Blog post written by Heidi Ruskin (Vincent)
The Performing Arts has always played a huge part in my life, from living room performances at the age of five, to performing as a Contortionist Clown in a travelling circus at the age of 25. As a child, it was the best way I could express myself. I was a quiet and shy child but performing allowed my imagination to come alive and I felt free. I still feel exactly the same today. I love teaching and I have been incredibly lucky to have taught the performing arts for over 20 years, mainly in secondary education as a Drama & Music teacher/ Head of Drama. I feel very strongly that the arts should be accessible to everyone and that the process of creating is equally, if not more, important than the finished performance or piece of art. There is no right or wrong when creating. One of the main reasons I love working with DS is that it is accessible to all, it takes place in a non-pressured environment (away from the stress of school assessment and exams), it is nurturing, and it inspires confidence in all who participate. The practitioners at Doorstep Arts do amazing work within the community and I love working with Polly as she makes everyone feel incredibly special and happy. Doorstep Arts is about appreciating the individuality of each participant whilst working as a team to Make the Story Happen- just as it should be.
My mother was my greatest inspiration in becoming a Performing Arts teacher in a school. She taught me to play the recorder before I could read and showed me how to play chop-sticks on an old upright piano that was given to us when I was seven. I really engaged with the piano and my interest in it meant that I learnt quickly. I passionately believe that every young person should have something that they feel good at and are passionate about. Playing the piano was my interest and it gave me a lot of confidence.
My mother died when I was 16- just as she had been accepted onto a teacher training course. This was devastating. I became homeless as I refused to go into foster care. I lived on the streets of Bath with my new ‘family’- friends in similar positions to myself. After a year I was lucky enough to be given a room in a shared house with a local charity. I went to college and did GCSE Drama (I did not do well in my exams at school and only turned up to three of them). I also auditioned for the NYT and, to my surprise, was given a principal role in a new musical theatre production called Bombshells. We toured England and did a final performance on the main stage of Bath’s Theatre Royal. I began to believe in myself and discovered a new will to live. I was accepted onto the new BTEC National Diploma in Performing Arts course at Bath College of FE. It became my life and one passion. To support my studies I also worked part time as a Cocktail Pianist in Butterfields Brasserie, Bath. They believed in me. My confidence grew and I achieved the top grade on my course. Armed with the equivalent of three A levels (A grade) and a serious amount of confidence in myself, I auditioned for three university course, The Bristol Old Vic, Guildford School of Acting and Dartington College of Arts; I was given a place on the latter two. I chose to go to Dartington simply because I had no money or financial parental support and I had the idea of buying a small touring caravan that I could live in rent free whilst studying.
After leaving college I was lucky to be given a housing association house in Dartington. I joined acting agencies in London, Bristol and Torquay and soon enjoyed working as an
Extra and a bit-part actress (Eastender, Casualty, films etc). My biggest role was as the love interest of the main character in a Welsh soap opera- I never got to watch this as I did not have Welsh TV! I also worked with local theatre company’s and joined Uma Frego as a fire breather/ singer and performed at Glastonbury. I also enjoyed working as a Photo Story model- it was really cheesy and I appeared in well known publications, such as Take a Break magazine. My most memorable job was living in a donkey shed on wheels and travelling around the UK as part of a travelling circus called Clang- I was a contortionist comedy keyboard playing clown and it was terrifying!!!
I’d never worked so hard in my life and the show began with me laying on a table and having my stomach angle grinded- luckily the Mad Professor character that operated on me never slipped and always spotted the metal plate that was protecting my belly. I also worked as a part time Drama teacher at Sands School Ashburton and led other freelance workshops in the South West.
Clang days- me and my gorgeous son, Tom.
