Thursday, July 30, 2015

Being in Your Element

Jennifer Simmons
Theatre Arts Teacher
Hand Middle School
Follow Mrs. Simmon on Twitter: @theatrehms

“It must be so nice to be a teacher – you get your summers off.”

If there is one thing that every teacher can agree on, we all cringe when someone says that.  Of course I totally understand that misconception.  As a career-changer myself, I used to think that as well.  I was excited about having all of this time during the summer where the only obligation I had was to take care of my son.

I had no idea how incredibly wrong I was. 

Here is how I spent my “summer vacation:”

Right after school got out, there was about a week of “closing up shop” that I had to do.  I was reorganizing stuff from the end of school, answering emails, filling out paperwork for grants I had received during the year, and more.  After that week, I packed up my belongings and went to live in a dorm for a week with a bunch of other arts teachers at a professional development.  I spent the week learning how to be a more effective educator, while also getting lots of tips and tricks from other teachers from across the state.  (Let me point out that Mr. Arcovio was also at this event, and simultaneously, Mrs. Turlington was at a concurrent professional development at the same location).  The main reference material for this course was a book called The Element by Sir Ken Robinson.  If you haven’t heard of Sir Ken Robinson, check out his Ted Talks on YouTube.  His book was about finding that place where your ability, passion, and opportunity meet.  At the time, I thought it was an interesting read and probably one of the best text books that I ever had to read for a course (mostly because it is filled with behind the scenes/background stories about celebrities like Paul McCartney and Meg Ryan).  Little did I know at the time, but the book’s theme would be a prevalent thread throughout the rest of my summer. 

While I was at the professional development, I was contacted by the Richland One Visual and Performing Arts Department and asked if I would be the lead teacher for theatre for the district.  Of course I accepted, and was immediately told that I was going to also then be part of a team to re-write the guide for gifted and talented –artistically in the district.  As soon as I returned from the professional development, I jumped in on that.  I was also asked to help input curriculum maps for theatre for Mastery Connect.  Therefore, a good chunk of the rest of the summer was spent working on those opportunities. 

In addition to the straightforward work from the District, I did some “alternative” professional development.  The first being that my son was in Workshop Theatre’s The Wizard of Oz.  Not only did I get to spend the first part of the summer seeing about 7 of my students on a daily basis, I got to experience a new perspective – being a parent of a kid in a show.  It was definitely an eye-opening experience.  The whole time I thought about things that I liked and things that I wished would have happened during the course of the show, giving me a lot of ideas of how to make the shows I do easier/better for the parents/families of my kids.

And if that wasn’t enough, I also had auditioned in the spring for Mary Poppins at Town Theatre.  This was my first on stage role in a couple of years, and my first on stage musical role in a very long time (decades actually, as most of my on stage experience is with straight plays). While I was focused on my lines, blocking, and choreography, I was also using this as an opportunity for professional development.  The whole process for that was amazing because it forced me again to put myself in my students’ shoes.  It is easy to forget what it is like to be on the other side.  It has definitely given me a lot of food for thought for how to be a better director/teacher. 

In between all of that, I’ve read approximately 10 full scripts and about 2-3 dozen samples of scripts for possible shows for next year.  I’ve pinned probably 300+ items on Pinterest that have ranged from costume ideas for selected shows to classroom management to classroom organization to lesson plans to fun teaching tools.  I’ve applied for more grants and searched for more to help out with the classroom.  I’ve collaborated with Mrs. Corley to plan a trip to NYC for next summer with our kids.  I’ve also started scouring the back to school ads and have tactically made multiple trips to Office Depot each week (and to multiple Office Depot stores) to start loading up on their penny items that they offer for back to school. 

Which begs the question, why am I doing all of this extra work?  I could very easily sit back and not do that.  I could not do anything and just wing it for the year.  However, the answer goes back to that book I read in the beginning of the summer.  I am in my element.  After spending 10+ years in a career where I just went to work each day and did what I was told to do, I have found the place that I feel like I thrive.  I love being with the kids and making art.  All of the daily grind that we deal with, all of the crazy shenanigans that we put up with, they all melt away when you see a kid do something that makes them smile with pride.  It’s a rush and it makes all of the sweat and tears totally worth it. 

Every day I’d also make sure to get some down time to myself, where I would check in on social media.  Which cracks me up because my feed was always filled with my co-workers and peers talking about doing the same sort of stuff.  Whether it was Dr. Coletrain going off to Boston and representing us Ivy-League style or Mrs. Wittchow studying literature in London, we were all doing something to better ourselves and better our students.