Teacher's Side Gig Has Her Students Acting Out

February 16, 2015

A teacher’s day needs to end, just like anyone else. Many have hobbies or side jobs that they do after work, on the weekends, or over the summers. Often their students aren’t aware of what kinds of things their teachers do on their off-time. However, Brittany Corliss’ students know what she does on the side -- in fact, sometimes it drives what they do in the classroom.

Corliss is in her third year of teaching fourth grade at Platt Valley Elementary in Kersey, Colorado. She is also an actress and director in the theater.

“I have been doing theater as far back as I can remember, Corliss said. “I was always involved in the elementary school performances. In middle school I was part of a production where I met my husband.”

She continued acting in high school and all through college, studying both acting and theater education. She believes theater has helped her become better at her day job, teaching her to think on the spot and be creative in how she relays information.

“I used it recently in science,” she said. “We were studying food chains so I had the kids participate in a reader’s theater that demonstrated, through different characters in a food chain, how energy is transferred. As much as I like to think the kids remember everything I tell them, they remembered that information above me lecturing.”

The arts are very important to Corliss, so rather than just incorporating theater into her teaching job, she encourages the kids to be part of the theater as well. Sometimes her students seem surprised by her theater gig but she understands why.

“Acting is a very vulnerable thing and is easily criticized,” she said. “Teachers owning their vulnerability is not something that happens very often. Once students get to know me more, they understand that I’m okay with laughing at myself and that being on stage is nothing to be afraid of.”

Corliss loves to inspire her students. It’s a trait that she saw growing up when she would volunteer in her mother’s fourth and fifth grade classrooms. She saw the impact her mother had on her students and she wanted to follow in her footsteps.

“I became a teacher because of my mom,” she said. “My mom often taught in schools with low economic status and quite a few at-risk students. I found that she was more than a teacher to most of those kids. She was the stability and love they weren’t getting at home.”

One day, the JV soccer coach from Corliss’ high school approached her mother after a game. This young man was a former student who moved to Colorado from Mexico and barely spoke English at the time. The language barrier caused him to be overlooked through most of his school career.

“He had my mom as a teacher and she was the first person who told him that he was smart enough to go to college,” Corliss said. “He remembered that throughout school and did in fact go to college to become a teacher himself.”

Another inspiration to Corliss was her high school AP English teacher, Noel Johnston. He was also the school’s theater director.

“When I first met him I was actually quite terrified of him,” she said. “He was loud, strict, and always required you to be on your ‘A’ game. As a tiny freshman, he petrified me, but he also motivated me to push myself. He taught me that there is a big difference in liking a teacher and respecting at teacher. When there’s mutual respect between student and teacher that is when the best lessons are learned.”

She not only kept in touch with him after graduation, she continues to work with him in her theater troupe in Greeley, The Stampede Troupe. He is the president of the troupe and is currently playing her uncle on stage. “Without his influence and support,” she said, “I would not have been able to see that I can incorporate both teaching and theater into my life.”

This realization has also allowed her to expand her work with the troupe. Their troupe has three parts: the regular productions, the children’s theater, and educational outreach. It is here where they are able to involve the schools in their productions and give back.

“Our educational outreach productions involve adult actors but is intended for school audiences,” Corliss said. “This past year our shows were Forgiven: A Fairytale and Holes, based on the book by Louis Sachar.  Along with the show we provide the teachers with the appropriate curriculum that can be taught before and after the kids see the show. We also provide every kid that comes with a book. Our goal is to provide students with the opportunity to see live theater, as well as support a love for reading.”

They have developed a curriculum to match the Colorado state standards for all shows and offer make-up demonstrations and backstage tours for homeschool groups and Girl Scout troops. There is a community aspect that has always drawn her into the theater but it has also been the storytelling.

“With how much today revolves around technology, it seems very refreshing to see people gather around to listen to a story,” she said. “I love being a part of something so simple, yet very magical at the same time.”

Magical, indeed. Clearly it has been a successful campaign. More than 22,000 kids attended the December shows alone and they have provided over 19,500 books for students after only starting that in their third year.

It seems she found solid footing here having been hired just after graduation from UNC at Platte Valley, then finding a second family in The Stampede Troupe. The Troupe allows her to spend time with her husband outside of the home as she also works with him on stage. However, none of this pulls away from her day job and connecting with the kids.

“My students are the best part of my day,” Corliss said. “A lot of times kids get labeled with a number or a test score but they are so much more than that. I’m always proud of my students when they make academic growth, but even more than that, is when they grow as an individual. When I see my students not only being kind to one another, but helping each other out and supporting one another, not because they have to, but because they know it’s the right thing to do, that’s what makes me the most proud.”

You can see Corliss’ work in the children’s theater production of Treasure Island, Friday February 27 and 28. Or check her out on stage with her husband and The Stampede Troupe as they present The Last Night of Ballyhoo March 22-29.