“I can’t do this, Ms. Q. These kids hate me.” Eleventh-grader Ruth presses her forehead to the wall in the corner of the art room and sighs.
When my colleague Andrew Simon and I teamed up with Ruth and several other high school students last summer to create the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy, we all knew we were taking on a challenge. The program serves about 60 kids in grades 5-12. The kids are expected to grapple with sophisticated texts spanning poetry, prose, theater, musical theater and original oratory. And the whole thing rests on a model of peer mentoring and student leadership that represents a pretty radical shift away from the rigid, top-down culture I found when I first came to Bronx Prep as a theater teacher eight years ago.
In the months that I’ve been mentoring Ruth and her peers as directors and designers for our first-ever student-led musical, “Aladdin,” she’s has been the model of grace under pressure. Now I watch her bury her face in her hands and cry.
“All I want to do is support them so they can put on an awesome show,” she says between sobs, gesturing to the room next door where she’s left the cast of 40 fifth- through eighth-graders in the hands of her 11th-grade co-director. “But they won’t listen. So I have to be the bad guy. I don’t know what else to do. I yell. I give them detentions. I threaten to call parents. None of it works. And now they hate me.”
I know exactly what Ruth is going through. My own trial-by-fire as a first-year teacher may have played out nearly a decade ago, but this current experiment in student leadership has catapulted me right back to my own early days in the classroom, reliving everything the young leaders are currently facing-all the anxiety, the fear of failure, and the frustration that comes from wanting to do creative work with kids and instead feeling like a glorified traffic cop, and an incompetent one at that.
Especially given how challenging their jobs are, Ruth and her team have been doing remarkable work so far. They’ve coached huge groups of inexperienced actors and singers, invented and taught choreography, sewn costumes, built sets, painted backdrops, organized ticket sales and coordinated complex schedules.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk somebody out of quitting.
I put a hand on Ruth’s shoulder, tell her that she’s doing fine, and reassure her that we’ll use our post-rehearsal planning time to troubleshoot. “And listen, honey,” I say, fighting to hold fast to my hard-won convictions. “I know you’re feeling some resistance from the kids right now, but believe me. They don’t actually hate you.”
At this precise moment, a sixth grader named Manuela bursts through the door of the art room, hysterically wailing, “Ms. Q! I can’t do this anymore! I HATE RUTH!”
The two crying kids lock eyes and freeze. And that’s when I realize that I’m in over my head, big time. Who knew that all the experience I racked up learning to lead in my own classroom wouldn’t translate directly to an ability to teach my students to do the same? I may talk a good game about the value of side-by-side learning experiences where the teacher becomes the student, but now that I’m actually back here in beginner-mode: I’m freaking out.
My natural instinct in this moment is to scrap the whole experiment, grab the reins from the kids and scramble back into my comfort zone-smooth over Ruth and Manuela’s hurt feelings, leap into the fray next door, sweep the high school leaders aside, restore order, get the middle school performers back on track and move the whole process forward.
But I think back to the lesson I got from the kids in the first week of rehearsals, after I’d interrupted a practice session a few too many times with what I thought was helpful feedback, and Ruth’s co-director Sahirah spoke up afterwards. “You know, Ms. Q, with all due respect, if you put us in leadership positions, it’s really hard when you don’t actually let us lead. I know you want to help, but it confuses the kids when you step in, because then they don’t know who’s in charge.”
It was a point well taken. Sahirah’s comment brought me back to my first year as a teacher and how miserable it felt when a well-meaning colleague occasionally swooped in to offer some “back-up,” bringing my wild classroom to order with a mere raising of eyebrows and unintentionally confirming my worst fears about my own hopelessness as an educator.
What was true for me then was true for my kids now: inexperienced leaders require a ton of support and structure from their mentors on the back-end, but ultimately they need to be trusted to muddle through the work on their own. They need to learn by doing, even when-heck, especially when-that means making mistakes.
So now I check my control-freak impulses. After a brief conversation, I leave Ruth and Manuela in the art room to work out their differences by themselves, step into the other room to make sure it’s not total chaos, and grit my teeth while the kids struggle through the rest of their rehearsal unassisted.
Then, as we do every afternoon, the battle-weary crew of leaders and I sit in a circle on the floor of the rehearsal room and wrestle with frustrations, come up with new strategies, celebrate small successes, and plan for the following day.
Weeks have passed since that low moment with Ruth and Manuela. There were lots more moments like it to follow.
But step by messy step, the kids pushed forward … and I gradually and painfully learned to do a half-decent job of keeping my mouth shut. We all did a lot of reflection about learning, innovation, commitment and leadership along the way. And at the end of the process, the kids put on a show that was bursting with energy and creativity.
When I sat down with Ruth and Manuela recently to look back on the whole experience, Ruth said that one of the biggest leadership lesson she’d come away with was this:
I feel like the kids respect you when you’re […] organized, and you’re calm and you show them you think they’re doing great. Then they do the right thing, mostly — not because they’re afraid of you, but because they’re excited and, you know, they want to make the show good. They’re willing to take a risk and go further than what they believe they can do. When they go beyond their own expectations, they get excited and the whole thing just flows.
Click here to check out our student blog to read student posts, see student photography and video from the show, and read a transcript of my whole conversation with Ruth and Manuela — now inseparable creative co-conspirators.