About Sarah Mattie

Sarah Mattie is a teaching artist exploring options outside of the traditional classroom after 10 years. She has a soft spot in her heart for middle schoolers and is particularly passionate about diversity and equity in education. She lives with her husband and four rescue cats, including a tripod kitty, and loves to listen to podcasts.

This year, I started locking my door during my plan period. The stress and exhaustion of being a theatre teacher is starting to get to me more than before. I have four preps, teach a variance, and direct the shows after school. I need that time to be quiet. I don’t refuse to open the door, but I take the moments from the knock to opening the door to reframe my brain to “teacher mode.”

Every day, I work in two totally separate career fields simultaneously. I didn’t fully grasp this until reading a wonderful article by TheatreArtLife, called “Performing Arts and Overworked Staff: Let’s Not Pretend We’re Okay.” How familiar does this instance, from that article, sound to my fellow teachers?

A person on a production team is huddled…out of the way…. This person is often in low light, positioned as if they are hiding. Their posture is crumpled. Possibly, just possibly, there are quiet tears being shed.

When (if) you ask what’s wrong, they pull themselves momentarily together, and often choke out some version of: “Oh, nothing, I’m just tired.”

As I read this piece, I found myself inserting “teacher” in place of every job title, “education” into each mention of a field. I felt exhausted just reading about that. Then, I read the article again, without replacing the words, and I felt even more exhausted because of the familiarity of this way of reading it.

We are Literally Doing a Dozen Jobs

In your standard theatre, you have a team of at least eleven people working on any show before we even get to actors and technicians. There is an artistic director (or producer, or a variety of other “I’m the boss” terms), director (my official title), a costume designer, set designer, light designer, sound designer, props master, publicity team, technical director, stage manager…the list goes on. This does not include the highly-trained builders and creators of each of the technical aspects. Putting on even a community theatre production involves at least most of these people; some may pull double duty, but it rarely never falls on just one person. And, we have a job twelve: teacher.

Each of those positions is trained differently. You can major in each one of those jobs, and most people in the world of theatre specialize in just one or two. When someone tells you they majored in theatre, ask them what their focus was. “Theatre” isn’t a career. Acting, directing, design, and, in my case, stage management is. They focused on one or two subjects. We, theatre teachers, are expected to be experts in all these areas. The people who work in these areas also often have teams. Costume designers frequently have a few team members to help sew, set designers almost invariably have a construction team, etc. Teachers are not only expected to do the design work but also build with the help of teenagers, not fully trained adults. The work is doubled if you teach middle school or younger, where the students are just learning how to paint and draw, and we need them to use power tools or sewing machines.

A Day in the Life of Working 12 Jobs

It is not unusual for your friendly neighborhood theatre teacher to arrive the moment the school opens (which, I found out the hard way, is 6:00 AM at my building) and be there until as late as midnight. I have always gone to work during my spring break, sometimes daily, to build the set with the help of my husband. I have learned to design lights, admittedly poorly, spending sometimes as much as 12 hours huddled over a board, crying, trying to make the lights do something. I can sew, but I can’t sew 50 custom costumes in just a few weeks. I can build, but I can’t make blueprints. And sound design? Forget it. I just find sounds and hope for the best!

Yet, my students deserve to have the best show they can have. Nothing grinds my gears more than when I hear, “It’s just a middle school show; they don’t expect much.” My students are putting in just as much work as high school and, at times, professional actors. They deserve their show to reflect that.

So, I work. I work at jobs I simply do not know how to do well. I work at jobs that are usually taken on by twelve separate people, all of whom get separate salaries, while theatre teachers are frequently paid a stipend equal to coaching one sport—period. Not per semester, not per show, period. If we ask for a stipend for assistance in these roles, we are usually told to do it ourselves or given an amount that no one would or should work for. We are teachers. We should be able to do it all, right?

We sure try.

While in rehearsals, from 6:00-7:30 AM. I either prep for the day or work on the show. From 7:30 AM-3:10 PM, I teach. From 3:10-3:30 PM, I sit in my room and try to enter grades or help students who need additional assistance. Then, 3:30-5:30 PM, we rehearse. 5:30-6:30 PM, I wait for parents to pick up their kids, even though 5:30 PM is the end time; we aren’t allowed to leave students unsupervised. I can’t just bring them in to help because their parents will show up and not know where they are. 5:30-9:00 PM, 10:00 PM, or later, I am often still in the school, working at those jobs.

I have gotten better at it. I have forced myself to leave work a little earlier so I can remember what my husband looks like. But, at home, I wake up from anxiety dreams about all the twelve people’s jobs that still need to get done.

In addition to the work of the twelve people that we do, we also build a unique relationship with our students. When I taught Language Arts, I developed great relationships with my students. But, in a subject as inherently vulnerable as theatre is, those relationships are different. I am often the first adult a child will come out to, I am the one they will tell about their home situation, I am the one they will cry with, even when nothing is really wrong, but they just need to cry. I am the one their parents call when they don’t know where else to turn. I am beyond thrilled they trust me enough for this, but it is another layer to what we do; we are substitute counselors, parents, and friends.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles detailing the current pandemic of teacher burnout. Teachers are leaving the field left and right, and fewer are entering it. There are far fewer detailing performing arts burnout, but it is very real, and people leave that field in droves as well.

So, Where Does that Leave Us?

We can, and do, tell other educators about what we do. Constantly. We also have the culture of “one-upping” on who works harder, who is more stressed, who does more, within our own community of theatre educators. (Folks, really? We need to stop.) We often have to fight boards, administrators, parents, and other educators to get our kids for rehearsal time, pay for the rights and supplies we need, and advocate that our subject is, in fact, a real subject that deserves to be taught.

Even if we win, it leaves us in some uncomfortable places.

It leaves us being told our jobs are “cute” and “fun.”

It leaves us being told we “should be grateful it isn’t a tested subject.”

It leaves us being critiqued for the quality of the twelve people’s jobs we did by ourselves, while also teaching all day.

It leaves us huddled in that dark corner, getting ourselves together, telling everyone we’re fine.

It leaves us burning out faster than a match in a rainstorm.

So…Now What?

If you’re wondering how you can help, the best way is to offer your time, expertise, and extra “junk.” Don’t say, “Tell me if you need anything!” Say, “Hey, I’m handy with a drill, and I am free on Saturday if you’ll be around.” Say, “I have this box of 1970’s clothing in my basement; do you want it?” Or, at least say, “I see you, and I appreciate how hard you work.” I cannot tell you how often things like this have kept me getting up and going to work every day.

Most of all, don’t underestimate what we do. It’s not easier than a core subject. It is not all fun, all the time. We don’t just play games and put on little skits. We build, we create, we shine light where there was darkness (literally and figuratively!), we train students in a month to do what many people spend four years in college to learn. We oversee 50, 70, 100 students at once, often with no “assistant coach” to support us.

We are working, constantly. And, like TheatreArtLife says, we need to stop pretending we’re okay.

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