Former Drama Teacher Vikki Parker is the Creative Director at Arts Unwritten, a new social enterprise that seeks to develop new writing for theatre, exploring taboo themes of mental health.
After 16 years in teaching, Vikki is now an actor, director, writer, poet, and visual artist, with a mission to provide a creative platform for stories that heal. Through studying Integrative Arts Psychotherapy at the IATE, Vikki has extensively explored the therapeutic power of the Arts, and the aim of Arts Unwritten is to enable and empower individuals to present their stories of triumph and inspiration, and find healing in the process.
In our latest ‘Interviews with Teachers’, we spoke to Vikki about her time as a teacher in both primary and secondary schools, why she ultimately chose to leave the profession, and how her time working as teacher has influenced her new business venture.
Hi Vikki, thank you for taking the time to speak to us! Our first question is: why did you decide to become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I was passionate about theatre. I’d worked in the industry for over a decade, and wanted to immerse myself in the creative process every day. Teaching allowed me to do that, whilst expanding my understanding of writing and directing performance in ways I could never have imagined. The imaginations of the teenagers I taught for the first nine years were my reason for staying.
It was revealed last month that one in 83 teachers (3,750) are on long-term leave for stress and mental health issues. Does this surprise you?
It doesn’t surprise me at all, in fact I’m amazed it’s not higher.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as a teacher?
The most difficult challenges included the bureaucracy of working in an institution. As a creative person, I often pushed against the rules and regulations of a “tick box culture”. Behaviour of students was also an issue, but my subject has a unique way of harnessing teenage expression and we tailored our curriculum to enable that process in a safe and effective way. The biggest personal challenge to me however, was the feeling of powerlessness created by the government’s lack of understanding about what really happens in a classroom.
Do you think the situation is likely to get better now that these figures have been published?
Teachers today have no time for themselves, and aren’t encouraged to pursue a work life balance. It’s always just a matter of time before cracks begin to show in their mental health, and I don’t believe it will get better without a radical change in policy.
What was the main reason you chose to leave the teaching profession?
I chose to leave secondary teaching because the head of my department was never going to leave. I had already invested nine years into the school and knew that I didn’t want to enter middle management on the pastoral side, and there were no other opportunities in other schools that interested me at the time. All the Heads of Year that I knew seemed overwhelmed and had no life. For me, teaching was always about the students and my subject, not about leadership of other adults.
What do you think is the main thing that needs to happen to reduce pressure on teachers?
The damaging effect of the Ofsted process, and the ways in which Head Teachers communicate it to their staff is, I believe, the most stressful aspect of teaching. Teachers are most effective when building relationships with young people, modelling social skills, and demonstrating a passion for ‘how’ to think and learn, and not ‘what’ to think. League tables and the anxiety generated from the competitive process, not to mention the very real prospect of your salary being affected if your pupils don’t achieve, are so damaging. Teaching a creative subject, it always used to make me cringe that these values were more highly prized than the holistic development of the child. Stressed teachers do not make good role models for how to deal with the world. Children who learn to a formula do not develop critical thinking. Arbitrary levels do not inspire children to pursue independent learning. I don’t want to live in a world where our next generation has been automised.
Is there anything that would have convinced you to stay in the profession?
I was already on an excellent salary as a secondary teacher, but my health was suffering. I had already achieved a huge amount with the extra-curricular work and had gained an enviable level of respect from the students. I had done everything I wanted to do at that school and had interviewed for other schools. I decided I had given the best of myself for long enough and I needed a break. I took a year off to start with and travelled. I lived in China and Australia. When I returned I decided to use my qualifications and experience to my advantage, on my terms, and started supply work in primary education. I also re-trained as a Reflexologist, and did both for the next seven years. My experience in primary schools was illuminating to say the least. As much as I loved the age group, and as much as I learned a lot about 13 other subjects (especially maths which I loved teaching), I knew that I never wanted to be full time in education again. It was already taking its toll. I fundamentally disagreed with the assessment at year six, knowing how little that grade actually mattered in secondary school, and I made a choice not to be part of the system that was stressing children. I was clear that emotional wellbeing was my focus for the future, and I knew that my voice was not heard by the system. I eventually walked out after three months of panic attacks and I never looked back.
From your experience and observation, do you think that teachers in some subject areas are more affected than others?
