It’s an old and cliched phrase at this point, but I do still occasionally hear people say: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Which is really a misquote from George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims For Revolutionists:
Now, is there any truth to this? Perhaps for some people. Though I would bet that those who go into teaching purely out of disappointment of falling out of their chosen profession aren’t very good teachers, nor are they likely to be teachers for long.
And yet this idea persists. Why?
It’s Been A While…
Several times in the past six months I have spoken with people who I haven’t seen or heard from in many years, and the conversation generally goes something like this:
Them: It’s been so long! I want to hear what you’re up to - you must be doing great things!
Me: It’s certainly been my busiest year so far, especially with the production of The King’s Legacy coming up this summer.
Them: And I see you’re doing a lot of shows. Where are those happening?
Me: Two of them are back to back at the studio I work at -
Me: Yeah, I teach voice and musical direct 5-7 days per week at an after school studio throughout the year. And the third show I MD, which crosses over with the other two, is at a Long Island high school.
Them: Oh. So these are school shows.
Me: One is a school show, but all are educational, yep.
Them: That’s nice.
Me: Well, it’s hard work and it’s rewarding.
Them: …I’m glad you’re working. So [and on to the next thing]…
And then that’s that. It’s like teaching doesn’t count as work, professional or otherwise. And why? Because non-professionals (aka students) are involved? Sounds crazy to me.
Compare this to the general conversation I have with other working theatre professionals today:
Them: So what do you do, besides the writing and performing?
Me: I work at an after school theatre studio teaching voice, musical directing, and playing for classes 5 days per week, and I MD two of their shows each year. I also MD the annual musical at a local high school each spring.
Them: Wow, that’s a lot.
Me: Yep, but it pays bills and keeps me in theatre constantly!
Them: How many voice students?
Me: This year it’s 33.
Them: That’s crazy! I wish I had those skills. I stopped playing piano at [__] years old and I really wish I hadn’t.
Me: It’s insanely useful.
Them: That all sounds more fun than my day job.
Me: Yeah, I kind of substituted the fun and theatre for less money. What do you do? [Etc.]
That’s a different conversation, isn’t it? And I think I’m beginning to understand the difference.
People we’ve known from previous points in our lives have very different perceptions of us. They knew us at a certain time and have not been involved in any of the subsequent growth/change/improvement/evolution/etc. that comes with the continuation of life. So they extrapolate from what they knew and they have expectations. Likely, specific expectations. And when it comes to theatre careers, everyone always expects that you are constantly inching yourself toward THE GREAT WHITE WAY. What other path or goal could there be? And anything else is just a pit stop along the way, or a detour, or something holding you back. Right?
And those people tend not to be in the business - whether or not they ever were. Or else it probably wouldn’t have been years since you’ve spoken with them.
Whereas people who are in the business now understand a few truths of the current socioeconomic environment, particularly where theatre is concerned:
1) You take the survival jobs that you can get with your skills.
2) You keep the jobs that allow you to not go crazy.
3) Broadway is not the only goal.
4) Jobs that keep you in theatre help you hone your skills constantly.
5) No survival job is a hindrance unless you let it become one. Then you make decisions from there.
6) Young people - especially young theatre people - are awesome.
7) Teachers help shape the future of our country, society, and industry.
These are easy to forget if they’re not constantly in your face, which is probably why the old idea of looking down on teaching persists. It is natural that people get older, leave the business, forget what it’s like to be in the trenches, and adopt these negative or bitter-sounding ideas. But awareness of that could help.
“By Your Pupils You’ll Be Taught”
As much as I complain about the number of hours, the amount of mental/emotional/physical energy required, and general lack of workplace benefits, I love teaching. I do. I wouldn’t have chosen this as my survival job otherwise - the work is too time consuming and it doesn’t pay as much as other survival jobs.
And why do I love it so much?
1) Young people inspire me. Was I that cool and interesting and progressive-seeming to my teachers at that age? Let’s be real, probably not. But damn! Have you met these kids? If they are the face of our future, I am so on board.
2) They keep me young. Seriously. Adults constantly tell me that I’m not a “real adult” and I totally agree! Not because I don’t pay bills and buy groceries and do all of those “adult things,” but because I find that I’m not getting more jaded or bitter or conservative as I age (thus far). I have energy. I have focus. I have consistent emotional capacity. And I can tell you - without a doubt - it’s from being around young people all the time. I swear, this is why combined daycare/elderly care facilities are so successful.
3) I get to teach what I know, which refreshes my own knowledge. I tend not to lose the important information about theatre that I’ve learned over the years, because I constantly have to teach it. It forces me to refresh myself on topics that I would otherwise likely forget.
4) They challenge me. Oh boy, let me tell you. Every student is different. Not all techniques will work on all students. I have to find new ways to speak, explain, teach, and modify all the time. There’s no way around it, which is great, because it only makes me better at teaching. And as a lovely added bonus, I often find new ways of teaching that help me as a professional as well! It’s a true win-win.
5) They teach me. Every damn day. I walk into these rooms and I learn probably as much from them as they are learning from me. This is the wonder and the joy of teaching. I wouldn’t trade it and I’d never want to give it up entirely.
If I’ve been having these conversations throughout the year, why am I writing this post today?
Well, tonight Legally Blonde opens at New Hyde Park Memorial High School, and these kids have got me in an emotional place. They are talented, yes, but oh so much more. They’re intelligent. They’re open to new ideas and new people. They’re honest. They’re kind. They’re willing to do and try. They care. They are constantly learning and blossoming, and it’s a joy to watch.
Also, three times in the past month I’ve had students say to me that when they grow up, they want to be just like me. If that doesn’t make you understand why teachers teach (and give you a feel or two), then nothing will.
I’m proud to be a teacher and to work with young people. I hope everyone gets the chance at some point - it will likely change you for better.
(PS, Break a leg NHP Theatre!)