Big Top Classroom
Teaching on tour with Cirque du Soleil
by Mireille Messier
State of the Teaching Profession 2006
College members reflect on teaching and learning today, compared to when they were in school
by Brian Jamieson
Best Laid Plans
From field trips to extracurricular explorations, preparation counts
by Leanne Miller
“Louise, can I take five minutes to go and put my clothes in the dryer?”
The teacher barely looks up from her work. She doesn't seem bothered that the student has just called her by her first name or that he wants to do his laundry during school hours.
“OK,” she says. “But be quick. They're going to begin dismantling the school next period.”
Did I hear that right? Dismantle the school?
Welcome to the extraordinary world of teaching on tour with the Cirque du Soleil.
The Cirque School on tour
Since opening its first big top in 1984 the Cirque du Soleil has provided schooling for young performers and the children of performers who travel with their touring shows.
Jean Gélineau, the co-ordinator of education for minors, explains that arranging school for the Cirque's young performers is both a moral and legal responsibility. “Ninety per cent of countries where we tour require concrete evidence that anyone 18 years of age or younger is attending school,” says Gélineau. To tour with minors the Cirque must provide for their education.
During its first 10 years the Cirque was smaller and toured only from June to October. The children who were part of the tour missed only a few weeks of school. At the time all – or nearly all – of the young people were from Québec. The Cirque made arrangements for them to return to their classes in the fall without falling behind.
Gradually, the tours expanded. They are now year-round and include children from all over the world.
In 1994, in order to offer the Québec curriculum in both French and English, the Cirque became affiliated with the New Frontiers school board in Châteauguay. Then, in 2000, the Cirque signed an agreement with the Québec Department of Education establishing the Cirque School, based in Montréal, to guarantee quality teaching on tour. The school follows the Québec curriculum and provides courses in French to francophone students, in English to anglophone students and in their choice of either English or French to other students.
Louise Vaillancourt, a graduate of the University of Ottawa teaching program and a member of the College for two years, and Alexandra Robert, certified as a teacher in Québec, are two recent recruits to the teaching staff at Cirque du Soleil, which has a dozen teachers in all. Since August 2005, Vaillancourt and Robert have been teaching the students on the Saltimbanco tour. Although the number of students fluctuates from year to year the student/teacher ratio for Cirque du Soleil is, on average, three to one. In 2005–06 four young people are enrolled in the Saltimbanco tour school.
Vaillancourt agrees that such ratios will spark envy among teachers who have classes of 20 or more pupils.
“We can pay more personal attention to the students,” she says. “And in group activities or class outings we can get everyone involved. Also, there is little need for discipline. In a normal classroom the everyday hubbub requires calming the children down, but here that is very unusual.”
Students also recognize the privileges they have.
“At a normal school teachers have to cover subjects at a specified pace,” says Kevin Bachor, a Grade 11 student who has been travelling with the Cirque for four years. “At our school, if the teacher sees that I understand a subject well, we can cover everything in a single class and move on to something else. Or, if I'm having trouble, we can spend four classes on the same thing with no problem whatsoever.”
But there are extra demands to teaching only four students when each is in a different grade. Teachers on the Saltimbanco tour needed to assimilate and then teach all subject areas in Grades 4, 5, 9 and 11.
“In terms of course preparation it represents much more work,” says Robert, who teaches in English. “I'm teaching economics, geography and history at the final high school year. By training I'm a French Primary teacher, so I had a great deal of reading and preparation.”
Other challenges are social.
“To be sure, when there is a minor argument and only four of us in the classroom, it can be awkward,” says Vaillancourt. “For the students small groups can be more difficult.”
“I really don't like the fact that there are only three other students in the whole school,” says Grade 5 student Yana Plotnikova, whose father joined the Saltimbanco tour two years ago as an acrobat. “When there are more kids you can play and have friends. Here, I'm the only girl.”
“Sometimes I would definitely like to have other students in my classroom to work with or just to talk to after school,” says Kevin. “School textbooks often tell you to choose a partner or set up a group of four or five students. I can't do that. There aren't even five students in the whole school.”
All the students agree on the major downside to such a small group. As Grade 9 student Robin Bachor points out, “In a normal classroom you might get away with not doing your homework one evening or skipping a class – the teacher may not even notice. Here, you can be sure that she'll notice.”
Wake, work, pack
A typical day for a teacher at the Cirque du Soleil begins around 9:30 AM – when she wakes up.
The class timetable is adjusted to performance times, so the teaching week runs Tuesday to Saturday and classes generally run from noon to 5:30 PM.
The physical space for the school changes at each stop on the tour. The classroom needs to be packed and unpacked in every city, making it impossible to have permanent structures such as a reading centre. Everything has to fit in trunks and be ready to go in less than an hour. In Santiago the school consists of two small trailers side-by-side in a field of others.
When asked whether she had to dress “like a teacher,” Louise burst out laughing. “The places we work are construction sites. There's crushed rock everywhere. When it rains there is mud and there are always forklift trucks moving around. We spend a lot of time outside – not only moving from one classroom to another but walking to the kitchen or bathroom. High heels and high fashion aren't exactly practical here.”
She adds that no one else at the site dresses in anything but jeans and a T-shirt, so it would be rather out of place to dress up.