Anyway, in order to properly pursue my acting career, I realised that I would have to move to London. My London agent would sometimes phone in the evening and then expect me to be in London by early the next morning for auditions. With no family support, I decided to give up my acting career in order to focus on being a fab single mum. I decided I wanted to become a teacher, my experience at Sands had shown me that I had a natural rapport with young people. I suppose I also wanted to make my mum proud and ‘carry the torch’ for her as she had so wanted to become a teacher. I decided that I wanted to teach secondary aged students as I wanted to specialise in Drama. I also chose secondary over FE/HE because I felt it would give me a more solid career and I could bring Drama to students who may not have chosen it for FE. It took me three years to be accepted onto a teacher training course as I had to go back to college in the evenings to pass my GCSE Maths and, also, do an A Level in English. The only course in the Devon area was the English with Drama course at Exeter University. I was eventually accepted on this course but then discovered a new PGCE course run by the Devon Secondary Teacher Training course at Dartington. They had already started recruiting for potential Music and Drama teachers and it was now August. I was given a late interview on the condition that I turned down the Exeter course beforehand. Luckily, I was successful and trained on their SCITT course.
As a SCITT course, the majority of learning was practical and was placement based in schools. I loved it! The biggest challenge was getting used to being in a school and having to adjust to professional expectations, the school curriculum and behaviour management. I wore a suit and took my piercings out. I learnt quickly that for students to be able to learn, you had to have control over the class as well as motivate them to want to learn. There were lots of tricks that I learnt, such as ‘Put your hand up if you’re talking’- this soon got their attention. I learnt about the different preferred ways of learning that students have and ensured that my lessons catered for as many different ways of learning as possible. I learnt about differentiation and assessment, and about how Drama could be used as an accessible tool to help students become better prepared for life, whether or not they liked performing: group work skills, empathy, self-expression, creativity- the list is lengthy. I found that, because I was passionate about teaching the arts, I became very good at it. I found it challenging (some days I cried, some days I ate fish and chips accompanied by a glass or two of wine) but also rewarding (some days I felt that I could walk on the moon because, for instance, a student with behaviour issues had actually joined in a task and completed it so well that they left the classroom with a proud grin on their face). I learnt that students should ‘Love the lesson and not the teacher’ and that, in order for Drama to be respected as a discrete subject, the teacher should always work within the college’s rewards and sanctions system and treat all students the same and also should dress professionally, even if that means rolling around on the floor to demonstrate something while wearing a suit.
My first teaching job was at a very large secondary school, rated as Outstanding by Ofsted for 25 consecutive years. I was employed as a Music teacher. As Music was only my second teaching subject, I had to quickly learn the curriculum and stay one step ahead of the students in terms of their learning. Having to teach myself different skills and knowledge before each lesson enabled me to be on an equal setting with the students and use what had helped me to learn each task to then teach them. Teaching is about knowing where the students are at and then building from this. I then also started teaching Drama and then GCSE Drama- exam specifications are complicated but they are useful in terms of zooming in on prescribed skills and knowledge and assessment procedures, before breaking these down into manageable chunks for students to understand. I became very strict in order to keep control of classes with the philosophy that ‘Drama is Serious Fun’- Drama can only be fun if you take it seriously. I found that there was an assumption from students (and staff) that Drama was just about ‘being a tree’, it was a chance to just fool around with your mates, and it was a subject that ‘wouldn’t get you far in life’.
I quickly learnt that, when you meet a class for the first time, you have to help the students understand the importance of Drama and the many life skills it helps to develop. In this first lesson, it was also important to be clear about boundaries and rules as well as introduce a fun game that students enjoyed, whilst trying out the rules and boundaries. I also found out that I found learning names REALLY difficult and this is something that I still struggle with today. Retrospectively, this must have put a barrier between myself and the students and I regret it. So, when teaching, it is really important to learn student names, even if you teach 500+ students per week.
I found that once you had got to grips with classroom management for each class, I was able to relax a little with the students but this had to be done very carefully and gradually or you’d find yourself back to square one or have ‘lost’ the class forever. After eight years, I became the Head of Drama and set up BTEC Performing Arts with the aim of bringing Music, Drama and Dance together- it was a large school and I had to manage six members of staff- I’d had no training and was not comfortable in this role. I enjoyed the planning and the responsibility but I did not have the support of all my team due to staff politics and the way that the school had managed the interview process. After two years, I became the Assistant Head of the Performing Arts faculty. Part of this role was directing annual whole college productions and Primary Liaison. Our productions involved students from age 9-19 and, logistically, it was immense. Our shows would involve over a hundred students, sometimes over 200, and they were accessible to all. Watching the students on stage gave me goose-bumps. My BTEC course went from strength to strength with many of our students coming from outside the school to do the course. The students achieved really high grades and many went on to successfully audition for well-known Drama schools, such as RADA. My best achievements, however, were the students who were able to go on to higher education because of their completion of the BTEC course. The accessibility of the course meant that higher education was now open to them. One of these students is now Head of Drama in a secondary school (top right in below photo)- my proudest achievement.
