. This is not a problem in itself but if you are teaching in a classroom you will find that your normal class noise level is not appropriate for a small space. You have to mentally re-adjust yourself when moving from drama studio to English classroom for example.
Remember, the overall aim is for them to enjoy Drama and for you to enjoy teaching it. Try not to let your temper and frustrations damage your relationship with a class. If one individual is a particular problem, then arrange for them to be withdrawn whilst you find your feet. There is no shame in asking for help with students who task the skills of experienced staff. Some students you will never succeed with. All you can do is manage the situation so that the rest of the class can get on and learn .
Staging Your First Production.
The commitment to staging a production in school is very heavy. I would estimate that a straight play, of about an hour and a half , will require at least 70 hours of rehearsal, a musical will need at least 120. This doesn't take into account all the hours you are trailing round the shops buying paint, looking for props or running up costumes and programming the lighting desk. The play will take on a life of its own, no matter how much it takes or what disruption it causes, things have to be done in order for it to go ahead and it's only afterwards when you collapse during the holidays that you realise just how much of your life has been taken over. The other point to consider is that no-one else will give the play the priority that you do, the priority that it needs in order to work. Accept as much help as you can get but remember that everyone else will fit it in around their own concerns and priorities. Be prepared for the day that you go into the Technology rooms to pick up that vital prop to be told that they haven't managed to get around to it yet and that they will knock something up tomorrow. Let others have clear deadlines and gently remind them. If you can use students, you trade off other concerns such as quality of final product with the fact that it should be ready on time. If you still intend to go ahead then I hope that the following points will be useful.
If you are at a school that has no recent tradition of productions you will need to make sure that the Senior Management are aware of the commitment and are ready to offer practical support. A successful programme of productions brings great kudos to a school and it is only fair that this should be respected and encouraged. Ask for a budget of £500 which will be your working capital and from which you can become almost self sufficient as you make a small profit each time. Start small if possible. Try working on a joint presentation with the music department, perhaps Art would be willing to display work as well and so broaden the appeal of the evening. You can then present a one act play or series of short scenes which are less work to start with. Some schools present their examination work to the public but as is often the case, the pieces have been chosen for their suitablity for the group and the exam, not an audience and this can lead to a disjointed and introspective evening. Christmas is an ideal time to start as most parents are willing to come to school as long as you site your event in early December before they get to busy. Two nights will justify all the hard work and allow you to pull in sufficient audience to make a profit. If it's a musical then go for three days, Thurs. to Sat. for example. Start as soon as you can. During the Summer, choose your text, make preliminary design sketches and prepare your audition posters. It will take two weeks to advertise and hold auditions so it will be three weeks into the term before you start rehearsing. If you are doing a musical in the Summer term, then audition before Easter so that the cast can begin to learn songs over the holiday. For the audition itself, select a short extract that allows you to audition four at once. Just rate them on a 1-3 scale and cast from your 1s and use your 2s where necessary. It may help to take a picture of them in their audition groups as you forget what they look like and this can lead to miscasts. A digital camera will save time and needs no printing. Bring an older student to act as a secretary and write names and classes. This will free you to keep things moving. Call them according to Year groups, one on each day and advertise as much as possible. Assume most kids don't know about the auditions and didn't hear the notices as that's probably the case!
Get your scripts available as soon as possible. Insist that they bring the script and a pencil to every rehearsal. Take a register for every session and follow up those that are missing. Never accept the word of another student that so and so has dropped out. Speak to them personally. Tell the students to come and see you if they can't make a rehearsal rather than just missing it. Find out if they have any permanent commitments that mean you have to rearrange the rehearsal schedule. Put up the rehearsal schedule at least one week in advance. Choose a big notice board that is accessible to the whole school and put all your notices up there. The cast must get into the habit of checking it regularly. Ban all scripts on stage after four weeks but be lenient with the priciple characters. Prompt them but expect to see evidence of line learning. It will be a great aid to you if you can persuade a student to act as your assistant and attend all rehearsals to take notes and prompt. Keep your copy of the play to hand and make notes of blocking and so on as you go on. Work in the space and with a mock up of the set as much as you can. Hold one or two reharsals after school and rehearse every lunchtime. It can pay to work with the large chorus during lunch and then do detailed work with the principles after school. Half term is a key time for learning lines. Have a full cast meeting the week before and point out all that you expect from them. When working with large casts, use parents where possible to make small items of costume, buy tights or hats etc. Encourage them to learn lines with someone to prompt them otherwise they know the lines but they don't know the cues.
As regards the set and construction of key props; repeat this mantra, " the caretaker is my friend!" If you can persuade him to do a little magic carpentry then all will be well. If this needs to be overtime then the school should pay. If they challenge this, remind them of their promise of support. Try not to bite off more than you can chew. If the set is complicated and expensive, then keep the costumes simple and vice-versa. Get these thing started as soon as possible to avoid a last minute rush. Definitely pull in help for costumes. Their are quite a few fabric wharehouses around, it's worth hunting them out. Buy modern costumes from a charity shop it will save you a fortune, or ask the cast and/or staff if they have anything. It's surprising what you can unearth from a community of over a thousand if you ask around. Make contact with local theatres to see if you can borrow items ( ask the caretaker to drive the van ). As a rough guide, a budget of approximately £150 for the set and the same for costume will see you through, of course this is just for the materials as labour is free! Look roung the school for suitable furniture, chairs and desks. Don't let them throw away any remotely useful "period" pieces otherwise all you'll have on stage are plastic chairs and formica top desks. It is amazing what you can borrow from local shops. Try walking in and saying, " I'm a Drama teacher at the local school and we're doing a play and I wondered if you would let us borrow..." In exchange for some advertising in the programme, many shops will help. I once managed to borrow a double bed from a famous national D.I.Y. chain!
During half term, ask a student who is talented to design the poster and then plaster it all over school as soon as you can. Insist that every form has one on the class noticeboard and send an A4 sheet home to parents with the poster on one side and a description of the play and ticket details on the other. You must push the play hard otherwise no-one will come. A large casr will provide many bums on seats but for a small cast you really must keep pushing. Ask for help. Often another member of staff is willing to oversee this area and give it the time it needs. If you can pull in about 300 over the two nights then it should be okay. Offer a family discount on the tickets to encourage parents to bring the whole mob. You will find yourself fighting against the combined forces of student apathy and an adult reluctance to come to poor school plays. Of course your masterpieces are more worthy than this!
In the week before the show you need to take at least two full days for rehearsal and should also try for a late nighter, i.e. from 3.30 until 8pm. It is during the full day run throughs that the play really comes together. Insist on this otherwise it will be ropey. There are many demands on students and other staff will resent it but if the final product is going to be at all worthwhile you must have this time. The day before the first performance have a dress rehearsal in front of an invited audience. Use a local Primary school if the play is suitable, otherwise use the sixth form or your drama groups. It's important to run the dress rehearsal before an audience otherwise the cast don't take it seriously. It is during the dress that any problems occur such as not enough time to change the set or flimsy props that break on stage. Be happy it didn't happen on the first night.
Get as much help as you can for the actual performances. You need at least three front of house, two to run refreshments. You need two other staff backstage to keep the cast quiet and you need supervision between the end of school and the start of the show. You need secure changing areas where costumes can be left between shows and get someone to run an efficient pros table, otherwise I can guarantee you will spend ages looking forsomething vital that was last seen on a chair somewhere and has been stolen by a pupil during the day. After the show, take the time to bask in your temporary glory before you tidy it all away and start to plan the next one. Enjoy! and send me a photograph.
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