Teaching is hard every day. Even when my lesson plan is clear and my students are completely absorbed and engaged, teaching is really hard.
I feel the same way about running. It doesn’t matter if it’s a humid July afternoon in DC or a cool spring morning, whether I’m jogging on the treadmill or stumbling up a mountain. Rain or shine, hot or cold, running is always hard for me.
As a Resident Teaching Artist for YPT, my job is to teach, so I do it all the time. Running, though, is not my job, so I do it basically never. I know that I should, and I’m generally pretty happy after I do, but even as I think about running while writing this blog post I’m getting winded.
It was announced at a staff meeting earlier this fall that YPT would again be participating in the Acumen Solutions Race for a Cause, an 8K race that raised $12,000 for YPT in 2012. I was thrilled to have some much needed motivation to get me back in the running game. About 41 seconds later though, I realized I would be in upstate New York for a wedding that weekend and wouldn’t be able to cross the finish line as my coworkers and friends cheered.
I decided a week or so later that I would run the 8K anyway. At home in New York, with the company of my boyfriend, I would create an 8K course and run it while my coworkers were doing the same in Virginia. I immediately told Brigitte, our Executive Director, about my plan to run a “rogue race”. I’d have to start running. I told my boss I would.
It was around this time that I began teaching our In-School Playwriting Program for the first time. When I started at YPT in June, I had a wide range of teaching experiences under my belt. I had lectured college classes on Performativity and the American Dream, I had taught three-year-olds to create ocean waves with their bodies, I had served as a literacy tutor for elementary school students, I had taught fiction classes to gifted teenagers and pretty much everything in between. But teaching playwriting in our classrooms across the Greater Washington region has proven to be the biggest challenge I have faced as an educator.
As a YPT teaching artist, my job is to provide students, in eleven weekly workshops, the inspiration, techniques and tools necessary to write a play. With close to thirty students in most of my classes, there is very little time for individualized attention or hand holding. My lesson plans must be clear and concise as we move quickly from one concept to the next, forcing my students to think creatively and analytically simultaneously. The moment they understand a concept, we’re on to the next one. Once they understand the role of a protagonist, they have to create their own. When they’ve discovered their protagonist’s objective, they’re creating obstacles to get in his or her way. We are constantly moving the carrot, leading them on a creative and intellectual journey that will hopefully conclude with the creation of an original one-act play.
Writing a play is no small feat for anyone. I’ve been stuck on page 47 of the play I’m writing right now for almost six months. Many of my students, however, have never seen a play, so as hard as it is for me to write a play, for them it’s harder.
The days I was in the classroom this fall proved to be the most difficult days to muster the willpower to throw on my sneakers and head outside. My feet were tired from standing all day and I almost always had a headache.
I started off running two miles at a time. I was pretty disappointed with how difficult those first two miles were. Slowly, though, I was able to run two miles without wanting to throw up (a small victory, I thought). I’d run two and a half miles, and then three, slowly but surely working my way up to five. It was always hard. I would push myself each day for 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes just to come home, shower and realize I’d have to do it all over again the next day. I kept thinking it would get easier, but it didn’t, I’d just have to run farther.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, each workshop felt like a workout. Each lesson was a small goal either missed or achieved. One of my amazing partner teachers, the incomparable Ross Cohen, told me that as a teacher he feels like Sisyphus. Each day he pushes the boulder up a mountain for 90 minutes, only to start from the beginning and do it again with the next period.
While running never really got any easier, I did get better at it. By the time October 12th came along, I ran the 8K in 49 minutes. My mother set an alarm on her phone to come outside and cheer for us as we finished. We got there too quickly, though, and we finished the race without much pomp and circumstance. The two of us were sweaty and tired, but proud that we had finished.
In the classroom I feel that way each day. There’s no one there when the bell rings to give me a high five and say, “Way to go! That lesson on conflict was stellar!” When the bell rings, my students are usually starving, waiting for lunch and running out of the classroom as quickly as their legs can take them down to the cafeteria for a slice of pizza.
Hopefully, though, I pushed them just a little further than the week before. Hopefully, their creative muscles have been exercised and their endurance for this kind of thinking has increased. As their teacher, I’ve been strengthening these same muscles – pushing myself a little harder to make each class better than the one before.
Kathryn Coughlin is a playwright, dramaturg and teaching artist serving as an Associate Producer for CulturalDC’s Source Festival. Kathryn’s plays include More Than Before, They Say There’s a War Going On, Sounds of Alarm and All We Have. Her work has been developed, produced and read by The Inkwell Theatre,Rorschach Theatre St. Bonaventure University, Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage,The Disreputables and Meat and Bone Theatre Company. As a dramaturg, Kathryn has worked with Source Festival, The DC Queer Theatre Festival, Taffety Punk Theatre Company and Arena Stage. Kathryn has worked as a teaching artist for Creative Kids, The Literacy Lab and John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Trinity College in Hartford, CT.