After 18 years at this school, pressures at work increased with more accountability and government changes. I turned into a robot. I lost all interest in teaching. I had lost all interest in the performing arts. I had no energy for myself or for my children who needed me the most. Something had to change so I admitted defeat and left teaching. My idea was to become self employed as a retro dress seller on ebay- this didn’t work. I had to earn a living. I applied for many primary school jobs but never even got one interview. I then became a supply teacher. What an experience!! I learnt SO many new teaching skills and became really good at accessing ‘how to play it’ when first walking in on a class. I enjoyed not having any marking or paperwork to do but hated not knowing where or what I would be teaching from one day to the next. It was scary. However, it is an experience that I believe every school teacher should go through as it taught ne SO much and I became a better teacher for it. Yet I began to miss teaching the performing arts.
At this point, I saw a job advertised by Doorstep Arts- I’d never heard of them before! I applied for the job as assistant musical theatre director and I got it!!!! At first I felt a bit awkward as I was used to teaching in a secondary school where how/ where I sat or stood or talked was long engrained. I spent most of my first term at DAS getting used the informality and close relationship that Polly had with the students. The first thing that struck me was the joy and passion that Polly led the workshops. There was no need to assess the work of the students or give them levels or grades. There was no need for classroom management but almost an unwritten rule that people respected each other and listened to each other and supported each other. There was constant reassurance and there was no right or wrong. I gradually became used to this way of involvement and very quickly working at DAS became my favourite job EVER. The creating of work with no pressure, the way that Polly made everyone feel so very special. I would turn up after a long day doing supply teaching, exhausted and downbeat and leave the session energised and inspired. My time at DAS has given me back the passion I once had for teaching the performing arts.
I use a lot of DAS exercises and approaches in my secondary teaching and vice versa. When working in a secondary school, it is very easy to get caught up with assessment, progression etc. and time quickly goes. I now find the time to end sessions with a fun game as it releases tension and gives the students something to look forward to- this works especially well if you are dealing with real life issues, such as bullying, as part of their schemes of learning. Free from assessment, DAS sessions enable students to have the freedom to explore and use their imagination, their work is not judged against levels or grading criteria and most certainly not on the end product. Teaching in secondary schools is different as you have to prove that students are progressing and this is quite often judged in learning walks where senior members of management team judge the effectiveness of your teaching- this team are not Drama specialists and often find it hard to judge progression other than by academic achievement and so the end product becomes far more important. This can lead to teaching being over-prescribed and imagination stifled.
I then became a Drama teacher in a small secondary school near Exeter. I was warned that the students’ behaviour and motivation for Drama may be challenging as they had had a string of supply teachers for the past year. I decided to change my teaching approach and merge it together with my experience as a supply teacher and my new job at DAS. I merged classroom management with more time for getting to know the students and for them to get to know me. For the first time ever, I gave 10 minutes of the lesson over to asking the students to share their thoughts on what they thought of Drama, reiterating there were no right or wrong answers. We went round in a circle with every student saying something. I listened carefully, summed up their responses and stored this information in my head for future activities. This naturally led into me sharing my thoughts on Drama and I suddenly found myself opening up about my past experiences in order to put my passion for teaching and the performing arts into context.
Rather than hiding my working class roots and my past traumas in fear of being seen as ‘dodgy’ and not worthy of a so-called ‘proper’ Middle Class teacher, I began to share them. The students listened and seemed really interested. My message being that anyone can make it in life if you have a passion in something, anything, no matter what that might be. I then explained my philosophy about Drama being Serious Fun and why boundaries are important before moving on to a warm up game that I built up on stage. By the end of the lesson, even the students that I was secretly scared of had participated well, as they left the classroom, a couple of the students even said ‘thank you’.
