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Puppetry and playfulness: The role of the teacher when using arts organisations and programmes in schools

Written by: Teresa Smith
9 min read

Many schools choose to engage in professional partnerships with artists and arts organisations, whether they be school residencies, individual artists working in school settings or venue-based school excursions and education programmes. There have also been many studies in the last couple of decades, both nationally and internationally, that overwhelmingly reveal the positive outcomes for students of such partnerships. For example, Bamford (2006) highlights educational and cultural benefits, as well as benefits to health and socio-cultural wellbeing. Imms et al. extend these benefits to include, amongst others, ‘an increase in arts-related knowledge… a strengthened sense of confidence and communication skills; and new perspectives on creativity and the creative process’ (2011, p. 4). However, Bamford (2006) highlights the need for arts education provisions to be of high quality, value and worth, progressing skills, attitudes and performativity in students. It is simply not enough to assume that any partnership can take place and be successful.

This paper is underpinned by the belief that arts partnership programmes may offer benefits and positive impacts to student participants, yet it focuses more precisely on the question of the teacher’s function within such partnerships, exploring the notion that the approach of the teacher is as essential to the effectiveness of the project as the arts professionals are themselves.

Outline of the research project

This research stems from a seven-month arts project between an independent local puppet theatre and a six-school cluster of rural primary schools. This paper has developed from a formal evaluation of that project, examining the impact and implications of the programme.

The project activities included a teachers’ development day at the puppet theatre, class visits to the puppet theatre to watch a show and, finally, each class received two days of workshops in school led by one of the theatre’s learning team. These workshops were individually planned according to the classes’ needs and the teachers’ preferences. All students made their own rod puppets. These consisted of a masking tape-covered newspaper body on a rod, usually resembling a human or animal as per the theme, with detail, colour, texture and decoration added on as needed. Rods were attached to enable movement of limbs, and puppeteering skills (guiding the puppet’s gaze, portraying emotions through movement and so on) were given time and space to be taught and developed. There was also a wide mix of other aims, including script-writing, making group puppet theatres and developing performances.

A qualitative evaluation approach was designed, with the aims of being naturalistic, being concerned with process and capturing the perspectives of participants as the puppet theatre project progressed (Bogdan and Biklen, 2007). The data was collected from a wide range of sources, including: questionnaires; letter and email correspondence; note-taking, discussion and photographs; in-school observation; and data from a mid-project internal report from the puppet theatre. Both the impact/effect and the implementation/delivery are important complementary aspects of arts projects, and therefore both were considered in the evaluation.

The teacher’s role in partnership

Often the initial role of the teacher in these partnerships can be one of organiser, planner and convener – someone who oversees, and someone who may be an observer to the learning led by the visiting arts experts. Yet there is, perhaps, a key message to take away from the use of the word ‘partnership’ and all that it implies. ‘Partnership’ was at the heart – and in the title – of the ‘Creative Partnerships’ programme delivered by Arts Council England (2002 to 2011), which arguably developed into one of the largest creative education programmes of its kind in the world (Parker, 2013). Partnership is also highlighted within Fisher’s (2004) ‘creative capital’ analysis of the elements needed to develop new teaching and learning discoveries. ‘Partnership’ suggests a sharing of aims, experiences, responsibilities or actions, as well as a sense that everyone involved contributes something. Where some school arts projects may use the model of the visiting arts practitioner as an independent external agent, the puppet theatre project reflects that the relationships between the arts professional, the teacher and the student participants were highly complex and collaborative. The ethos and essence of the work that takes place in these types of schools arts programmes benefits from the notion of active partnership as an underpinning foundation.

So if we consider the notion of partnership as something to which everyone contributes, what can the teacher bring to the process? What are the key principles and perspectives that a teacher can uphold, to help ensure that arts partnerships have maximum impact?

A strong collaborative approach from start to finish

Teachers have crucial knowledge of the needs of the students participating in a project, as well as their own expertise in teaching, whole-school contextual issues and knowledge of the curriculum. Arts practitioners and organisations bring further specialised skills and knowledge that may otherwise not be available to children within a standard school curriculum offer. Both are key to planning, designing and implementing an effective arts programme.

One of the strengths noted of the puppet theatre project was the effective use of the teachers’ development day before the work with the students began. Teachers commented on how the day inspired their teaching: ‘we have been able to discuss everything in a relaxed environment with professionals who really knew about children… working practically has been a wonderful experience’ and ‘[the day has been] informative and supportive… tailored to our own school and classes’. This day served an important function for information-sharing, open communication and consultation between the puppet theatre staff and teachers, and encouraged mutual understanding and joined-up thinking. The teachers discussed enthusiastically and freely; they were thinking about the needs of their students and sharing stories and experiences with each other. The design of each individual school programme was directly influenced by the expert knowledge that was brought to the process by the teachers, alongside the expert arts knowledge brought by the arts practitioners.

