A teacher’s gift: The value of extracurricular activities

Dec 15, 2015 by Lisa Siegmann, Assistant Principal of Hunter College High School, NY

I often hear teachers speak passionately about their work in the classroom, but it’s the time spent with young people in extracurricular activities that generates a special kind of reward for students and teachers alike. After classes end, teachers become coaches on the athletic fields, directors from the stage wings, advisors within soup kitchens, and even mentors in robot workshops.

For many, these extracurricular activities practically constitute a second career. I've always been one of those teachers. I loved being the drama club advisor, and for a few years I filled in as the cultural club advisor for a culture that was new to me. These days, I find myself as one of the mentors for the school's robotics team.

There’s a special freedom that adults and young people find when they are learning something new, and learning it together. No matter how many years the volleyball coach has led the school team to new victories, she must first start by getting to know the players, their strengths, their areas of potential growth and how each one will become an integral part of the team by the season's end. It's different every year, and some vital part of that difference comes from how the adults and young people work together. 

I first experienced the power of adults and students working together when I entered junior high.  I recall feeling a bit lost as I left the elementary school model of one-teacher-one classroom.  With six different teachers, all in different rooms, it was more difficult to get to know the teachers, and even harder to feel known by them. Then I discovered drama club – where Mrs. C. produced epic junior high shows that provided the opportunity for students and teachers to work together to build sets, learn choreography, master lines and lyrics, and to get to know each other in an environment of serious fun. Each year she directed a musical with a cast of 80(!) 7th and 8th graders in the cafetorium. (Ah, yes, the efficiency of 70s architecture: a place to eat lunch at noon, and to perform on stage at 3 p.m.) I had never been in a play, and there was a young English teacher, Kileen Stone, who was assigned to help the director for that show. It was her job to help me learn my part, and maybe, just maybe, to help me learn about acting.

Mrs. Stone had been working with me on a musical soliloquy where my character had to express her anger through song. It wasn't coming easily and Mrs. Stone had cajoled me to think about times I was angry with my little sisters hoping that would evoke some feeling on stage – to no success. Rehearsal was ending and we hadn't made much progress. In a moment of inspiration (or was it desperation?), Mrs. Stone told me to throw the brush across the stage as I said my lines. Something suddenly clicked. That physical act unlocked the emotion needed to both speak the lines and to break into furious song. I knew then that I could do the part. She told me years later that at that moment, she knew that I had discovered something about how action and speech were intrinsically connected on stage. 

Of course, I could have read about this fundamental tenet of acting in a book, or I might have watched a masterclass on PBS to see an accomplished actor explain the power of combining words and actions. But instead, I had the remarkable experience of learning it for myself because these junior-high teachers were spending their afternoons and weekends working with us students on a Rogers and Hammerstein classic. I have no doubt they were amused, exhausted, frustrated and occasionally, proud.  Their willingness and enthusiasm for working together with the students to create a new production each year was inspirational. At the time, I was aware that Mrs. Stone had helped me learn how to approach the scene, and to unlock something new about my performance on stage, but somewhere in my 13-year old awareness, I also recognized that she had enjoyed making that opportunity happen for me. I know that her dedication that afternoon was part of what inspires me, even today.  Each time I witness young people learn something true about themselves, I am reminded of how time shared outside of class with young people and their mentors is an extraordinary gift.

Lisa Siegmann is the Assistant Principal of Hunter College High School for Grades 10-12 in New York City.  She is also Advisor to FIRST Robotics Competition Team 3419. Watch her TEDx talk “From Shakespeare to Robots, an Educator’s Journey” and read her bio.

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