“In teacher training you’re encouraged to create a persona - turned out mine was Mary Poppins."
After years as a jobbing actor, Olivia Chappell decided to get a Real Job. She excelled at it; and then she was transferred to a new school...
A story about putting yourself out of your comfort zone and how stepping away can make you come back stronger.
Olivia is an actress who refuses to be defined by one career label. As an actor, she has worked in all areas of the industry, winning awards at independent film festivals and recently staring as Cherie in the successful satire play Macblair which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and transferred to the Kinds Head Theatre this year. She is currently producing her own online sketch comedy series and is a producer with The Springhead Film Company, with whom she co-produced the BAFTA long listed short film Driftwood. She is a trained teacher, a presentation coach working with speakers including at TEDx Shoreditch, and she also runs a drama education start-up. Olivia is a presenter on the Women’s Radio Station, and she is also a Volunteer Ambassador for Theatre for a Change, a charity that uses interactive theatre to empower vulnerable women and girls.
A transcript is below:
Mary Poppins on Steroids
I did it Mum! I did the sensible thing and took a break from my unstable, impoverished, freelance actory life choice to do my teacher training. (Note - I say ‘life choice’ rather than ‘career choice’, as being an actor rarely feels like a clear, upward trajectory, rather more some sort of roller-coaster endurance test where everyone looks the same as you.)
The daily turmoil of being a creative surely had prepared me for the toughness of teaching. I am generally confident and chatty…but, I lived life with absolutely zero stomach for confrontation. To me, it was always far safer to follow instructions, fall in line, try my best, and be liked. Sticking up for myself, having difficult conversations, or any sort of aggression or conflict was not something I had any ability in. My backbone was made of ‘nice person’ jelly, but I was certain my abundance of enthusiasm for drama and love of the idea of inspiring young minds was enough – I’d just wow them with passion.
I struck gold for my PGCE year: a lovely school nestled in the South Downs where I could learn how to be a secondary school drama teacher with kids who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. It’s in your training year that you supposedly discover your ‘teacher persona’. This is your adopted alter ego when you’re in front of 30 teenagers. I don’t mean some extreme Jekyll and Hyde situation, more a safety mechanism, a light yet protective armour, a way of staying sane through the 75 hour weeks by retaining some detachment from you true self.
Most people have a work persona of sorts. I have one friend who is as calm as a cucumber socially, but I know for a fact she can be a tyrannical power-house at work. In my case, my ‘teacher persona’ that emerged in my new found classroom setting was to my surprise…
I even stood like the Julie Andrews icon at the front of the class – feet in first position, hands gently (sometimes tightly) clasped, and with a kind, firm but fair demeanour. I had no choice; she just sort of emerged naturally. I must have needed that level of joy and efficiency to get me though the utter exhaustion and to hide my total chaos underneath. But still, at that school, the extent of ‘behaviour management’ (as it’s known in the teaching world) needed in response to say a student calling out without a hand up, was a slight disapproving frown from me. Spit spot. Job done.
Fast forward to my NQT year. I’d landed myself a job in a smart looking school in West London with a Head Teacher who valued the importance of arts subjects like Drama. Win.
What I soon discovered is that inner city students were a world away from what I was used to. A high proportion came from low socio-economic backgrounds, broken homes, many had cripplingly low self-esteem, and shouted things like “Allow it fam’!” in your face. It wasn’t so much ‘put your hand up before calling out’ as much as it was ‘if you could not punch him and yell the C word, that would be great.’ In spite of my training teaching me to focus on the reasons behind the behaviour, these young adults were slow to trust new-faces and hormones were flying around creating volatile, electric charged fog. My spineless self, who had never raised my voice unless it was in the stage directions, was hideously ill prepared for this world so far from the one I had been fortunate enough to know thus far in my existence. Although on their own they were mostly wonderful young adults with promise and potential, as a class of roughly 30 with little me in front of them, almost laughably eager to inspire them with the wonder of Shakespeare and Brecht, they smelled weakness and they smelled fear.
It was make or break, eat or be eaten. Mary Poppins quickly became Mary Poppins on steroids, with a side helping of that moment in Disney’s Aladdin when the genie completely loses it. You know that bit. “I don’t think so…not right now…YOU’RE GETTING YOUR LESSON, SO SIT DOWN!”
Gradually, I grew a backbone, and there are particular moments that stick in my head as to when I discovered that strength, vertebrae by vertebrae. For example, when in my hardest class last period on a Thursday, one particularly devil-like 12 year old (yes twelve) backed me up to my desk all puffed up with vindictive glee, looked me up and down, and snarled “Aw Miss, don’t make me abuse you”. The threat twisted out of him like a snake imitating Mike Tyson, but he was so clearly desperate for a reaction that I would not give. Bottom lip trembling, teeth gritted, using everything in my power to remain unaffected (thanks acting skills), I ordered him out of the class and finished the lesson. He was excluded for a day.
To that boy, I say thank you. Thank you for making me feel totally at lease with someone not liking me. I pity anyone with that much need to be unkind to another person, who has to rely on aggression and cruel jokes to cover such extreme insecurities. Thank you for pushing me so far to the extreme that I found the line of ‘I don’t have to take this’, and finally believe I have value. Something that I now use in abundance in my acting career, yes ‘career’. And thank you also, for gifting me my best joke impersonation of a teenager ever, one I frequently bring out whenever I need to demonstrate how teenagers can be hideous and people should respect teachers more. I’ve got the pouty wannabe gangster face down.
A more hopeful vertebrae addition moment, maybe the final completion of my spine that formed over that time, is thanks to a boy we’ll call Shane. In the first few months of me teaching Shane, when I’d repeatedly demanded that he participate in his group work and refused to allow him to coast, Shane stormed out saying, “You’re a sh*t teacher.” Less than 18 months later, after amounts of persistence I didn’t know I had, he went on to get an A grade in his final GCSE performance. Shane is never going to be one to gush his gratitude, but I know it’s there. He’s off to university soon, and whenever I see him, he half smiles, nods in respectful acknowledgment, and sneaks a fist bump if he can. He doesn’t study drama anymore, but we chat; I give advice and openly say how proud I am of him, much to his embarrassment amongst his mates. There was even a moment when I was ‘having words’ with a younger student, and he marched up and proclaimed, “Oi! Miss is a good teacher, you better behave for her.”
I was so lost when I started teaching, but most teens are far more lost. When you manage to get a kid who’s not had breakfast and hasn’t seen their mum in years to feel proud of themselves, it is magic like no other. I’m happily back to freelance life now, but will continue to work with young people as much as I can, I’m hooked and I learn as much from them as they do from me. I’ll never be one of those people who loves confrontation, but I now realise that I actually know stuff. I have value, pride, worth, strength and conviction – as a creative, as a woman, as a person. My voice now comes with a spine attached and I can finally stick up for myself.
So thanks Mary Poppins, with or without the steroids.