Episode 89: Make a Mission Statement for Your Drama Classroom
Discover drama teacher Amy Patel’s process for creating a mission statement with her students.
Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
As we look toward ringing in a brand new year in yet a couple of days, I thought it was appropriate to replay Episode 89: make a mission statement for your classroom with teacher Amy Pugh Patel. Start the brand new year off to a great start with this fantastic project. You can catch the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode89.
And if you like what Amy has to say here she has a more in-depth version of the project inside our Drama Teacher Academy. I’ll tell you more at the end of the podcast. Let’s get to it.
Lindsay: Hello everybody! Welcome to the podcast. I am so happy today to be talking to teacher Amy Patel. Hello Amy!
Amy: Hi! How are you?
Lindsay: I am awesome. You are on your Spring Break this week, right?
Lindsay: Are you enjoying that?
Amy: Yeah, it’s really nice. You know, sleep in, stay in my pajamas for a little while, and not have a real strict schedule for a change. And the weather’s pretty – for today, anyway.
Lindsay: Okay. So, tell everybody, I’d like to start with asking where people are in the world. So, where are you?
Amy: I’m in Madison, Alabama, which is just outside of Huntsville, North Alabama.
Amy: And I teach at James Clemens High School which is a brand new school.
Lindsay: Ah, cool. Okay. We’ll get into that. So, how long have you been a drama teacher?
Amy: This is my 16th year. I taught for 14 years at Butler High School in Huntsville and then I took a year sabbatical and didn’t teach at all. I visited other teachers around the country, some of my friends who taught in Connecticut and Colorado and Florida. And then, I also got back on stage for a change and kind of regrouped and then started at James Clemens last year so that is two years now at that school.
Lindsay: Do you think sabbaticals are important for teachers?
Amy: Oh, my gosh. It saved me. It really did. I needed that break and I needed that time to, you know, do research for myself – kind of explore and to miss it. My husband asked me, “When do you think you’ll go back to the classroom?” and I said, “When I miss it,” and it didn’t take long. It just really revived my passion for teaching. You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder and having a bit of an absence and getting to explore the things that I’d been turning around in my head really helped me and I feel like I’m a better teacher for it.
Lindsay: So, it seems like it was very purposeful that you would go, and I know they were your friends, but were you asking other teachers about things that they do? It was sort of like a research thing, too?
Amy: Yeah, because, you know, I had taught for 14 years at the same school. And so, I felt like kind of my blinders went up and I could only see things the way I had been doing them or, you know, I had only seen a school being run the way my school was run, and I would hear about other friends at other schools and they would talk to me, but I didn’t get to see it for myself.
So, you know, I went in with an agenda. I wanted to see what’s their space like; how do they structure their classes; what are the things that they feel, like, go really well and what are the challenges that they have; and, you know, I saw a lot of myself out there, and I kind of felt like, “Oh, I’m not the only one who faces that,” and, “Oh, I’m not the only one who struggles with that,” and it was just really nice.
Lindsay: Sometimes, the nicest thing is knowing you’re not alone, isn’t it?
Amy: Yeah, yeah, because, especially as a theatre teacher, oftentimes, we’re the only one of our kind at our school and that’s difficult. You know, a science teacher can just hop down the hallway and say, “Hey, I’m working on this, what do you think?” or, “Hey, do you have this resource?” But a theatre teacher doesn’t have that luxury because we’re usually the only one.
Lindsay: Why did you choose drama? Why teaching and why drama?
Amy: You know, I went into a theatre class in high school, really, because my friends were there and I had an English teacher that I really liked and she was also the theatre teacher and so I thought, “Oh, that would be fun,” and, you know, my girl friends were taking it and I went in for fun and I really liked it. So, I took it my junior and senior year and then I did a couple of plays and was really inspired. I had another teacher, too, named Mike Chapel and was really inspired by him.
But I didn’t consider doing it for the rest of my life. I thought I would go into journalism – maybe even math. And then, I got to college and quickly realized math was not it because I failed calculus the first semester. But I still didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do and then I realized that what always inspired me and what always seemed to be my passion was the learning and whether it was in an English class with a great teacher or a history class with a great teacher and I thought, “Wow! That’s what I want to do. I want to keep learning and I can do that if I teach,” because, when you teach, you learn twice. And then, I realized how much I missed the theatre because I didn’t do it my first couple of years in college and I realized that it wasn’t so much “why do I want to do with my rest of my life?” but “what do I not want to do without?” and it was the theatre – it was the stage and it was being a part of the theatre. And I didn’t want to go to New York or LA or Chicago and try to make it on stage. I really wanted to do theatre every day and I could do that if I was a director, if I was a teacher, and then I could inspire and help other students to hone in on their skills so that they could go to New York or LA or Chicago or become teachers.
