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Building Trust in New Waters as a Teaching-Artist

When entering new communities, school-based teaching-artists work hard to establish cultures of trust. In October of 2023, the former artistic director of a theatre organization invited me to join a team of incredibly talented Black and Brown theatremakers to facilitate a one-week educational theatre residency at a St. John, USVI (STJ) school. Coming to STJ as a United States citizen, I knew how my presence reinforced a long legacy of settler-colonizing still impacting the STJ. STJ, the indigenous home to the Kalinago people and a vibrant ecosystem, experienced violent atrocities due to acts of genocide, a history of enslavement, and Danish and United States colonization. This place was not my home, and as a guest in this community working against oppression, it was my responsibility to find a pedagogical framework that respected my students’ communal epistemologies. However, some of the practices in this school, and across many United States schools, are deeply rooted in settler colonial and plantation logics.

 Articulated by Savannah Shange, the notion of "plantation logics" within the American school system influences behavioral and classroom management practices, aiming to keep students "in line" through racialized, gendered, and adultist methods that strip children of their humanity. In these learning environments, children face heightened surveillance, a lack of agency in decision-making, disciplinary measures shaped by their intersectional identities, and are often perceived as having limited prospects for their future. As teaching-artists, we felt like the school expected us to uphold practices that misaligned with our teaching values. Upon arrival, the school had predetermined acting and technical "tracks" for students, hesitating to grant some the autonomy to choose their preferred path. Furthermore, we were instructed to monitor behaviorally challenging students, particularly Black students and girls. In our devised theatre work, we aimed to subvert this power dynamic, encouraging students to choose how they wanted to participate. This fundamental shift in pedagogy positioned us, the visiting teaching-artists, as outsiders attempting to reshape the school's culture temporarily.

Conversely, we also had to be mindful of avoiding the reinforcement of white progressivism logics. Art organizations sometimes approach their work with the outlook of providing an empowering, life-altering service to historically dispossessed communities, often viewing them through a scarcity mindset. Perceiving the school and community as lacking moral or cultural capital can foster a dynamic of white saviorism, reinforcing settler colonial ideologies. Deliberately, we prioritized sourcing materials, costumes, tools, and props from students and community stores. Following suit, it was crucial for me to integrate pedagogical strategies inspired by the island into my teaching methods.

 I found a new pedagogical practice in Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's book As We Have Always Done, where she offers readers a Nishnaabeg cultural understanding of "Land as Pedagogy." First introduced to this concept by Prof. siri gurudev, PhD, I considered Simpson's "Land as Pedagogy" theory to inform and reflect on how I build trust with school community members while devising theatre with youth in STJ. In doing so, I viewed Cinnamon Bay, a beach in STJ, as a teacher whose wisdom and ecosystems inform my teaching-artistry practice by considering place, time, and social context.

Deen Rawlins-Harris stands in front of a scenic vista.

Deen Rawlins-Harris standing on a patio overlooking hills on the Island of St. John, United States Virgin Islands.

STJ beaches are sites for gathering, amusement, spirituality, leisure, and labor. Students at the school quickly guided me on where the best waves were and how to avoid the tourist traps. They would talk about how going to the beach was a common occurrence. I found myself waist-deep in water, planning lessons with colleagues, reflecting on the school day, and sitting on the shoreline, getting inspiration for our script and design elements. Cinnamon Bay informed what we were creating and teaching. Symbolically, the water and my relationship to it parallel my experiences teaching within the STJ school. 

Lesson 1: Floundering Is Okay.

We were diving into the devised theatre process together, and the prospect of creating an entire play in just five days created stress and anxiety among students, staff, and collaborators. Admittedly, I, too, was stressed. To remedy our unease, we went to the water. We played, splashed, and swam. We did not have to do too much to have fun.

Demonstrating vulnerability to your students in real time builds trust.

In that revelatory moment, I forced myself to trust the process. Recognizing the need for a collective learning curve, I acknowledged that the first day was about getting used to the water and acclimating to our group dynamics. Transparently, I asked for support in front of the students, made it clear how I was making decisions, and welcomed input. Granting oneself grace is crucial. Demonstrating vulnerability to your students in real time builds trust.

