Behind the Scenes: Regional Teacher Mentorship



Caitlin West, PhD candidate

Caitlin West is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland joining Bell Shakespeare as she undergoes her thesis. Caitlin had the opportunity to observe the Regional Teacher Mentorship (RTM) program, a program that provides specialist training in Shakespeare for English and Drama teachers from regional and remote Australia. As the in-person mentorships wrapped up, Caitlin shares her insights after watching the two groups.

Like many people, my experience of learning Shakespeare in high school was… dreary. I remember sitting at my desk listening to some poor fifteen-year-old boy who secretly wished he was in PE halting his way through “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Reading the play aloud as a class and then crawling through a laborious textual analysis was as unenlightening as it was dull; many of my classmates had sworn off Shakespeare by the end of the term. With this in mind, I was keen to see what fresh ideas Bell Shakespeare would be able to offer to the thirty-odd teachers who had flown in from every state in Australia. I was not disappointed.

Over four days each, two groups of roughly fifteen teachers were taken through a series of dynamic, on-your-feet exercises aimed at engaging with the language, plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s plays. They learned to step through the plot via moved synopses and tableau work. They also learned games that would familiarise students with Shakespeare’s archaic language – words like “avaunt”, “thy”, and “bull’s pizzle”.

However, the RTM wasn’t just about making Shakespeare fun and accessible, although that was certainly part of it. Many of the exercises provided a brilliant entry point for critical analysis. The participants learned to unlock their students’ critical thinking by embodying character arcs, themes, and relationship dynamics. Debating games allowed participants to articulate their opinions, listen to each other, and discuss questions that would likely have remained impenetrable if they had simply stayed on the page. In one of my favourite exercises, participants stepped through a small section of King Lear multiple times, each time changing the context, intentions, and blocking that framed the lines. In each version, the meaning of the text shifted noticeably along with the performance practices. It was a thrilling reminder that, although Shakespeare’s words provide a roadmap for performance, the performers are ultimately driving the train, and have the power to make meaning with the text, and not just to absorb it (what an important message for students!). Lastly, visiting artist Ben Crystal helped participants to discover the intricacies and beauty of Shakespeare’s verse in a session that had them almost literally jumping out of their chairs with excitement.

Ultimately, however, the RTM isn’t just a set of exercises; the teaching artists did not simply hand the teachers classroom activities to replicate in their own schools. Not only will these teachers continue to be mentored by Bell Shakespeare over the next twelve months, they were also introduced to a fundamentally different approach to thinking about and teaching Shakespeare that they will be able to take with them wherever they go. The RTM reminded participants that Shakespeare is alive. His plays are dynamic, open, active, and explicitly invite creative, performative, and critical responses.

Throughout the RTM, it was clear that this dynamic approach was just as appropriate for English (and even Maths and Science!) classrooms as for Drama ones. While these exercises were active and embodied, almost none of them were acting exercises. Most were aimed at embodying the text without necessarily performing it. Students made static tableaux, played games, and stepped through a synopsis, without explicitly needing to act out the scenes. This made the activities perfect for an English classroom, where not every student will be comfortable performing to their peers (although they could easily be adapted for more actorly Drama students). The dynamics of each exercise also meant that students could take a more or less active role, depending on their confidence levels, making it possible for even the most shy or unwilling student to participate.

"This is an approach that can be applied not just to English and Drama, but across all academic disciplines."

The RTM reinforced the fact that embodiment and performance are modes of thinking. This is an approach that can be applied not just to English and Drama, but across all academic disciplines. So often, text-based learning is privileged over physical, dynamic work, as though getting up on your feet is in some way cheating or will distract from critical analysis. Participants were reminded that in fact, the opposite can be true. For children and teenagers with varying levels of academic inclination and ability, physical embodiment can be a far more direct, fruitful, exciting, and engaging way of accessing and analysing texts and concepts. It also does not have to replace literary analysis and text-based work. In fact, many of these exercises were explicitly aimed at providing a foundation from which students could then craft their own written essays.

Today, perhaps more than ever, students need to be given the tools to critically respond to and engage with complex texts. Shakespeare’s body of work carries with it four hundred years of academic thought, performance practice, cultural adaptation, and analysis. What better place for them to begin to develop their own, independent critical voice?

Many of the teachers who came to this year’s RTM arrived exhausted, burnt-out, and disillusioned. They all, without exception, left exhilarated, refreshed, and bursting with excitement to return to the classroom and teach Shakespeare. I’ve never heard the phrase ‘life-changing’ used so many times in such a short period.

As the child of a high school teacher, I know how difficult it can be to get time off for four days of professional development, and how exhausting the idea of sacrificing a whole weekend is. But I assure you, it is worth it. If you are an English or Drama teacher in regional or rural Australia, apply for the 2024 RTM. Do it. Crawl across whatever bureaucratic or administrative broken glass you have to to be there. Make it happen. It will transform your approach to Shakespeare, to English, and to teaching more broadly.

The Regional Teacher Mentorship is a Bell Shakespeare program designed to support regional and remote teachers from across Australia with teaching Shakespeare, and provide active learning strategies for all kinds of curriculums. 30 teachers are selected for a four-day intensive program and are mentored for the remainder of the year. Entries for the 2024 program will open in Term 4. Visit our website for more information.

The Regional Teacher Mentorship is supported by the Australian Government and Teachers Mutual Bank.