Lindsay: Why do you think it’s important for students, for teenagers, to take drama?
Amy: There are just so many reasons. Sometimes it’s to build a confidence in them. You know, I have kids who say, “I want to take theatre but I’m shy,” and I say, “That’s exactly why I want you to take theatre,” because, hopefully, every classroom’s this way but it’s a safe place to kind of crack through your little shell.
Lindsay: Oh, and they have such a shell sometimes, don’t they/
Amy: Exactly! And sometimes they hide it. They put up, you know, their walls. And so, they act like they’re the tough guy or that they don’t care about anybody else. But, the truth is, you know, there’s something there that needs a voice and I think they can find that in the theatre. And I think, too, in theatre, we really work on what it is to be a human – to work with other people, to learn to trust other people, to come together, you know, from different backgrounds, different opinions, different philosophies and visions for whatever the project is, but learn to work together.
So, you learn conflict resolution, you learn confidence, you learn discipline, you learn organization. And then, too, you learn about all the other content areas because you’re reading and so you’re getting literature analysis but you’re also learning history because, what do you know, your play’s about Amelia Earhart and you’re learning about science because you’re learning about electricity with lighting or physics, how to make a set piece move. And so, I think it’s just like everything wonderful in the world is right there in the theatre classroom.
Lindsay: It’s the most amazing class.
Lindsay: I say often, I’m like, “Where else are these kids going to learn how to work together?” Like, that’s all that your work life is – working with other people – and, if you don’t know from a young age, it’s so hard to make it, you know?
The reason, and this is going to dovetail really nicely because the reason that we wanted to talk today, I wanted to talk to you today is because you sort of contacted us and you were telling us about how you use a mission statement in your program and I’m like, “I’ve never heard about this. I love this!”
Tell everybody first. What is a mission statement?
Amy: A mission statement really is a concise verbalization of what you do, how you do it, and why you do it, and it’s something that companies – you know, corporations – use. But, oftentimes, I don’t know that theatres use them, especially educational theatres. I never did; at my old school, I didn’t, and I think partly it’s because the theatre program already existed when I came on. And so, there was already sort of a system of organization and I just kind of jumped into that. And, when I decided to actually come up with a mission statement, it was because I was at a new school.
Lindsay: Fresh start.
Amy: Fresh start, exactly. And so, my whole vision was that this was going to be something that grew out of nothing and we had a fantastic space. The school itself is beautiful. I felt like we had really energetic and supportive administration and parents and students. But we were all coming from different directions and I really needed for myself to really grow a program that I felt like was strong. I needed to have a strong basis and kind of a foundation and I felt like I needed to do that with a mission statement.
Just like, you know, I hadn’t even decided, “What are we even called? Are we the James Clemens Theatre Players? Are we Theatre JC?” You know, I had to come up with the name of our company and I went with James Clemens Theatre and then went through and started designing some logos and then I had students come up with logos and we had a little contest to decide what our logo was going to be. And none of that was in place yet.
And, when I started looking into branding and how important that was for kind of determining an identity for our program, I ran across something about a mission statement and my husband actually, kind of ironically was, at the same time, he was toying around with starting his own company – it’s a technical company – and here I was starting a theatre company. And so, we were both looking into the same direction – having to come up with a statement, having to come up with a logo, having to come up with what direction we were really going in, and I felt like it was something that I needed to do with my students. I couldn’t just come in and say, “All right, guys! We are James Clemens Theatre and here’s our logo and here’s our mission,” because then it’s not ours; it’s mine.
Lindsay: And what does it mean? Like, what does all that mean, anyway?
Amy: Yeah, exactly.
Lindsay: A mission statement sort of forms the meaning.
Amy: Yes, yes, and I had never written a mission statement. My students never had either so, if I just came in and said, “This is our mission statement, isn’t that great?” it would have been wonk-wonk-wonk-wonk that didn’t mean anything to them. So, it was something that we really had to come up with together.
Lindsay: Would you read your mission statement, please?
Amy: Yeah! “To be or not to be unexpected, dedicated, inspired and inspiring. To train our bodies, minds, and voices. To perform multiple productions from original and modern material to classic plays and musicals. To empower young artists and engage the audience. To engineer imagination and build our community. To be or not to be, we choose to be, James Clemens Theatre.”
Lindsay: I think that’s awesome.
Amy: I love it.
Lindsay: Okay. So, that’s the end. That’s the product.