Communicating that we are all learning together makes the space to flounder in waters a shared experience. Embracing a loosely structured approach allows students to foster an environment where relaxation and play exist. 

A model box showing a set design of a beach.

A model of a beach as a set design created by a student, for the show they imagined.

Lesson 2: Be like the Tide: Push and Pull, Lead and Follow

We had to find a flow to share leadership with the students. When pressed for time, it may seem sensible to reinforce hierarchical learning structures. Staff at the school articulated a desire to provide a pre-written script for the students to perform. They believed it was too ambitious for students to co-create and execute a script in four days. Despite the administration's doubt, the students did create and perform a thirty-minute original play.

White supremacist values exist within authoritarian teacher-centric instruction strategies. To build trust, teaching-artist need to foster classrooms that empower students as leaders, thus sharing influence over the creative work. Drama-based activities encourage students to inform collaborative processes by respecting them as valuable knowledge holders.

Trust, like the tide, moves both ways. Teaching-artists can build trust by trusting the students we work with to guide the team. Students are brilliant, so I use learning methods that decenter me as the only artistic expert in the classroom.

Lesson 3: The Water Will Take Your Energy. Rest!

Whenever I left the beach, I went right to sleep. Water pulls your energy because your body unconsciously does so much to keep you from sinking. Similarly, teaching-artist work is hard even if we make it look easy. We pour over our work to ensure that our students are learning and meeting the artistic goals and objectives we have set. Schools that view teaching-artistry as simplistic discount the time, energy, and resources that dedicated teaching-artists spend on planning lessons. This misunderstanding can contribute to a lack of trust between the school staff and teaching-artists.

In STJ, I perceived an undercurrent that visiting teaching-artists, especially this chosen team, should be grateful to even be there on the island and therefore, perform more labor. Before 2023, the STJ residency operated in significantly different ways. For example, visiting teaching-artists were known to pick up students unaccompanied in vehicles and drive them between home and school, they worked long hours for less pay, and had to eat meals selected by the project manager instead of receiving a per diem.

Working conditions like these are deemed acceptable because our society reinforces the troubling narrative of the struggling artist. In the case of the teaching-artist, this attitude is compounded by beliefs reinforcing that teachers should always be willing to go above and beyond to get a job done. This one-week product-focused art residency exacerbated these feelings and impeded my ability to prioritize rest. One night I kept myself up into the wee hours of the morning outlining our devised script. The next day, I was noticeably tired and less perceptive of how my students were feeling.

Chances are, when you feel tired, your students do too. Recognize that everyone is working as hard as you are and take a moment to rest.

Lesson 4: Leave Some Seashells at the Beach

I spent an evening collecting seashells from the beach to bring home. Elmo Lanclos, a fellow teaching-artist and brilliant scenic designer who grew up in St. Thomas, stopped me and said, "You need to put some of those back; that will be somebody's home one day."

Like the abundance of seashells, our students create so many incredible works of art in a devising process. What would happen if they kept some of their creations for themselves? We are not entitled to what they produce.

I led a check-in asking the students to draw flowers to represent their roses, buds, and thorns from their residency experience thus far. These flowers were beautiful, and I was intent on finding some way to incorporate them into the performance. As I collected the flowers, some students insisted they keep what they made. Heedlessly, I did not respect their request; I insisted I hold them instead. When they obliged, I placed them in our shared office and continued teaching. Upon arrival the next day, the flowers they drew were nowhere to be found. I felt so responsible for losing these flowers and not respecting their request to keep them.

We do not have a right to use everything students create in our classes. One critical way to build trust is by helping our students develop and enforce creative boundaries. We should look for moments to say, "That's yours. Do with it what you will," when leading and instructing. Additionally, when we error, we need to consider ways forward to rectifying our mistakes as an ensemble. These moments are fundamental to building trust in new learning communities. 

Large outlines of children drawn onto brown paper.

Initial renderings and descriptions of the characters students created during a “Role on the Wall” activity.