Lonely at the big top
The Cirque provides staff and students with a shuttle from the hotel to the site, a kitchen for lunch, snacks and dinner, and a laundry room. As the teachers stay at hotels it is often easier to correct students' work and prepare courses on site. So it's not unusual for them to take the shuttle back to the hotel at 8 PM.
Since the timetable for teachers is neither that of the tour's administrative staff nor of the performers and technicians, it is sometimes difficult for them to feel like they're on the same team. Teachers can feel isolated.
Unlike regular schools, where it's fairly easy to arrange for a meeting with the principal or hold a staff meeting, staff on some tours meet through a conference call every two weeks. But once a year teachers from all the tours gather in Montréal, where they can meet face-to-face and discuss the special challenges they encounter.
On the other hand, unlike traditional schools, where students abound, most people at the Cirque are adults, and this means a wide range of human resources that teachers can tap.
“When I was teaching a unit about optics to Max,” says Vaillancourt, “I had the help of a lighting technician. We were able to use the spotlights on stage to see how you can mix colours. Max, who performs in the show and spends a great deal of time on stage every evening, now sees light in a completely different way.”
But life in a touring community does take some getting used to. Imagine living in the same building, taking the same bus and eating at the same restaurant as your colleagues, your students and their parents. That, roughly, is what life is like on tour.
“At first I found it relatively hard because I enjoy my privacy,” says Robert. “For me, it's very important to make a break between my work and my personal life. It's not that I have anything to hide but I don't necessarily want everyone to know what I'm doing.
“After a while, you adjust.”
Even so, three cheers for the hotel's “Do not disturb” sign that you can hang on your door.
Travel with a capital T
A tour naturally means travel. Within a 12-month period the Saltimbanco tour performed in six cities in Central and South America. Class outings are the highlight of each stopover.
“We try to go on a field trip in every city,” says Louise Vaillancourt. “From the logistics standpoint it's much easier than with a normal classroom. No need to rent a bus. Plus, we can hand the letters of permission to the parents personally at the site and have an answer the same day.”
During his four years as a student on tour, Robin has made many trips and finds it difficult to say which was the most impressive. But his trips to the Louvre and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico and his meeting with world-famous soccer stars in Madrid are certainly on the list.
“What I like best about going to school on tour is that we can see what we're being taught,” says Robin's older brother Kevin. “Last year we were doing a module about ancient civilizations at the same time as we were performing in Rome. After that I read The Da Vinci Code and then, at the Louvre, I was able to see the actual paintings discussed in the book.”
Maxsim Vintilov, a Grade 4 student, has been on tour with his parents from the day he was born, and is also a performer in the show. Max is awaiting a very special field trip. “It won't be long now before we spend a night out camping. It's going to be the first time that I've done anything like that. I've seen all kinds of museums but I've never been camping. I can hardly wait.”
The tour enables young people to discover many countries and many cultures. This year, in anticipation of their upcoming stop in Brazil, the students on the Saltimbanco tour sold T-shirts and cookies to raise money for the preservation of the rainforest.
Then there are the school breaks.
Every move on the tour requires two weeks for everything to be dismantled, shipped and remounted under the big top in the next location. That means two weeks when school is out. Many of the teachers use these periods either to return to Canada or to become full-fledged tourists.
“While teaching, I really don't have much time to visit the cities or towns where we are performing,” says Robert. “During the weeks in between, on the other hand, I can take time to travel. Between Mexico and Chile I went to visit Tierra del Fuego. Between Chile and Argentina I plan to travel to Bolivia.
“This is one of the most wonderful things about the job.”
The great unknown
In the fall of 2005 the Saltimbanco tour was supposed to stop over in Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina forced a rapid scheduling change. Only a few weeks prior to the anticipated opening in Biloxi, confirmation arrived from the head office in Montréal: Saltimbanco would go to Mexico City instead.
When this article was written the Saltimbanco tour was in Santiago. When the article is published, it will be somewhere else – no doubt in South America – but as for the specific country or city, they can never be sure. If a show is very successful the run may be extended by one or two weeks.
Teachers and students regularly cope with such uncertainties: things as simple as not knowing where you're going to be on Christmas Day or when you might have your next vacation.
“Some people who come here leave within a year or less,” says Grade 9 student Robin. “There are so many things taken for granted in the rest of the world that are different with the Cirque. You need to really love it to stay. ”
The Saltimbanco tour comes to an end in December 2006. The performers, technicians and teachers will be assigned to other shows. Kevin will go to the University of Ottawa, where he enters the bio-pharmaceutical program. Robin and Yana are hoping their fathers will be assigned to a show in a fixed location. Max will continue to do his homework between performances while waiting to hear where he and his family will be assigned next.
Both Alexandra Robert and Louise Vaillancourt plan to return to Canada soon. Over the last 12 months their experience with the Cirque has been great, but the call of home is greater and they are ready to set the stage for their next act.
Young performers from China who travel with the Cirque attend a school of their own. A Chinese tutor is assigned and the Chinese curriculum is taught.
“When we began to recruit artists from China their contracts ensured that none of them remained outside their country for more than six months,” says Jean Gélineau, the co-ordinator of education for minors.
“The vast majority of these young people spoke only Chinese and, given their short stay with the Cirque, it was not possible to include them in existing classes. Now their contracts are for 18 months, but the system was already in place and seemed to be working well, so we decided to keep it.”