Further evidence from teacher interviews during the puppet theatre project suggests that effective relationship-building with teachers begins, yet does not stop, with straightforward organisational support. The very best partnerships are perhaps those where all stakeholders have openly discussed and have a high regard for what it means to be ‘working in partnership’.

Clarity and communication of aims

The strongest partnerships benefit from ‘clear aims… with real purpose’ (Ofsted, 2006, p. 2), as well as shared goals and mutual respect (Jones, 2008). So, how do we arrive at ‘clear aims’ in an arts partnership project context?

One particular consideration when planning arts projects is to distinguish between education in the arts and education through the arts. Learning in schools occurs by both methods in a complementary manner, yet still there can – and should – be focus in terms of what the primary outcomes of an arts project are to be. Without clarity on this, meaningful learning can become elusive and ambiguous. At times during the research project, the puppet-making was the main learning focus itself. At other times, puppets were used as a medium for learning about other things, as a useful illuminating tool for a topic. The explicitness of the difference between these two ways of seeing can, one might argue, be crucial to the effectiveness of the learning taking place.

In reality, the expectations, aims and objectives of all participants in a project may be different. Arts professionals may be used to working with more flexible, open-ended, process-driven aims, in comparison to a teacher whose school approach may be more directed by curriculum and a requirement to have a finished product. Yet if teachers and arts professionals are to work collaboratively, then finding a successful balance between the approaches brought together is likely to have most benefit. A Creative Partnerships final evaluative report highlights that ‘For many pupils, the high quality of the experience was directly related to the unpredictable approaches taken by creative practitioners working with teachers and the different relationships that developed’ (Oftsed, 2006, p. 2), so embellishing the notion of ‘clear aims’ with added ‘flexibility’ and the potential for change is necessary if we want high quality and maximum impact. 

Managing feelings: Safety, confidence and trust

The teacher development day was recognised as crucial in helping teachers to feel safe and confident at all stages of the partnership. Underlying this was the recognition by the arts practitioners that not all teachers feel comfortable and confident with new arts learning themselves. Yet teachers enjoyed and felt safe in the opportunity to ‘play’ at the puppet theatre, developing renewed inspiration and appreciation for the power of the arts learning that their students would participate in. There was importance in the shared experience of the day and of being provided with a physical resource (their puppets) to return to school with.

The notion that there is a strong connection between teacher learning and student learning is discussed by Wolf (2008) and echoed by Davis and Dolan: ‘The gift of confidence for the teacher is also a gift of confidence for their students, enabling them and their students to explore and express their feelings and ideas through the rich expressive means available to us as humans.’ (Davis and Dolan, 2016, p. 63) The ability of a teacher to manage their own feelings about the arts, to place trust in the artist or organisation they are working with, and to find ways to value the arts themselves contributes to an arts learning experience for students that is rich and rewarding. 

Teacher as learner, facilitator and playful participant

One of the most interesting things that can transpire from having an external arts educator leading learning in a classroom is that the teacher’s role is, in some ways, redefined. Whilst this can be an unnerving experience for some teachers, others may embrace the role of facilitator and learner alongside students: ‘[I] haven’t had the opportunity to do this since I was at school. I’ve loved it [the teacher development day], and now I can’t wait to share with my class what they will be doing!’ Kear and Calloway (2000) consider the changing role of the teacher in such arts workshops, noting the need for teacher dependency to be reduced and that traditional teacher control strategies were ‘not compatible’ with the atmosphere of independence and self-direction that is so commonly sought in arts activities and workshops. Kukkonen (2019) highlights the ethos of working in partnership with students during arts events, of co-learning and fluidity in terms of the artist–student–teacher roles, and of facilitating and supporting rather than directing and dominating, resulting in an improved, different way of relating to students (Hunter et al., 2014).

Within the puppet theatre project, there was clear observational evidence that students valued the times when the class teacher actively engaged with the art-making process alongside them. For example, one teacher of an infants class found it useful to share with her students a puppet that she had previously made at the class teachers’ preparation and planning day at the puppet theatre. In bringing this puppet ‘out to play’ alongside the students’ puppets, she provided validity, enthusiasm and an opportunity to model to these students the potential of their own puppets. Students benefited from her enthusiasm, and their delight and engagement were heightened due to her playful and participatory approach.


School partnerships with artists and arts organisations can contribute to a variety of aspects of a student’s development, powers and personality. Yet if we expand our thinking to examine these complex partnerships using an ‘ecological view’ (Kukkonen, 2019), a wider viewpoint that accounts for what is happening at different levels, then our attention is drawn to the possibilities for teachers too. If all partners strive for meaningful and enjoyable arts experiences, grounded in open collaboration and active participation from all, then perhaps the learning opportunities and the impact of these are not limited to the students alone.


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