Lindsay: So, let’s talk about the process. So, how did you get there? How did you do this with your students? And these are all new students to you, correct?
Lindsay: They were.
Amy: They were, and some of them knew each other but they were actually coming from two different schools because some were coming up from the middle school and some were coming over from the existing high school. So, a lot of my students were new to each other also.
Lindsay: So, let’s talk about how did you approach this with them? How did you tell them that this was going to happen?
Amy: Well, we first went in and started, you know, going through, “What questions do you have for me? What are your goals for the program?” and the need for some statement that would solidify all the answers to that.
So, when I was researching mission statements, I noticed that they all had three things in common, or three questions. One was “What do we do? How do we do it? And why do we do it?” and that seemed to be a kind of criteria for any good mission statement.
So, I went and I hung the big Post-Its on the wall, the big white Post-Its, and on one of them, I asked that: “What does James Clemens Theatre do?” The next one was, “How do we do it?” and then next was, “Why do we do it?”
And then, you know, “What are three words that are essential in describing James Clemens Theatre? What sets us apart from other theatre companies? What is our strength?” The funny thing is we were making it up because we didn’t know yet. We were still just learning each other’s names and so we were describing something that didn’t exist yet. We were really describing the ideal and what we hoped for.
Lindsay: Did they dive into that? Were they trepidacious? Like, what a big leap to take.
Amy: Yeah, I think that they really jumped in because everybody came in with these ideas swimming around in their head and this gave them a place to put those ideas. You know, if I said, “What are three words that describe us?” they got to describe what they hoped would describe us. So, everybody really jumped in and I think it was accessible, too, because I didn’t just say, “Hey, write a mission statement.” It was, “Answer these questions,” and that’s easy. We can do that.
Lindsay: Oh, I love using questions in the classroom because they’ve been doing it since kindergarten
Lindsay: You know? So, it’s exactly as you say. If you had come in and said, “Write a mission statement.” No one would have known what to do.
Amy: Yeah. And, too, there were no right or wrong answers which is typical in a theatre class anyway and I think that’s one of the beauties of it. There’s no right or wrong. There is no answer key that I’m going to check these answers by. Just tell me what you think.
They went in and they wrote those up there and we kind of did a carousel around and they had their markers and we noticed things that kept reoccurring and said, “Okay. These are pretty common among us. We’re kind of coming to a consensus on these few things,” and that was kind of nice. It started to bring us together.
And then, after that, we talked about how do we take all these ideas that are splattered up on these posters and actually put them into something…
Amy: Useable, yeah. So, I found some mission statements from lots of corporations but then I also found some from theatre companies, especially regional and professional theatre companies, and so I took some of those and I created a handout and I gave them to the students and told them to read over them with a highlighter and a pen or pencil and mark them up and really pick out what was meaningful to them. You know, “What are the things that resonate with you? The things that you hope are a part of our company, too. And then, cross through the things that you don’t think really apply to us and then
bring those back.”
Lindsay: How many did you give them?
Amy: You know, I want to say there were about 20. It was a front and back sheet.
Lindsay: That’s good to know. Like, it just gives you a really good visual, you know, for anybody listening who might want to do this. You know, that’s how many you want to pass on to your students so they get, by the end of it, they must have had a really good sense of not only what they wanted but what a mission statement looks like.
Amy: Exactly, exactly, because they read so many and they saw that there wasn’t a standard fill-in-the-blank format for it and I think that kind of freed them up, too.
And, once we took those, we decided on the things that we felt were most important and their homework assignment was to write. I told them, it is your job alone to write the mission statement for James Clemens Theatre.
Lindsay: So, they’ve got the tools. They have the stuff that they talked about for your theatre, they had the stuff that they liked about the mission statement, so they went home and wrote theirs. So, everybody in the class went home and wrote their own.
Amy: Yup. And so, we came back in with, what, 30 different statements and we put those up on the wall and went through the same process that we had done with the professional mission statements and they got to highlight, underline, circle, cross through. So, it was kind of like we were weeding out and really honing in on the things that kept reoccurring, yeah.
Lindsay: Did anybody get a little precious about theirs being crossed out or anything like that?
Amy: You know, I don’t remember that. If they did, I guess they were quiet about it. I think they felt like it was more like an archaeological dig, I guess.
Lindsay: Ah, that’s neat. I like that.
Amy: Even when they would bring in their own mission statement, they would hear somebody else’s and go, “Oh! I like that!” So, everybody knew that it wasn’t a contest. You know, write the statement and we’re going to pick yours.
Lindsay: You’re all working. You’re all together working towards this product.
Amy: Right, and they knew that we were just getting closer and closer and closer and we didn’t have a deadline.
