There are few acts so courageous as stepping into a drama class for the very first time. Regardless of a person’s age or level of experience, they enter such a space knowing they will be tasked with expressing themselves loudly and openly—often in front of total strangers—and sometimes in defiance of every polite social norm. Given that drama teachers know how ultimately rewarding this experience is, it is all too easy for them to forget how scary the start of the journey can be; in many instances, this is something not considered by teachers who assume their life-long love of their craft is shared by all in attendance.
For this reason, it is vital that you have strategies in place to build confidence in your students. A nurturing, supportive classroom will always produce better results and help to demystify the creative process for students who might not take to certain aspects of acting as naturally as others. Above all else, you want to avoid discouraging talented individuals who may lack the self-assurance of their more outgoing peers.
Set Clear Rules
Your students will be more relaxed when they understand the boundaries you set for conduct in your class. One of the most damaging assumptions many new students will make is that “freedom of expression” equals “freedom from rules”—this can cause some students to act out, and others to retreat into themselves as they mourn the loss of structure giving guidance to behaviour.
When teaching younger students, consider writing (or, ideally, developing with them) a behaviour contract. It should explain all the positive attributes they should exhibit in class, as well as the kinds of behaviours that will not be tolerated. When students realise that a drama classroom, however different from school, is still built on the same foundations of hard work and respect, they tend to treat games and exercises more seriously and understand the more confronting parts of learning drama (acting, improvising, standing up and talking) as being par for the course. A behaviour contract can also contain a section about your role as a teacher: think of rules that establish the rights of students, and give them insight into the kinds of things you will and won’t be asking of them: “The teacher will respect your choices in a scene.” “The teacher will always provide fair and constructive feedback.” “The teacher will never force you to perform or participate if you wish to remain an engaged observer..”
The erroneous “freedom of rules”/”freedom of expression” concept is actually something you may encounter more in adults than young people. Often, lacking the comparative structure of a schooling system in their life, adult drama students can find it harder to take things ‘seriously’ in a class they have paid for and attend in their ‘free time’. In these situations, a discussion is best: be frank with them, talk about your expectations of their behaviour and work. They are guaranteed to not only find this kind of discussion helpful, but validating.
Setting challenging tasks for your students is one of the best ways to indicate you trust them and take their work seriously. Let them know you are confident that they can achieve things beyond their comfort zones, and that your expectation is they keep pushing the limits of what they think they can do.
Constant challenges also work to helping your students track their own progress. What may have seemed daunting at the start of a term—learning lines, emotional memory, plotting actions—will always seem more manageable after a period of sustained learning and the chance to put these ideas into practice. The goal here is to make students realise that your challenging of them is indicative of their hard work and courage, not a punishment or your attempt to humiliate them. This is where a behaviour contract or discussion is doubly helpful: you can talk about your expectations of students in a class, and clarify why certain aspects of your curriculum might be designed to push them a little bit above and beyond.
Any time your students express themselves, acknowledge and voice your respect for their doing so.
Give even the worst impulses your expertise and time of day, and encourage warm receptions and constructive feedback from their peers. In younger classes, this is as simple as leading a big round of applause after each game or performance: let the person in front of the group have a bow and feel good about themselves. A drama class is a perfect place to build healthy structures around giving and receiving criticism; for teens and adults learning acting, think about implementing a feedback rubric that structures how performances are judged. This will normalise the process of putting yourself out there in front of the group, and hearing back on points both good and bad.
Validating contributions can also be an effective means of dealing with a student who fails to take an exercise seriously—whether it is out of insecurity, or a desire to make the class laugh. Rather than calling them out for, say, performing a monologue in a silly voice, try giving genuine feedback: you thought there were some excellent moments in what they presented, but their choice of vocalising in such a way hindered your own ability to be engaged. Deny them the satisfaction of seeing you frustrated, and counter with sincerity instead.
When you pay respect to the contributions of your students, you will send the message that they are being heard. Those who are doing so to seek attention will realise that they have that from you regardless of their choices; most will endeavour to make good ones in the future, as it will be clear you will take them seriously even if they don’t do so themselves.
As an extension of the above: when somebody offers something risky or courageous, give it your full respect! For some, this could be a wild character choice—all flailing limbs and an outrageous accent. Others might risk themselves simply by putting up their hand and agreeing to participate. While every contribution from every student is different, train yourself to recognise the huge leaps of faith students make them: they will never feel more seen or supported than in those moments you make that connection.
There will be times where your students find themselves falling short of expectations: yours, or their own, or even that of their peers. Be ready to provide support and understanding. Students who find themselves struggling with their limitations invariably work the hardest; it can be tough for them to understand why they can’t achieve something that others seem to breeze past. Remind them that each person’s progression is different, and at the end of the day theatre is about play and expression. Sometimes, these students will get past these feelings of self-doubt. Others won’t. Regardless of the outcome, you can still build confidence in that person by how you respect them and listen.
If you are working for a larger teaching institution, make yourself familiar with their policies concerned with the well-being of students. These do vary, but will usually be beholden to some kind of government standards, such as those concerning Child Safety. If something about a student’s well-being is concerning you, immediately notify your superiors or the correct government/law enforcement agency. Their welfare is always the highest priority, and it can be a comfort for students suffering from similar problems to know that you take such matters seriously—even to the point where the knowledge of this, alone, empowers them to talk to you and seek help.
Perhaps the most important strategy of all: acknowledge that things in drama classes get weird. Students may find themselves being trees, melting as giant ice-creams or wading through honey. When you think about it, it’s almost more worrying if they don’t find anything strange about such activities…
Address the silly elephant in the room and talk to them about how freeing it is not to have to be taken seriously: this is often where the best creative discoveries are made. If it helps, talk to them about the skills they’re undoubtedly picking up in the performance of whatever strange game or activity is at hand. Building confidence in the face of silliness is all about getting students out of their own heads: always remind them that if everybody’s being silly, then, by that reasoning, nobody is!
…But Take Yourself Seriously
Ultimately, at the centre of all these strategies is you. You will set the standard for your students—on how they respect themselves, how they respect their class and their peers. You may even be the first professional actor they have ever met. Teach with confidence and warmth: model this behaviour at every turn. Each time you step into a classroom, you have the chance to shape an industry that many can agree is difficult—if not, at times, wholly problematic. Take the incredible opportunity (and incredible responsibility) that is teaching to build your students up and imprint upon them the positives they will need to pursue their passions and flourish.