The last 5 years….
When I think back to my earliest moments in the program at City College, one class sticks out so vividly in my mind. I remember being in Drama in Education one night when Sobha invited alumni guests into the classroom to answer questions and give advice. I had only one question, which I abruptly blurted out. “Has your life changed since graduating from this program?” As I asked this question I remember feeling such anxiety, it was like a pit in my stomach. I had joined the program at a time in my life when I felt so discontented with my own choices and desperately needed some sort of a game changer. I knew I loved theater, but I wasn’t happy auditioning and doing regional theater and tours anymore. I actually hated it. What the heck was I going to do? I decided to get my graduate degree in an effort to become a theater teacher one particularly difficult and disheartening night. It all began so quickly, one minute I was contemplating this step in my life and the next I was sitting in Sobha’s class terrified to write a paper!
So on alumni night, I sat wide- eyed and anxiety ridden as the alumni panel answered my question. I remember one of them saying she opened her own theater company and another loved his job as a high school theater teacher and yet another was freelancing as a teaching artist and loving life. In that moment I actually remember thinking, “I could probably never do that”. Jeez, if future me could have had a talk with that girl who obviously didn’t know how to believe in herself! If I could have told myself even one of the many amazing things that has happened since becoming a part of this program and after graduation, I might have passed out right there in the NAC building. Getting my graduate degree from City College of New York in Educational Theater is the absolute best thing I have ever done to date.
Since graduating from the program, I got hired as a theater teacher at Brooklyn High School of the Arts. It was a tumultuous entry into the NYC DOE to say the least. I was hired two months into my student teaching and if the paperwork alone and pressure to pass the EDTPA wasn’t enough to make me want to quit, the way I was treated at first should have completely killed me! I didn’t realize at that point however that Sobha and Jenn had literally armed me with an arsenal of tools labeled pedagogy, artistry and advocacy because there were so many other obstacles to get around.
A lot of my students hated me when I first started. Like, hated me and told me to my face on numerous occasions. This is fairly common (hindsight being 20/20) when a teacher starts mid-year. The students did not have a teacher at all until I arrived in late October. (a sub just sat in the classroom with them) So, they used their theater class period as a goof off zone and a chance to gossip with friends. Then in walks Ms. Shaffer, little miss Educational Theater asking for a circle and writing the words “Ensemble Building” on the board. I am sure you can only imagine what the teenage reaction to that was. I really don’t know how I got through those first few weeks, but something inside me kept me strong. I like to think there is some sort of secret voodoo magic that Jenn and Sobha do to us over time that allows us to hear their voices in our head telling us to keep at it and that everything will be all right. Because as it turns out, I did keep at it and everything is all right. Everything is more than all right! The students started to gel with me after a couple of excruciating months. I stayed very steadfast to everything I learned in the program and by the time June came and it was time to say goodbye we had built a very tight ensemble. I was proud but also tired and broken.
I thought about quitting or transferring incessantly over the summer before my second year. But, I didn’t and I am so glad I walked back into the school for my second year. The kids were happy to see me, fellow teachers were happy to see me and I felt like I could do this! It was very helpful to start on day one and establish norms and rituals and also comforting to see familiar student faces that didn’t hate me anymore and were starting to respect me as a teacher. If you are a first year teacher reading this, it does get better believe it or not! I really started to love theater again this year (my second year) and love teaching it! I got into a total groove in the start of the school year and realized that my pedagogy was really good. I can plan a boss lesson because I truly know my subject. (thank you CCNY program in Educational Theater) However, the pillars of artistry and advocacy were slipping into the abyss a little.
So, I did something that no one thought could be done because my artistic heart wanted to do it. I decided to direct “A Raisin in the Sun” in all of its 3-hour glory! I am a teacher but just like we learned in Artistic Lab, I knew I needed to feed my artistry of acting and directing so I did despite the warnings from others that high school students can’t handle this play and that it may be too much of an undertaking for my first production. I have always loved this play and have always wanted to direct it! I armed myself with the artistry tools that CCNY taught me never to let go of and decided to give it a shot! It was challenging at first but I got to be more of an artist than a teacher in those after school rehearsals. We worked on objective, tactics and motivation and the kids really took to this amazing story and the artistry of putting on a play. We worked like a professional ensemble and my artistic heart loved being a part of the magic of putting together a theater piece again. We pulled it together just in time to be adjudicated for the Shubert High School Theater Festival. I was hesitant to enter with my first production as a high school theater teacher but I knew we had done good work. We got in! It was the proudest moment of my life! My students got to perform on Broadway in the festival alongside some of the top arts schools in NYC! I cried, my students cried, my AP cried, it was beautiful! The festival was amazing and I knew then just how connected my
teaching and artistry had become.
Advocacy started to come very naturally as I grew into my position this year. I fight for every arts program I can get my hands on! I have successfully been able to save the TDF open doors program at my school, implement a new Improv Troupe with the support of UCB, gain technical theater support from parents and organize a field trip to Broadway that includes 350 students! Though I find it incomprehensible that I still have to fight for arts programs and field trips I try to remember that the field of Educational Theater is still growing and maturing. I feel lucky to be a part of the struggle and the education of my colleagues as they see the theater program in the school growing strong.
It has been 5 years since I asked that question in Drama in Education class. Looking back, I was looking for an answer that the alumni could not give me. I really wanted to know how my life would change. We never know how things are going to pan out when we choose to take a small step or giant leap in a different direction. I am so glad that I took a step in the right direction by getting my Masters in Educational Theater at CCNY. So now it is my turn to be an inspirational alumnus of the program. For those of you who may be wondering the same thing I questioned 5 years ago I will say this…I do not know how your life is going to change by completing this program but I do know that it will change. My life is completely different now. I see Broadway shows all the time through DOE teacher nights and field trips with my students (something that fulfills me as an artist and is also educational for my students), I go to bed at 8:30pm every night, I come home happy and fulfilled most of the time, I have 200 theater kids who call me Mama Shaffer, I get a paycheck every two weeks, my directorial debut in high school theater went to Broadway for one magnificent and magical night and my heart is finally full. Teaching is what was missing from my life and I am so glad I took the time to get the priceless training I needed at City College of New York.