Secondary drama teacher Julie Leoni writes about how she teaches through the darkest days of winter
Half-term has come and gone, the clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in and this morning the first frost settled on the fields. This is the toughest part of the year for me. When the mornings are dark and I come out of the windowless drama studio as the sun sinks, my heart often sinks with it.
Over the years, I have become more and more aware that the way I am feeling has a direct impact on the young people with whom I work. The more relaxed, calm and happy I am, the smoother the lessons run. As I grow cold and tired, I become irritable and am quick to notice what displeases me. My confidence goes, I begin to feel not quite up to the job and then find I am more likely to take difficult pupil behaviour personally and therefore feel more threatened, more inadequate – in a downward spiral.
How much of this should I share at check-in time? I want to model honesty and openness. But do the young people want to hear all my insecurities? Probably not. This is one of the difficulties of being a subject teacher as well as an emotional literacy facilitator. Although we are models, we are not able to be part of the group in the same way as the young people. We have to hold the space, keep people safe and respectful. We have to know when to move things on and when to slow things down. Ultimately, we are in control and have to show how power can be used to structure and nurture in a way that allows everyone to feel involved and important.
Not acting out
There is another point to be made here too: if I am feeling angry in school, it is very rare nowadays that I scream and shout. I don’t act my anger out. I don’t display it. However, I do name it and, if appropriate, share that information with others, as in saying ‘I feel really angry when you talk to me that way’.
There are times when my anger is too great to be expressed in an ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ way; so that’s when I need time out. If it is an individual who has angered me, then I let them know that I am too angry to think clearly and that I will consider their behaviour, and any necessary consequences, and discuss it with them next lesson. If I am feeling angry with a larger group or class, then I get the desks, colours and paper out. I have a series of costume, prop and set design sheets which are easy to follow; so we can all have some quiet time, scribbling out our frustrations so that we will be prepared to talk about what happened when we are more calm.
If I have learned to not act out my anger, then I realise I am also in the process of learning not to act out my depressions, my uncertainties, my inadequacies. I can tell the young people I am feeling more quiet than usual, less confident, less energetic. The perceptive among them will have picked that up already. However, I do not have to act out my internal negative voice.
Often, when I admit I am feeling low key at the start of the lesson, I feel much better by the end. This happens because most children, most of the time are kind and caring and do consider other people’s feelings. I also think that, when I recognise and admit to myself that I am not firing on all cylinders, then I do things differently. I may not be able to pull out comic impressions and inspirational performances, but I am better at listening and reflecting back. I might not be so buzzing with my own ideas about what the small groups might like to do, but I am much better at asking questions and getting them thinking.
So, actually this movement from summer to winter, from white wine to red, from nights out, to nights in reading by the fire, is important to notice and enjoy. Summer may be lovely. Every one has more energy. We seem to be more sociable, more ‘in the world’. In the summer I create, energise and initiate. But we also need the winter to draw in our energies, to revise for mocks, to submit exam paper work, to get that coursework up to date. I also know that the winter is my most receptive period. I am more reflective, more questioning, more analytic. I want to talk less and read more. I need that time going into myself, and allowing others to go inwards themselves if they want, in order that when spring comes, we all have the knowledge and energy to allow our winter germinations to flower.
So, as I started the new half-term, I tried to acknowledge the change in the outside world and my inner world. I then asked the young people if they noticed any connections to their own experience. Instead of ignoring the dark, the wind, the rain, I was curious about how this affects us all and how we can use this knowledge to allow us to value and utilise the different energies we bring with us into school.