This was a school with many social, economic and behaviour challenges, with much less facilities than I was used to, and is currently rated by Ofsted as requiring improvement. I really enjoyed my time here as I felt that I was making a difference. I have come to realise that I only enjoy work when I feel useful. After being in management for so many years, I had forgotten why I had gone into teaching in the first place. It was to teach! My management experience meant that I was easily able to keep up with administration as well as teach to the best of my ability. I really enjoyed it. I was offered the full time temporary post of Head of Drama but turned it down as I wanted a more permanent job. I am now teaching at SANDS school, Ashburton. I am being further challenged and continue to learn every day, not teaching skills but people skills. I have come full circle- I worked part time as a Drama teacher at SANDS before I did my teacher training.
Teaching Drama at KS3 is great. A good school recognises the transferable skills that Drama embraces and this is why they choose to place it on their timetable. Therefore, transferrable skills should be at the centre of KS3 Drama teaching; the ability to work with others, empathy, self-expression and understanding, how the world works. KS3 Drama teaching should also introduce and use the skills needed for whatever exam specification is chosen at KS4 in order to help students who may wish to take Drama. All KS3 Drama lessons should be structured. I use a circle at the beginning and at the end of lessons in order to introduce the lesson and then to review it at the end. Doorsteps has also taught me to use this time to catch up with the students and see what type of week they have had. I then use a focus warm up, such as Bomb Disposal, before another warm up that links to what we are learning in that lesson. Tasks should be built up like an upside triangle, starting individually, then pairs and then into small groups. Basically, keeping the students active and alert and motivated. Verbal peer feedback/ teacher modelling during each stage is good practice and enables the teacher to assess the progression of each student. Students should have the opportunity to show their work at the end before circle time reflection.
If I could, I would reverse the changes that the government made to the curriculum in 2016. The government forced all practical subjects to become more academic. GCSE Drama changed from being mostly practical assessed to mainly written. This also included a written exam. The top GCSE grades were not accessible to students who were less academic- not matter how brilliant their practical skills were. There are other Level 2 options, such as BTEC, but all level 2 course results need to be able to appear on school league tables and the only courses that do require academic intelligence- due to government changes. Lessoning the impact of the changes on students’ learning and motivation is the most important thing. Knowing how far you can push students to achieve is key to success and one that I continually strive to find. The key is knowing your students really well.
Drama should be taught from Year 7 in order that students take it seriously and also so that the life skills learnt in Drama have a positive impact on all students- not just those that chose to take it as a GCSE option. It is important that students feel safe and so boundaries need to be established as soon as you meet them. It is also important that students understand the benefits of Drama and that it is not just for budding actors.
When going into teaching, it is important to know your boundaries. Don’t take on too much. If you start off getting involved with everything and being keen to say yes to everything, then this can set you up for a fall. When first starting to teach, keep to the basics and just focus on improving your teaching. Get to know the school handbook really well, especially sanctions and rewards systems. Most schools will expect extra-curricular involvement. If you feel able, a lunchtime Drama club would be a good starting point. If you find that your work-life balance is becoming too much, talk to your Mentor.; in your first year of teaching as an NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher), you will be given a reduced teaching timetable and also a Mentor. If you find that you are not being supported enough, talk to your head of department. If you are still not given enough support, start looking for jobs in other schools. This does not mean that teaching is not for you, it just means that your current school is probably not best suited to you.
Don’t take on a management role too soon. Make sure you are completely ready for it and that you are happy with managing the staff that you will be working with and that they are supportive of you. I would start by only taking on a head of department role in a small school where you only have to manage a small amount of staff. Teacher training teaches you how to manage young people but it doesn’t teach you have to manage staff and this can be so tricky. Try to get your first management role in a fresh school where you can build your professional relationships based on your new role. Try really hard to get to know all your students’ names- this really helps with building a good working relationships and, if you don’t, parents’ evenings can be also really embarrassing!!
Always try to keep your teaching fresh and enjoyable, not just for the students but for yourself!!! Always be honest with yourself and the students. Don’t try to hide your personality. As long as you are working within the Professional Standards, take time to tell students about yourself (not too much time though- it’s not all about you!!). I have always felt that I have achieved in spite of my life challenges- looking back now though, I believe that I have achieved BECAUSE of them. This new understanding has now made me a better teacher- a teacher that better understands students and their need to know that, no matter what they may be going through, anything is achievable.