In Hamlet 2, Steve Coogan plays a high school drama teacher forced to extreme, controversial measures when his class is threatened to be cut from the curriculum. He endures unenthusiastic and confrontational students, as well as poor reception for his lame film-to-stage adaptations (Erin Brockovich). While Coogan's character is an example of the down-and-out, out-of-work-actor stereotype that saddles many in the theater education community, it's really just that--a stereotype. It's a hard, oftentimes thankless job, but it's possibly the most ripe environment in which to mentor students--that is, when a teacher actually cares. We asked high-school drama teacher Drake Simpson, co-founder of Horse Head Theater Company, what frustrates him most about the task.
1. It's the system.
"The reason I get frustrated with students is not because of the students. It's not because I don't think they're capable. It's because of things like the TAKS test. They come in feeling like they have to regurgitate information. They're looking to give you the right answer. And when I ask them, 'What do you think?' it takes a while to get them thinking. There's a quote I put on my board the other day that said, 'Education should be a kindling of a flame, and not a filling of a vessel.' Students are frozen, and it's not their fault. When they're asked, 'What's the capital of Albania?'--well that's an easy answer. When I say, 'Listen to this piece of music and draw a picture about it,' you know, think about it; put your big-boy brains on--don't be afraid of your brain. They get there, but it takes some coaching. Again, it's not their fault. It's just the system."
2. The bad eggs.
"In the past, I had a student who threatened to kill me. This kid had never, ever participated in class. I gave him a zero on an assignment, and he stood up and said, 'Fuck you man, I'll fucking kill you.' I took him to the office, and I told the principal, 'He said he's going to kill me.' The student was sitting right outside the office, but I left the door open so he could hear what I was telling the principal. And as I was leaving the principal's office, I told her, 'Oh yeah, one more thing, he said that my mama sucked dicks.' And the principal of the high school said, and the student could hear her, she said, 'Did you tell him that she would suck his if he had one?'"
3. Hat eaters.
"I was in rehearsal for All My Sons or something, the first year I taught, and I was sitting in the balcony watching, and this girl was wearing a straw hat, and it had these little notches in it--I could see them from the balcony. And there was another student sitting right beside me, not saying anything. I was like, 'What is going on with [that girl's] hat?' And the girl sitting beside me obviously didn't want to say anything, but she was waiting for me to ask. And she said, 'Oh my god, Mr. Simpson, [that girl] is eating her costume!' It's the things you don't even think; that you take for granted they'll just know. Like 'don't eat your costume.'"
4. Raging hormones.
"They take everything very personally; it's just the age. The thing that really pisses me off is when they're disrespectful and mean to the other students. One of my pet peeves is talking when others are performing. In an art classroom, you have to feel safe to fail, to open up. And when kids shit all over that, I get really angry. And then I have to deal with it like an adult. I can't get confrontational, because getting confrontational with a 14 year-old with raging hormones is only going to elevate the situation. But that really pisses me off and I'm really verbose about that. Especially in the early days, like right now. If you let it go, you have no power; you've screwed the pooch. The more I teach, the more I learn that lesson."
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5. The amateurs that ruin it.
"I get more pissed off at teachers that don't care. Like, 'Why are you even doing this?' I've worked with teachers who say, 'Play rehearsal has started,' and then they just walk around. And they wonder why 30 days in, kids don't know the lines. Because they're not demanding anything or setting expectations. Kids learning their lines usually isn't a problem for me, because bullshit excuses never work. I'll pull out a script I'm working on, and I've got a gazillion lines, and I use it as an illustration to say, 'I know what it takes. I know when you're lying.' And then they insist that they're not. They treat you like an idiot, but you can't take it personally. The teachers who are angry, and walk out, and so bitter, they take what teenagers say personally--their job is to try and get over on you. To take that personally is childish."
6. But really it's the system.
"I hate the system; not the kids. I hate the way the system makes automatons, so sometimes I get frustrated with students. Teachers forget that they're not just teaching subject matter, and they're not just teaching students. You have to teach kids how to learn. To think, 'All I have to do is teach drama,' is a mistake. Actually, I teach for very selfish reasons; it makes me a better artist."