This isn’t going to be one of my philosophical ramblings about the nature of teaching or leadership, much as I love them. Nor is it going to be a heavy-going reflection on a personal journey that I sometimes pepper this blog site with as a reminder why I live the life I do, much as I feel the need to write them. Instead this post (and the two that follow it), in the spirit of the holiday mood and the sunshine outside, is a rather whimsical reflection on one of the things that I love about teaching, the school production, and my own history of contributing to them in the 18 years since I qualified.
I owe the idea for this post to my sister, Julie, and one of the loveliest people on twitter, Karen (@kdwscience) who met last night for the first time. Julie was working down in the south west and in need of company. Karen happily agreed to be that company and the pair got on famously. Little did I realise that this would appear on twitter as soon as the meal was over:
This was, I’m reliably (?) informed, the only bit of gossip about me that passed between the two mischief-makers over their meal and wine. I’ll reserve judgment on that one, but let me explain my first foray into musical theatre as a teacher.
It was my NQT year in an estate school in the wonderful Kingston-upon-Hull (a place where I lived for eight years in spite of it being the number one ‘Crap Town’ in the first ‘Crap Towns’ book published). The academic year was 1995-6, we were boycotting the still-new KS3 SATs tests, trying to explain our position at the bottom of league tables when the DfE really did publish them in rank order and struggling with the fallout from the suicide of a Y9 student who had reportedly roundly blamed both home and school in her note of explanation. Times weren’t good. Times were as far from good as they could have been by the spring of that first year. But then the posters went up: auditions were being held for the summer production of Grease.
It was the perfect tonic from the get-go, the perfect lift for a school badly in need of it. It seemed like every staff briefing was about the logistics of the production. It seemed like every department was involved in some way, from props to costumes to rehearsals to music to poster designs and so on and so on. It seemed like every class was buzzing with gossip about the auditions, casting and early news from rehearsals. But most of all it seemed like every child was asking “are you going to be in it sir?”. I hadn’t even contemplated the idea that adults might be involved other than behind the scenes so I laughed them off and went back to my marking.
And then a visitor from the drama department arrived and I stopped laughing. It wasn’t a request. It wasn’t an audition. It wasn’t a choice. He had cast me! In a singing role!! As ‘Teen Angel’!!! Just what a fresh-faced first year teacher needed to ensure ritual humiliation and a lifetime of behaviour management problems. It couldn’t have got any worse.
Only it did, because then this ‘colleague’ (one of life’s thwarted thespians and impresarios) turned his attention to my outfit. Not content with the “drab” brilliant-white garb worn by Frankie Avalon in the movie, this man decided that he wanted something with more pizazz. His vision for me, and the reality he created for me, was a little something like the male version of this:
I stared at his designs like a man staring into the coffin that his career had now become. I was going to be toast grilled to a piece of charcoal. No! I was going to become the human version of my beloved Uni-uniform Eastern European army boots, sprayed silver and besequinned especially for the event: emasculated beyond all recovery. But I was an NQT and the opprobrium of my peers seemed a worse fate than the opprobrium of my classes and so I felt my head nodding of its own volition and I agreed to do it: like I had an option!
For the next three weeks I lived and breathed that song. I woke up with it, ate breakfast with it, tortured the cats with it, taught in spite of it, bathed with it and took it to bed where it spooned me. The results were initially good and at the first auditions the students in the cast and stage crew nodded with the raised eyebrows that said “he’s not as crap as we thought he would be”. Of course this was all pre dress rehearsal and my bacofoil suit was in my head rather than on my body, ensuring that every success was received with an awareness that I was being trussed like an oven-ready turkey to be ready for my roasting. All the same, it felt good when kids stopped me in the corridor to tell me I was “not bad” (the phlegmatic understatement of Hullites I reassured myself) or interrupted my lessons on Kes to tell me that they were buying tickets for the show on order to hear me sing (“bring your sunglasses” I thought).
And then came the second big shock at audition two. My impresarious (another neologism methinks) fellow teacher had also been Busby Berkeley-ing the set as well as the costumes and the stage directions and had created a three story scaffolding structure with a ramp that looked like a shorter version of this:
But felt more like a longer version of this to those of us that had to ‘nonchalantly’ walk down it in the guise of one of the heavenly host whilst singing in tune, being blinded by a spotlight and dehydrating like a prune.
The sheet terror I felt (for my ankles as much as for my dignity) wasn’t helped by the well-worn, nay baby’s bottom-like, smooth soles of my boots and the ingenious *insert irony klaxon* decision to make the ramp more aesthetically pleasing by adding cheap nylon carpet to it. By the third rehearsal there were, at least, strips of wood acting as grippers but even with these I descended with all the elegance of an epileptic elephant and all the poise of a pissed porpoise. On the upside I copyrighted the shapes that I threw that day and now earn a shed load of money whenever this clip is shown:
Nonetheless we ploughed on, collectively as well as individually, and bit by bit my stock with my students rose to unprecedented heights. They stayed back after lessons to talk about their contributions to the cause or about my impending ignominy or about all sorts of things that they had never talked with me about before. In the staff room too I found myself forging new relationships with teachers from outside of the English department and outside of my House team. The school admitted 330 students in each year group and managed its vastness via almost necessary compartmentalisation, and these new friendships literally opened my eyes to the school as a whole. My contribution to the production had brought about more than acceptance in a large school: it had helped me to weave myself into the warp and weft of the rich tapestry of a school community.
But with belonging comes responsibility and, at a weekend of final rehearsals, I met the student who most shaped my early career who I have written about in this blogpost. In telling me about what she had experienced she showed me how important it is for teachers to play a part in the life of their school beyond their classrooms: important for them and for their students. To this day I still get a lump in my throat when I hear this song:
Then came the performances themselves, one matinee for the primary schools, three evening shows and two end of term reprises for the whole school. How did I do? Well, some went wonderfully well and others were less memorable for the majority. I sweated a lot, in the wings and under the lights for very different reasons. I nearly fell over once, going back up the ramp rather than descending it, but managed to hold it together.
But in reality my part was a cameo. Far more impressive to me were the other cast members. Aged 11-16 (the school had no sixth form) they did amazingly well with many more lines, songs and stage directions to manage on top of their nerves. My main role for these performances wasn’t as ‘Teen Angel’ but as another kind of guardian altogether. I mopped up tears and puke in almost equal measure. I received ecstatic hugs accompanied by ear-piercing shrieks. I hushed excited souls in the holding room, but didn’t hush anything more than their voices. I picked up the pieces of those who had messed up their lines and glued them back together as best I could. And sometimes I just sat there and smiled, inwardly as much as outwardly. Sometimes I simply caught their eyes and revelled in the sense of belonging that events like this bring.
This post is really written for new teachers like the new teacher I was then. It is intended as a kindly, warm piece of advice for those who haven’t yet participated in a school production. The advice is quite simple: do it. Yes, teaching is about helping students learn and achieve. Yes, we are professionals and specialists first and foremost. Yes, time spent marking and planning is the best investment you can make in the early years of your career. Yes, schools are not the custodians of students’ souls and parents have ultimate responsibility for their children. And yes, we need to find space for our own lives away from the time-consuming gravitational pull of our employment.
But, in my very humblest opinion, to go through a career in teaching without ever having played a part, however small and however tangential, in a school production (or sports team, or other nail-biting, eye-popping, mouth-watering, nerve-jangling extra curricular activity) is to have missed out on something truly special. Eighteen years and four schools later I am still drawing on the well of memories and feelings that were poured into me during this production. I hope that my bucket never comes up dry.