I am not openly embraced by faculty and staff at every high school I work at here in Los Angeles. As a guest part-time instructor, I am viewed as an interloper, who doesn’t fully understand the day-to-day rigors of being incarcerated with a building full of teenagers from 8am to 3pm. On top of that, I teach theatre, which is not a real discipline, as far as the faculty is concerned. In their eyes, I am a failed actor trying to make a buck. Often, I’m assigned a classroom, rather than an auditorium, rehearsal space, gymnasium or some kind of open space for my course. In those instances, I find myself dealing with the proprietary nature of the teacher whose room I’m a guest in. While I always make sure the space is left exactly the way I found it, many teachers prefer that I don’t move anything at all, which is counterproductive. At one point during my sessions, I need space for thirty or more students to be physical in.
Interruptions are another problem. Despite having a “class in session” note taped to the door, I’ve had staff and faculty members enter my course to talk to a student, rummage through a desk, or ask me questions, regardless of whether or not students were in front of the class doing something. If they hear there’s laughter in the room that usually suggests to outsiders nothing serious is going on. I once had a security officer enter my class unannounced, reprimanding the students for being “too loud.” Another time, a teacher entered as I was engaging the students in a group discussion, which involved a great deal of humor, over selecting a theme to explore in a scenario. He watched for a few moments then bellowed “I wish I could get paid just to sit around and joke with the students.”
|Typical full-time faculty fantasy.|
As a rule, once an adult enters my workshop unannounced, they become a participant. If they’re respectful, meaning they ask me before class if they can watch, I invite them to contribute scene suggestions, direct or play. For the contentious few, I immediately draft them into whatever format I’m doing at the moment the second they enter the room. This is very effective at cutting down repeat offenders.
Lennox Academy in Los Angeles, was one of those rare assignments where everything worked perfectly. I was assigned the school cafeteria for my course, which also had an auditorium stage. This arrangement was ideal. The warm-ups and technique exercises were conducted on the cafeteria floor. When it was time to move into the format section, we hopped onto the stage, which made the experience more theatrical for the students and enhanced their performance skills.
One day, I was doing a character hot-seat exercise, in which I’m interviewing the students in character as someone they know well. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mr. Lopez, a history teacher at the school, watching silently from the side. At one point, I turn the interviewing over to the students and walked over to talk to Lopez. He was waiting for an opportune moment to walk across the cafeteria to exit at the other side without interrupting the class. I thanked him for waiting and said he could cross whenever he wanted.
Lopez waited until the students were finished interviewing the current character, then he started walking across the cafeteria. Just as he approached the exit, one of the students yells out “Hi Mr. Lopez! Hey, you want to play with us?” Before he could answer, another student quickly explained what the game was about, followed by the group chanting “Lopez, Lopez, Lopez!” He turned to me to see if it’s okay and I say “absolutely.”
Planting himself in a chair center stage, Lopez seamlessly morphed into character as a student, who judging by the students’ reaction, everyone knew well. The interview, which normally takes a few minutes, went on for fifteen, followed by a scene where Lopez, still in character as the student, being counseled by himself, played by another student, who suspects he cheated on a test. It was wonderful to see how much fun Lopez was having, and the warmth the students felt towards him. He stayed until the end of class and participated in the closure exercise, Gift Circle. In this game, students sit in a circle, each taking a turn making eye contact with everyone in the group, and then pick one to give an imaginary gift to. It was a beautiful way to end this particular session.
As the students were gathering their belongings to leave, Lopez thanked me for allowing him to participate and apologized for interrupting my class. I told him that he did no such thing, that it was a welcome addition and I expressed how much I appreciated that he waited until I had a moment before talking to me. Smiling, he replied “Mr. Golding, here at Lennox we respect our faculty.” I almost hugged the man and left him with an open invitation to visit the class whenever he liked.
A week later, I was introducing the students to the Armando Diaz Experience, a format where a monologist tells a story, pausing periodically for aspects of it to be brought to life in scenes. As is often the case when introducing a new format, the first few attempts were stilted. Either the monologist couldn’t provide enough detail for players to enact, or the players were waiting too long to jump in. Again, Lopez was watching from the side, until he was noticed by one of the students who beckoned with “Mr. Lopez, tell us a story!”
Since this was the last class before Spring break, Lopez used that as the theme for his story and made it personal. His monologue involved various students in the class, covering their family life, friends and vacation plans. Because he knew these students so well, certainly better than me, they were falling over themselves to enact scenes, which were rich with detail and emotion. Lopez’s Armando lasted close to a half hour.
My favorite session with Lopez was when we were exploring poetry, in a text versus improv format. In this structure, one person reads a poem, followed by another person improvising a story based on what in the poem affected them. Sometimes the simplest instruction by a teacher can be the most complicated one for a student. The class had a problem grasping the second part of the exercise, and thought that they had to improvise a poem to compliment the one that was just read. It was fortunate that Lopez was in class for this one!
After a student read Pablo Neruda’s “Leaning Into The Afternoon,” Lopez told a story about his first true love, who ended up breaking his heart. By the end of his story, the cafeteria echoed with the sound of sniffing noses. The students suddenly understood the exercise and for the next hour, the stories that followed the written poems were poignant, emotionally honest and revealing. The experience encouraged students to bring in their own original poems, just to see what type of stories they would inspire. This was an unexpected windfall for me.
The final class is always party time for the students, where pizza is ordered and we talk about what we accomplished during the semester and what their plans are for the future after graduation. Lopez was noticeably absent, and I made a mental note to send him a thank-you email. As I approached my car in the garage, I heard Lopez call out my name. When I turned to face him I was immediately struck by his expression, which was filled with admiration. “Mr. Golding, I just wanted to thank you for letting me participate. It allowed me to explore a different type of relationship with these students which I never would have had if it wasn’t for your class. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.”
In turn, I thanked Lopez for providing me with privileged insight into who these students were and how wonderful it was to observe the mutual respect and love they felt towards him. I wish I had a Mr. Lopez in every high school class I teach.
I frequently write about how valuable the arts are in education, and the importance of play in the every day life of students. But until I had this experience with Lopez in my class, I never considered the importance of play in a teacher’s daily work routine and how it can provide a richer connection between teacher and student. Empathy is vital in any relationship. So why not also between teacher and student?
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at email@example.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.