With the destruction of the Arts in the curriculum it was heartbreaking to witness my colleagues losing their jobs or being moved sideways into covering subjects that they had no interest in. It is true that teachers in core subjects are under huge pressure to perform, but I believe that not having your subject valued and under constant threat is the most demoralising experience of all. Destroying the Arts in education is a legacy the government will not recover from.
What are you doing now, and how has your teaching career equipped you to start your own business?
After 16 years of teaching I decided to leave, and took time to integrate everything I had learned from all the amazing children and teens that I had taught. For me, the Arts have always been a haven for expressing myself, and I’ve always felt that the drama studio was a meeting place for students who really needed support. Mental health has always been an important focus for me, and as a teacher my greatest achievements came through nurturing the emotional wellbeing of the young people I worked with.
Whilst teaching I trained in Integrative Arts Psychotherapy at the IATE (London). I was then qualified to use the Arts therapeutically in an educational setting. It was following this profound experience that I was commissioned to write a performance piece around anger and violence in schools by the former DfES. The piece was called ‘Switch’ and spoke from the point of view of students who were always in trouble. It premiered at a conference in London and went on to be filmed and released with a resource pack that I wrote. It was my first real investigation into how the Arts can be used outside of the therapy situation to address emotional health issues for students. I was hooked. All of my extra-curricular performances after that focussed on some aspect of mental health, from GCSE pieces to our award-winning entry into the Shakespeare in Schools Festival with a re-contextualised version of ‘The Tempest’ set in a ‘Mental Institution’. When I moved to primary education I squeezed in as much drama into my lessons as I could, and since it is not a standard subject in primary it was eagerly received.
I left education in 2016, and after six months rest I started Arts Unwritten with the aim of bringing theatre workshops to kids in Brighton, focusing on my area of expertise in experimental and physical theatre. Then, I decided to write a one-woman show about my own journey with mental health, performed it at Brighton Fringe 2017, and that changed the vision for my company.
I’m now developing a course and 1:1 performance coaching for adults who are ready to tell their own stories, who would like to write and perform or develop scripts for others to perform. I am also developing a series of meetup groups and a one-day event that explore how we can approach the conversation around emotional wellbeing using the Arts.
Everything I learned as a teacher about resilience, organisation, collaboration, positivity, and responsibility, and everything I learned from the arts about expression, freedom, and healing, have come together. The thoughts I shared with students about achieving, learning from mistakes, and having a go are my mantras for myself. It always used to bother me when people said “Those who can – do, and those who can’t – teach”. The biggest thing I learned from teaching is that I haven’t finished being a student yet, and that curiosity is my journey into business.
What are the most valuable skills you think you need to become a teacher?
Resilience, passion for your subject, ability to cope with stress, a collaborative attitude, critical thinking, self awareness, the ability to communicate with children, fairness, flexibility, multi-tasking, creativity, curiosity, and belief in the holistic development of the young person. All the things that we teach children to be that Ofsted don’t value. If you work in Reception and witness the beautiful Utopia that’s being presented, with love, caring, sharing, kindness, play, social skills, fairness, and hope, you do wonder why that has to stop as we grow up!
What advice would you give to those considering a career in teaching now?
My first instinct would be to say “Don’t do it!” but even though the stress is overwhelming at times, the skills you learn, the people you meet, and the ease with which you can get temporary work forevermore is extremely valuable. If you don’t love your subject it will be difficult for you. If you can handle the stress effectively and are happy to carry out tasks without questioning, then it could be for you. I was labelled a maverick because I challenged the status quo. I was never the kind of person to sit silently and follow the rules. This makes me a fantastic business owner, but a problematic employee!
What do you think needs to happen to encourage more people to become teachers?
Teachers need to feel empowered in their classrooms and that their assessment of students’ progress is trusted. Their salary must not be linked to pupil performance, especially when assessment of that performance is founded on precarious and ever-changing criteria from the powers that be. Arts teachers must be satisfied that their investment of time, energy, and money will not be wasted training for a job that is being phased out, underfunded, or devalued. There has to be room to think, evaluate, and digest for all staff and not a relentless wheel of pushing to the next level.
Find out more about Arts Unwritten: www.artsunwritten.com
Connect with Vikki on LinkedIn here.