The Drama Teacher of the Month is a way of honoring the dedication and creative spirit of drama teachers from different schools, grades, and cultures.
Tom Knight, our first teacher to receive this “tip of the hat,” was an inner city teacher in Birmingham, England. As if that wasn’t daring enough, he decided to journey to Africa. Since 2004 he has been at Bishop Mackenzie Int. School in Lilongwe, Malawi. (If you get out your map, you’ll find Malawi is a land-locked nation, bordering Zambia and Mozambique.)
I became acquainted with Tom Knight through a “Yahoo Group” for drama instructors. After I found out a bit about his adventurous spirit, he consented to answer a few questions.
Why is Drama an important part of education?
I like to refer my IB Theatre & Theory of Knowledge students alike to the preface of Boal’s ‘Games for Actors and Non-Actors’ in which he retells the fable of, Xua-Xua, the pre-human woman. Boal describes how she becomes human through the act of observing herself; the first act of theatre. I do not think it too grand a claim that the arts offer us a way of knowing ourselves, and the world in which we live, and that this effectively defines our humanity. Drama, a social activity, is a particularly powerful tool for students to understand themselves, their relationships with each other and the complexities of our increasingly mediatised society. Drama in education should equip students with the skills and understanding to manipulate, rather than be manipulated by, the various media that impact on their lives. It should turn them into active engagers with modern means of story telling rather than passive consumers. This means giving students the opportunity to create, perform and respond to a range of drama.
Why did you become a drama instructor?
I have never subscribed to the Gradgrind philosophy of ‘Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.’ and teaching drama offers one of the most creative educational roles there is. In a world where information is being generated at such an astonishing rate we need to be equipping students to deal with that information and to do so creatively. I loved drama at school but it was at college in Roehampton and later working for UK theatre company C&T that I began to see the power that drama has to engage young people and, very importantly, empower them. If you can move students beyond their initial assumptions about what drama is and at the same time encourage them to think critically about the world they live in then something amazing happens and they begin to teach themselves!
Why did you choose to teach in Africa?
Africa gets into your blood. I visited a cousin in Ghana in 1996 and was deeply touched by the honesty and generosity of the people. When my partner came out to Malawi as a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) I had the opportunity to follow her and I jumped at the chance. I can’t claim any particularly altruistic motives for choosing Africa. Most of the students I teach are relatively privileged. Having said that, there are opportunities, through extra curricular and project work, to help local schools. Many of the students we teach are likely to become ‘movers and shakers’ in Malawi and further afield. We have students from almost 50 different nationalities at Bishop Mackenzie International School. I hope that we do a good job of preparing them to do their best for places like Malawi.
What interesting / unusual experiences have you had? (In either Africa or England)
Before I was married my fiancé was still lecturing at a women’s teacher training college near Dedza. We were invited as guests of honour to attend a ‘mock wedding/engagement’ ceremony. It turned out to be ours! We were seated side by side on a stage in front of a hall packed full of ululating women who performed various rites and dances around us while we sat and grinned. It was incredibly touching that hundreds of strangers (to me if not my wife) wanted to celebrate with us and from a drama point of view it was fascinating to be part of an event that bridged Western conventions that we often assume separate drama and reality. To this day I can’t be sure that I didn’t walk out of the place a married man. Not that it matters since I don’t think marrying the same woman twice counts as bigamy.
What is an example of one of your students’ shows?
The Tempest, performed in and around the school swimming pool where we built the prow of a large ship onto the changing rooms and out over the water. The design was largely inspired by Magritte and the production involved 15ft backpack puppets, fireworks, synchronized swimmers and mermaids (amongst other liberties taken with the bard's parting play). It was great fun.
Do you have a special "teaching moment" you'd like to share with our readers?
It is quite special sitting here and thinking that there are truly too many to pick from. It would be easy to say that it is seeing the students high as kites after a run of the latest school production. That is special of course but I actually think I get as much of a buzz from the seeing the penny drop after a student has struggled to work something out for them self. I love it when students feel confident enough to take on a challenge and admit that they are scared or don’t understand something. Too much of school seems to knock that out of students. They feel they have to be right or silent. My current IGCSE group is working on The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel. I thought they would be really turned off but they came back after the vacation raving about it. That’s another special moment in teaching, being proved wrong by your students!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Tom!
Do you know a special drama teacher? Someone who changed your life? Or helped you fall in love with the Theater? Visit the Plays/Drama forum and nominate him or her as the Drama Teacher of the Month.