Friday, May 15, 2015

Teachers, We Need to do Better

Teachers, we need to do better.

For the past ten days, I have been on tour with Xara Choral Theatre, bringing a show called Fatty Legs (based on the book by the same name) to schools and communities around the Maritime Provinces.

The show deals with the reality of the Residential School System in Canada, which is something that we are just starting to teach about in schools. For a long time, this practice of removing Aboriginal children from their homes, and placing them in schools with the aim of erasing their culture (“Kill the Indian to save the child” was the official wording), was not acknowledged – even given the fact that the last school of this type closed in 1996. I only learned about this part of Canadian history when we first did the show in 2011 for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Halifax. Since then, I’ve made sure to teach at least my homeroom about it each year, by reading and discussing the book Fatty Legs.

I was thrilled that we were finally able to remount the show and tour it to schools. We performed for over 4000 students during our ten days of touring.
Performing in front of a rapt audience of students in grade 2 through 6

Most schools were very receptive, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels. We were prepared for students to have questions about the performance, and about the residential schools. We were prepared for people to express anger, sadness, confusion – and those reactions were present when we did our Q&A sessions after each show. Opening honest and constructive dialogue was one of the main goals of this show.

However, we had some very negative experiences in the last two days of touring. In two separate high schools, students exhibited a complete lack of respect for both the subject matter and the fact that 15 people were attempting to perform in front of them.

In one of the schools, students openly mocked the dancer by mimicking her movements. They were spoken to by a teacher after about 20 minutes of this behaviour. Other students were making jokes (either about the show, or about something else entirely) and laughing loudly. Several of them were eventually asked to leave by another teacher. I am grateful to those teachers who took action to stop the disrespectful behaviour, although I wish it hadn’t happened in the first place.

In the final school, a student THREW A ROCK onto the stage during the performance. As the saying goes, the show must go on. One of the singers took it upon herself to move the rock out of the way so that nobody would be injured (the show is performed in sock feet). To my knowledge, no action was taken by teachers in response. One minute before the show ended, the bell rang to signal the start of the next class. Approximately 40 students, scattered throughout the audience, stood up and left. When I asked them if they could stay for the last minute of the show, they told me they had to leave because they had a test. According to the students, their teachers (two different teachers, from what I understand) told them that if they arrived late for the test, because of “the play thing” (students' words), they shouldn’t bother coming at all and they would receive a grade of 0 on the test.

TEACHERS instructed students that they were to get up while a performance was in progress in order to be on time for a test.

Teachers devalued a show about a terrible part of Canadian history that has been shrouded in silence for over 100 years.

Teachers, we need to do better.

We need to explicitly teach our students about respectful behaviour during performances, and model that behaviour ourselves.

We need to intervene when students engage in disrespectful behaviours.

We need to take a step back and realize that the test students are writing in our course may not be the most important part of their day. Or, at the very least, we should not use threats to indicate to students that it is acceptable to behave disrespectfully.

Teachers, we need to do better.

We need to prepare our students before we take them to see a show that deals with serious subject matter. How (or if) we pre-teach our students sets them up for success. It also instills in them an understanding that there are behaviours that are appropriate in certain situations that are not acceptable in others.

I am so honoured to have been part of telling this story, of bringing this show to so many students. I burst with pride when I think about how our dancer, narrator, and singers persevered in the face of adversity to always give their all on stage.

But teachers, we need to do better.