Amy: Just each day we would get closer and closer and closer until we reached that point that we said, “That’s it.”
Lindsay: How long did this take?
Amy: I want to say, we’re on the block so we have hour and a half classes. Of course, we were doing other things along the way, too. We were doing a lot of team building activities and we would, you know, devote at least half the class to it. But we did it over the course of about four days. And, once everybody crossed through and highlighted the ones we had brought in, I took those and said, “At this point, I’m going to take these and I’m going to do my best to come up with a few different versions and then I’ll bring them to you and we’ll go through the same process.” But they need to get something on one piece of paper that we can ultimately work with.
So, I took it home and I noticed the words that kept popping up and the things that we kept discussing whenever we would talk about the ways, the reasons we were making the decisions we were making. And I bought in two different statements the next day and I read off one and everybody just went, “Ah! That’s it! Yes!” and they didn’t even read the second one. They didn’t even read the second one.
And what I like is that we use this. We’ve got it in the classroom. It’s on our shirts. We put it in our program. And we revisit it when we’re unsure about what direction we’re going in. We’d kind of check it – “Okay, does this really line up with our mission?”
You know, this year, when we decided to do a musical, some of my kids were really trepidacious about that and some said, “Oh, I don’t think that we should be doing a musical,” and we said, “Well, you know what, we actually said that was part of our mission, to do a variety of works. And, sometimes, when the kids are frustrated because we’re doing so many vocal exercises or they are so worn out from the physical exercises, we say, “You know what? We are training our bodies, minds, and voices. It’s in our mission,” so it kind of becomes that check to us to say, “Okay, this is the road we said we were going to get on and we need to make sure we stay on this path,” and it’s a pretty wide path, you know? We give ourselves lots of room. But we just check and to, like, we, each year, when we do a major production, we do some sort of outreach project and that’s built into our mission. So, we want to make sure that we keep that going. And, if somebody comes in and says, “Hey, why are we helping this garden?” well, it’s in our mission to build our community.
Lindsay: Isn’t that amazing? Because, now, you’ve got a piece of paper but also you’ve got a tenet that you can refer to to anything you do. So, every student now who comes in knows exactly what your theatre is about, why you do things which is what students want to know all the time – they want to know why, “Why are we doing this? Why?” you can show them this – and I also really like, in terms of community building, that you’re putting that out there, too. I like that it’s in your programs and on your shirts.
What reaction did you get from, like, the other adults in your school? From your teachers or from your admin?
Amy: I didn’t go into it for that reason.
Lindsay: No, no, no.
Amy: But I thought, “Why didn’t I see that? Of course! This is going to be something not just for us in the classroom; this is going to be something that other people will see. And, if I want to show them what we’re about, this is all I need to do. Hand them this and they have an understanding of what we’re doing, and the significance of what we’re doing.
And, one day, my principal sent an email and the subject line was “This is impressive,” and I opened it up and he had taken a photo of our mission statement hanging on the wall and that was it. And that really meant a lot to me and I think it probably meant a lot to him and I think he could see from that that we take our work seriously. It’s a lot of fun and we love it but we’re passionate about it and we take it seriously enough to actually put it into words.
Lindsay: It’s really important. I think also, well, how often has this conversation come up that nobody knows what they do in the drama class?
Lindsay: And that’s when drama classes become unstable and perhaps, you know, fodder to be cut and it’s like, “Well, look. This is exactly what we do. Here it is.”
Amy: Exactly. Now, I think this is a bit of ammunition.
Amy: I think it gives some substance to what we’re doing.
Amy: And it’s something, too, that drives us as a group. Like, when we say it, like, we actually memorized it. I would have kids memorize one line at a time and then add another line and another line and another line until everybody was saying the whole thing together and it was really, you feel this burst of energy at the end of it. You just want to go out there and conquer the world, you know? “We choose to be, James Clemens Theatre!” Roar! It’s just had so many benefits that I didn’t even anticipate. And, now, I want to revisit it.
Lindsay: Oh! So, it’s been in place for two years now?
Amy: Yes, this is the second year.
Lindsay: Ah, okay. So, what do you want to do next year?
Amy: I’m trying to figure out exactly what my process will be. I don’t think I want to start from scratch. I want to say, “Okay. This is our mission now. Now, let’s do some of these same tactics to see what changes we want to make.” And I don’t know – a part of me is kind of, you know, territorial about it. I mean, it’s our mission statement. We shouldn’t change anything. But I know that we should and I feel like, ten years from now, it’s really important that we have a statement that those students are a part of, too, instead of saying, “Well, in the year 2012, this is the mission statement we came up with and now you’re stuck with it ten years later.”
