Where's Miss? In the staffroom, singing, with her shoes off

11th August 2006 at 01:00
Two girls - a pair of gigglers with knowing looks on their faces - peer in through the staffroom door. As is usual on a Monday lunchtime, their teachers and school secretaries are inside, hitting the high notes. "Come on, open your mouths wide!" cries singing teacher Em Whitfield as hips swing and voices rise to the soulrock classic (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher. A circle of staff, shoes off and shoulders back, is now going hell for leather into the negro spiritual number Wade in the Water.

Later, they slow into a softer, Inuit lullaby.

For the past two years, a group of staff at Redcar community college has been meeting for a whirlwind lunchtime session at the beginning of the week to chase away the Monday blues. With the support of Ms Whitfield, a singing tutor supplied by The Sage, Gateshead - the region's new centre for music education and performance - they have developed as a choir and built up a whole repertoire of world music along with jazz and blues numbers.

Keith Neasham, the school's director of creative arts, says it is a brilliant way to start the week and to relieve the pressures of teaching:

"When we are singing, the focus is on all of us growing into the music and sharing together. You can unwind and relax. If we could do it every day, we would."

He believes the singing has helped teachers and support staff to develop self-confidence generally and has created greater staff cohesion.

"Sometimes we are asked to sing quietly together and control our voices,"

he says, "and we get into a huddle so we can hear each other. The quality of the sound always surprises me and it makes you realise what people can achieve when they throw themselves into something and take risks."

According to Mr Neasham, staff singing has created better relationships between staff and students. "A good teacher will put themselves on the line, make mistakes and admit to making mistakes. Sometimes, when we're learning a new song with Em, we think we'll never learn it, we'll never get that note. But we always get there in the end. We sing for the students at Christmas and join in with some of their concerts and they're knocked out by it, they love the fact we'll put our necks on the block for them. The fact they see us having a go, taking a risk, is very useful when it comes to teaching them."

Redcar community college is in a ward in the bottom 10 per cent nationally for deprivation. All around the site are the remnants of the heavy industries - steel and chemical works - that once thrived here. It's a tough environment, but the school's performing arts status, brought about through the development of a strong partnership with The Sage, is slowly changing the culture. Singing, dancing and music-making are very much part of the extra-curricular life of the school, with the support of professional tutors from The Sage's community programme. The fact that teachers are on the same learning curve as students has done wonders for school relationships, says Mr Neasham.

Music-making also takes the sting out of coming to work on a Monday morning. Jacquie Kelly, head of science, says: "Singing together is a supportive activity; it de-stresses you so fast."

Christine Husband, assistant head at Redcar, says it has increased her self-confidence significantly. "That seems a ridiculous thing to say as an assistant head, but I was always told when I was at school that I couldn't sing and to keep my mouth shut. This is a precious hour on a Monday when we can just concentrate on our voices, and we are not thinking about problems or any other issues."

Pauline Smith, the headteacher's PA, says the Monday singing club has given her the confidence to join a local operatic society, but what she appreciates most is being able to share a stress-free hour with other staff, getting to know everybody and making a wonderful sound together.

The Monday choir is now pushing for a whole-staff singing day at Redcar as part of continuing professional development and The Sage is using the Redcar model to roll out a "vocal remedies" staff singing programme across the North East from September.

Singing tutor Em Whitfield says the teachers' performances in front of students has a "great effect" on the school. "The teachers are really proud and the kids are impressed." However, she believes the real value for staff is being able to leave their Monday worries behind. "It's a physical process, that brings people into the present moment. The voice is dependent on breath and so is relaxation; the two go together. We don't talk about what we're going to do, we just do it on a call and response basis, I sing them through their parts and they keep going until they get there. However, we can get sophisticated very quickly. The whole thing is based on trust, and people walk out of the room into afternoon lessons carrying less tension in their muscles. It's a great release."

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