The UTeach Theatre program prides itself on fostering collaborative, creative and adaptive educators who are ready to influence the next generation of artists. With the landscape of educational theatre shifting before them in spring of 2020, the B.F.A. in Theatre Education graduates were armed with these skills, stepping into roles that were not only new to them but also new to the educational world. Not to be deterred, the UTeach Theatre class of 2020 celebrated a 100% job placement rate for students applying at Texas schools, spreading their knowledge to elementary, middle and high schools across the state, with some graduates branching out to campuses across the country. Back in December, we caught up with UTeach Theatre alumni Miranda Perkins and Tori Husting following thier first semester of teaching, discussing their experiences navigating this new educational landscape and their advice for future teachers stepping into these roles.
How did you tackle the obstacles of online/hybrid classes for your first semester of teaching?
Tori Husting (Theatre Arts teacher at Sunset Valley Elementary School): My school district began in-person instruction on the first day of school. We were fortunate enough to have a designated remote teacher for elementary theatre, art and music. With these remote staff positions filled, it enabled me to just focus on creating COVID-19 safe content and lessons for my in-person students, which was enough of a challenge in itself. The kids had to remain in their assigned spots during class, materials could not be shared between students and they had to socially distance themselves as best as possible. Acting, playing and fostering personal connections between students in this kind of environment proved to be almost as difficult as keeping masks on my kindergarteners. However, my students and I found our groove and were able to still create meaningful experiences, just socially distant ones.
Miranda Perkins (Theatre Arts teacher at Cele Middle School): The first four weeks of the school year were 100% virtual, and ever since then we have been in a hybrid model, with some students learning from home and some learning in-person. In-person students have joined in phases, and each phase has presented a unique challenge. Both the students and I have had to adapt to the hybrid model in real time, which has occasionally felt a bit like building the airplane while in flight. I prioritize flexibility, collaboration and feedback, encouraging students to come to me with suggestions when they have them. We have frequent class discussions where we reflect on how different activities went, and I make note of any changes we want to make for next time. I have also posted several surveys that ask students for their feedback, which I reference when I write new curriculum. I draw from my experience in theatre and model a devised approach, allowing adjustments to happen on the fly if/when it is agreed that they will improve our experience. I’ve noticed my student engagement go up significantly whenever I have implemented their feedback and suggestions.
There’s been a lot of issues with technology this year, so I also allow a variety of types of submissions for student work (digital drawings vs. paper drawings, typed responses vs. verbal responses vs. handwritten responses, etc.). I let students choose the method that works best for them. A lot of students are getting to be very tech savvy now that they spend so much time online, so I try to engage their technological abilities while being mindful of students who prefer doing things by hand. Many students are tired of staring at screens and prefer to do things on paper and take a picture when they can. I also love that I get to see their unique abilities by doing this!
How did the UTeach Theatre program prepare you for the teaching position you now have?
Miranda Perkins: The UTeach Theatre program places significant focus on collaboration, which has become the heart of my teaching philosophy. My cohort frequently worked together on a variety of projects both in class and in productions, so we had many chances to collaborate. These experiences taught me the importance of flexibility and compromise, two things that have been necessary throughout this school year.
Tori Husting: After my first few weeks of teaching, I began to feel almost over-prepared for the teaching position that I was in, which was truly a gift and a huge relief. Teaching at the elementary level is, of course, about introducing theatre-based content, but a significant amount of it is classroom management and just teaching these young kiddos how to be functioning, empathetic people. You can read a million theory books and write the best lessons ever, but to be an effective teacher you need to be able to communicate with and relate to your students. The UTeach Theatre program provided me with plenty of hands-on experiences that allowed me to work directly with kids, test out lessons and understand how to best manage a classroom. I walked into my first day of teaching prepared with engaging lessons, behavioral management skills and a firm set of expectations for how my classroom was going to run, with the help of my students. The UTeach faculty gave me the tools I needed to be confident, prepared and insightful in my first year of teaching.
Do you have any advice for future teachers, having completed your first semester?
Tori Husting: UTeach faculty member Dr. Sara Simons gave me one of my favorite pieces of advice. She told my cohort that she keeps an ongoing list of positive moments from her teaching career and reflects on it when she needs a pick-me-up. This is something that I started at the beginning of the year and it serves as a constant reminder of the positive difference that I am making in the lives of my students. It is no secret that teachers are under appreciated, but our work matters. Don’t forget to take time to remind yourself that you are doing great work and you are making a difference.
Miranda Perkins: Have a comment box where students can submit any questions, comments or concerns they may not feel comfortable asking aloud. I utilize a Google form, and have it set to notify me whenever a student submits anything. I can then respond to them through email or check in with them in class and work with them to address whatever situation they’re facing.
Keep a weekly/biweekly journal where you can document things that worked well, things that didn’t work as well and moments of joy. Give yourself feedback whenever your wrap up new content and make note of what you’d do differently next time. This will help when you look to plan curriculum in the future.
Acknowledge when students are modeling kindness, persevering and putting forth their best effort, not just when they are doing something “right” or “wrong.” Letting them know that their hard work is recognized and appreciated makes a huge impact, and helps to instill a sense of intrinsic motivation. Honor their unique perspectives and spotlight their achievements, including ones that are non-academic.
Find five minutes or so a day to close your eyes, breathe slowly and pause for a moment. Do your best to not think about school (easier said than done). It will give your brain a much-needed break. Teaching can be overwhelming, overstimulating and flat out exhausting, and it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos. Taking a moment to pause can help reduce anxiety.
Connect with the teachers in the classrooms next to yours, as well as the front office staff, custodial staff, counselors, assistant principals and instructional coaches. Having a relationship with those people can make all the difference and helps you establish a sense of community on your campus. And your campus community is so important!
When speaking of the UTeach Theatre class of 2020, faculty member Michael Ávila shared that “teaching is inherently about being flexible and adapting to adversity. UTeach Theatre graduates are highly sought after by Texas Fine Arts administrators because they know that our students are skilled at adjusting and modifying when necessary. It doesn’t surprise me that our alumni are not just surviving but thriving as teachers; even during the pandemic. They are not afraid to make things happen and do what is in the best interest of their K-12 theatre students.” As Perkins and Husting exhibit, our UTeach Theatre students are not only adapting to the changes of educational theatre, they are forging a new path for future educators and artists with bold strokes and brave innovation.