Dear College Theatre Teachers: From, The Student Who “Didn’t Try Hard Enough”
Wouldn’t it be glorious if one day, theatre school was nothing more than a training platform for artistry and healthy growth? The truth is, many theatrical hopes and dreams die before students even enter the industry. Yes, they may enter the world and struggle for a bit first before they give up, but that doesn’t make post-secondary training completely innocent in the death of those dreams. Theatre teachers are a key component in keeping this inspiration alive.
A theatre teacher’s job is to help their student’s flame of inspiration become a bonfire. That delicate flame can, however, quickly dim in an unhealthy student-teacher situation.
As a former tutor, I have first-hand experience watching some of these flames dim…for absolutely no valid reason whatsoever. While it may seem like a tactic that can encourage a re-invigoration of work ethic, it’s a dangerous message in such a stressful and powerless environment.
Theatre teachers, listen up: please think twice before ever telling a student they aren’t trying hard enough.
When you’re a postsecondary student in a performance-based program, you’re trying. The degree of “trying” might be different for different students (they can’t try 10000000% at every aspect of their lives simultaneously), but all students should be assumed to be trying by default.
Students have fought and won an entire battle before they even stepped foot in your class.
Each one of them:
- Trained tirelessly and became inspired by the discipline.
- Spent countless hours researching institution possibilities.
- Worked hard to accomplish the application requirements.
- Paid to be considered for multiple programs.
- Fought to be noticed in the pile of submissions.
- Completed scholarship applications and worked side jobs to pay tuition.
- Left behind the only security blanket they’ve ever known.
To assume they’re “not trying hard enough” every time they come up short by your standards is insulting. All it will do is discourage them from trying harder and will ultimately limit their potential. No matter how hard they were working before, the moment their efforts become futile and unappreciated, they will give up.
They did care. But now, they don’t.
The next time you assume someone isn’t working hard enough, it may be time to re-evaluate the way you perceive progress. Your students are operating with a different body, with different experiences, with different life views, and with different tastes than you. How can you possibly expect to fully understand how hard your students are working at any moment?
Before EVER questioning work ethic, I’m begging theatre teachers to please consider the following:
Are there physical reasons why they do things differently?
Not everybody is built with the physical traits to do everything. But guess what: they can do other things you can’t do because of it. This is part of the beauty of physical art forms – different bodies can do different things. Are there perhaps physical differences between you and your student that could mean they are struggling for reasons other than “not trying hard enough”?
Does your student have different life experiences?
The answer to this will always be yes, yes, and more yes. There is no way you can fully understand them, and because of this, safe communication should be of utmost importance. They will be bringing their own life experiences to their art, and it is more than imperative for you to be mindful and sensitive to that. Learn how to be respectful and be open to learning yourself. There is no way for them to flourish in a place where they feel undervalued and misunderstood.
Did you remember that your students are human?
If a student is struggling with their mental wellbeing, they might be trying as hard as they physically can. It’s entirely possibly they’re already working way too far over capacity and what you should actually be doing is encouraging them to slow down. School is challenging enough when your physical self isn’t being graded. Shouldn’t there be a certain level of forgiveness and accommodation for situations that could lead to bad life-habits and self-harm?
Do they have different tastes than you?
Art is art. Not everyone’s going to like what you like. As a teacher, your job is to help your students perform things safely and help them develop their own artistry. It may make sense to teach them how to control certain stylistic things (so they have a choice to use it or not), but not to the point of extreme perfection all the time. If something is a safety concern, it can certainly be something to worry about, but style is style, and uniqueness should be encouraged.
Is the student trying to fit in with their peers?
Sometimes students will hinder their own progress because of their group of friends. It’s important to give students a little bit of slack, though: friendships will help carry them through school and life. If there is a true concern over their health because of these friendships, there can be a legitimate concern, but otherwise, let them find themselves. Make your class so interesting that they can’t HELP but pay attention.
Are you teaching something they struggle with?
Just because someone isn’t doing “well” at something, it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. The student most likely knows they are struggling – you don’t need to remind them about it. Encourage them to keep trying and actively seek out new ways of helping them. Just because your process of 20+ years has worked for countless students does not mean it is the only process that CAN work. Perhaps by making an effort to help this student find success, you’ll make new discoveries in your own process.
Are they bored?
A little collaboration could be worthwhile here. If a student is bored, perhaps you can work with them to find ways they can add value to the class itself. Maybe they can teach something to you, too! Students like feeling respected and valued, and might even come to enjoy an “easy” class if they are, in turn, appreciated. As long as they are able to fulfil the requirements of the course, there’s also nothing wrong with giving them the freedom to use that class time to work on their own independent project. Trust them. If they find something interesting, they’re going to do it.
It’s true – theatre teachers are humans, too, and can’t be perfect all the time.
Theatre teachers are burdened by their own biases and insecurities, but that doesn’t give them an excuse to pass those along to the next generation. The school system itself adds tons of extra unnecessary protocol layers that tend to limit a truly artistic environment, too.
But please, don’t kill a student’s passion by accusing them of not caring. Whether they did care or didn’t care, all you will do is dull their flame.
Once one flame goes out, the rest need less encouragement to follow suit.
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