Lesson 5: Be Mindful of The Water’s Refusal

One day at Cinnamon Bay, we encountered unusually strong waves, with the awareness of a potential hurricane approaching the area. Syvonne Richardson, our makeup and costumes teaching-artist, wisely advised against venturing into the water that day, noting the less hospitable conditions. Some of us decided to embark on a daily evening dive despite our colleagues warning to avoid the ocean. The waves pushed me about more than usual, but I was determined to stay the course. About an hour into our swim, a powerful wave knocked me back, and I found myself struggling to regain balance. My body tensed, and a second incoming wave pushed me back toward the shore when I finally stood up. The ocean wanted to be left alone.  

As teachers, we often miss the signs that are students may not feel like participating, especially when time feels limited. During this period, the pressure to prepare students for their first school performance led me to become somewhat curt with them regarding their behaviors. Some students were resistant, not participating or following instructions. In hindsight, I should have recognized this as a moment to pause and check in on their feelings. Instead, I opted to push forward, requiring focus. In one instance, I singled out a student noted for "behavior issues" by the school, who had been negatively commenting on my instructions. Feeling tired and frustrated, I reprimanded her behavior in front of the class, disregarding her discomfort with the activities.

Observing her behavior shift, visibly agitated with any instruction I gave, I realized my mistake. After lunch, in front of the entire class, I apologized for scolding her publicly and asked if there was anything I could do to make amends with her and the class. Some students expressed a desire for a break to play games, noting that they weren't enjoying the activities, hinting they needed time to self-regulate without my interference.

We must work against cultural preconceptions that assume children don’t know what they want. 

In repressive learning structures, teachers are encouraged to meet student’s refusal with coercion, persuasion, or redirection. Constraining classrooms require students’ adherence to the adult’s instructions. Only the teacher’s desires matter in this unchecked power system. We must work against cultural preconceptions that assume children don’t know what they want. Refusal and resistance can be met with respect instead of reprimand. The students at this school were accustomed to being at fault, but they were not accustomed to hearing a teacher admit wrongdoing. Although rebuilding trust in my student-to-teacher relationship with that student proved challenging, I remained open to repairing it whenever she was ready.

Lesson 6: You Are Never Alone in the Water.

I recall the ocean life at Cinnamon Bay swimming up to my legs, circling and tickling my toes. Sometimes, the water wasn't as crystal clear, but that did not signal the absence of life. There is always life in the water to keep me company. I took strength in knowing I was a part of this living community.

I understand the ways teaching-artistry can feel isolating. Sometimes, the nuances of my work are complex to explain to others. When experiencing my most isolating feelings, I build walls around my process and do not reach out for help. This happened to me during the residency, and my community witnessed me struggling to request support.

A fellow teaching-artist, Malia’Kekia Nicolini, came to me and said, "How can I help? If you need time to figure it out, cool. You sit here, and I'll work with the students this morning. Just come out when you are ready." A teacher at the school noticed the students and I needed help typing the script in real time; she grabbed a computer and said, "I got this part. You keep doing what you're doing." My co-teaching artists and students all found ways to support me, too.

There comes a point in creative processes when things begin to flow. That flow comes when we trust others to hold the project with us. Trust requires me to show up for others and let them show up for me. We will keep one another afloat.  

Creating Waves

I recall standing waist-deep with three other teaching-artists and readying myself to brace against these deep blue massive waves. Malia’Kekia remarked, "Deen, you can't fight the wave. You either got to let it take you or move (or dive) through the center of it." It took me time to get used to the waves; I fell to the ocean floor many times and learned how sand can remain in dreadlocks for weeks. Reflecting on the experience with my colleague, she said, "It's the standing back up that matters. You got up, each time. We have to because the sand is always shifting.”

A theatre set featuring green hills under a blacklight.

The set of the show.

My team created large waves during our time in STJ. Our waves were so large that the team that went to the island in October will not return as previously planned. Perhaps, by adopting new pedagogical values about how to facilitate meaningful theatrical experiences for youth, we troubled waters for organizations hesitant to change. It is worth asking why this might be the case. Still, the lessons I learned on the island about facilitating trust work as a teaching-artist with students and schools are essential to document because our field must reconsider how to build trust with our communities again.

A teaching-artist's work is humanizing; we cannot separate our feelings from it. As such, we must find ways to build cultures of trust where feelings are cared for, respected, and honored. Trust takes time, and how we build trust should change depending on who and where we are invited to teach. 

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