Lindsay: Well, because, as your program changes, your students will change.
Lindsay: Have you thought about, like, do you have a visual representation of your mission statement?
Amy: No, I don’t. But, you know, what’s interesting is the space program. We’re right next to Huntsville, Alabama, where the Space & Rocket Center and Marshall Space Flight Center are and, when I was in college, I actually worked part-time with the Space & Rocket Center and one of the things they did was program with teachers and we learned about how each mission into space has a mission patch. And, on that patch, a group of designers and artists actually come together and, depending on what the different projects are for that space mission, they will create a visual representation of it and it has the names of all the people who are on that mission and it has little pictures of things that are going on and you can actually purchase these patches now and you can go to the gift shop and you can purchase those patches and that’s how they came to be. And I always thought it would be neat if we had something and it might be, you know, something fun to do maybe with the art classes. “These are the words, how do we visualize that so that everybody can connect to it visually, too?”
Lindsay: Yeah! And then, like, to be able to, if you pass that on to the arts students, like, how do they interpret it? And then, that’s something that can come back that the drama students can reflect on. Like, is it what they expected or not what they expected?
Amy: And does it speak to us in the same way? Does it mean that same thing to us?
Amy: When it’s visual.
Lindsay: That sounds very cool, too. Well, I like that.
Amy: Wouldn’t that be a great mural?
Lindsay: Yeah! Oh, my goodness. That’s an awesome idea. Like, what a great way to, you know, and it’s not just the words because, as they say, you know, these students whoa re coming up now in the 21st century is like they’re visual learners – they learn by what they see and that’s how they process – and, to get these students to process visually this very important and wonderful thing, you know, it’s just going to add another layer.
Amy: Yeah, absolutely.
Lindsay: Awesome! Amy, this has been such a great… I’m so really happy about this because I think this is something that is unique but also “why not?” and it’s like this is something we should all be doing. Just to give such a grounding for your program and to make students feel a part of your program and responsible for your program.
Lindsay: And that’s how your programs are going to stay and thrive and become a vital part of the school life.
Amy: Yeah, and I think one of the biggest things for it was really getting to that “why” and, at the time, I had never seen this but Simon Sinek has a TED talk and it’s called “The Golden Circle” and he gets to how the most important thing is not what you do or how you do it but why you do it and so he draws these three concentric circles and he says some people work from that outside in and first they’ll tell you what they do and how they do it and then they’ll get to why.
He said, “But, really, start with the why. Start with the why and then the how and the what will come.” And I had never heard that but I really, as soon as he said it, I thought, “Ah! That’s exactly how we approached our mission statement – with those three questions.”
And then, this year, we actually got on our stage, we grabbed sidewalk chalk and drew – we watched his talk and then we drew three concentric circles and then I asked kids, “Start in the center of it. Write why you are an actor. Why you are a techie. Why you are an artist.” And, of course, the reasons were just so varied. It was wonderful. And then, we got to “Okay. You know why you do it. Now, how do you do it?” And then, finally, what is it that you are doing? That was a good kind of a follow-up to what we had done last year when we created the mission statement because we got to talk about our mission statement again and, you know, we always get to why. You know, no matter we’re dealing with, let’s get to the “why” and then we can figure out the “how” and the “what.”
Lindsay: Oh, that’s a great exercise and I’ll make sure that I link to that talk in the show notes.
Amy, thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Amy: Thank you! I appreciate all you do. I’m really glad to be a part of it today.
Lindsay: Aww! I just think it’s really great that we can put this out there.
Lindsay: Have a great day!
Amy: You, too. Bye!
Thank you, Amy! I just think that is an awesome exercise, an awesome process, an awesome thing to do for your students, for your classroom, just to let everybody know exactly who you are, where you stand, what you do this with your students. I just think it’s really a great, great, great exercise.
So, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
This podcast with Amy led us to ask her to create a course about her mission statement project for our professional development on demand website The Drama Teacher Academy. We offer courses designed just for drama teachers so that you can be the best teacher possible for your kids. And you don’t have to go anywhere, or be at a specific location for a specific time. The courses are all pre-recorded so that they can fit into your schedule and your method of learning.
Go to dramateacheracademy.com to check out the website and kick the tires. The doors to the academy are closed right now, but if you’re interested this is a great time to see what’s available and perhaps go to your administration or school board for funding. Need some ammunition? We have an Drama Teacher Academy Executive Summary written just for administrators with standard links and participant outcomes.
You can download at the shownotes for this episode: theatrefolk.com/episode89.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.