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Education

Inside 'The Teachers' Lounge': A Veteran Miami-Dade Educator Pens Play About School Politics

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Jessica Bakeman
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WLRN
A copy of the script sits on stage at Miramar Cultural Center during a rehearsal earlier this month.

It was teaching that led Tonya Lightbourne to playwriting.

Several years ago, her group of gifted third, fourth and fifth graders at Brentwood Elementary School in Miami Gardens needed an act for a holiday show. They suggested performing "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!" or "A Christmas Carol." So she combined the stories, recasting the Grinch as an orphan girl — Grinchetta — who is visited by ghosts of the past, present and future.

Later, playwriting became a way to cope with her frustrations about changes in the teaching profession. She started writing "The Teachers' Lounge" four years ago — and this Saturday, it'll be performed at the Miramar Cultural Center.

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Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
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WLRN
Brentwood Elementary School first-grade teacher Tonya Lightbourne consults the script for her play during a rehearsal at New Birth Baptist Church in North Miami in October.

"This play was birthed out of frustration when we were first told a few years back about the performance pay," said Lightbourne, who has taught elementary school for nearly 20 years. "Based on the way students perform on tests, this is the way that we would get paid. That would determine whether we get bonuses or not or raises or not.

"And I think that's just so unfair," she said. "You are dealing with students coming from all backgrounds, students with different issues. This is not one-size-fit-all."

The 2011 law tying teacher pay to student test scores put more pressure on teachers and students, Lightbourne argued.

"A lot of things that we want to do, and the way we want to teach our kids, our students, and take them above and beyond — as teachers we feel like our hands are tied," Lightbourne said.

Her play lets the audience into a place most people never get to go: a teachers' lounge.

The main character, Mr. Tarver, is a young science teacher at the fictional Hiawatha High School. He's a flawed character — always late, sarcastic and rude. But his colleagues mostly let him get away with it because they admire his teaching style.

Throughout the play, Mr. Tarver struggles with whether to leave the classroom. He's frustrated with the influence of politics on what happens in schools. He gets in trouble for speaking out against the fictional governor. He mourns the loss of his beloved principal, who gets transferred because students' test scores aren't high enough.

"I hope when many come in to see it, they walk away … thinking about, 'Wow, we didn't know that teachers go through that,'" Lightbourne said, "and maybe have a new respect [for us]."

In one scene, Mr. Tarver is speaking with Vivian, a school security guard, about the principal's impending departure.

"From what I heard, she's being transferred to another school, because the test scores from last year and the year before weren't all that great. So they're bringing in a new principal," Vivian says.

Mr. Tarver responds: "Now, Viv, you and I both know that's a bunch of crap. I've seen this lady work more hours than there are in the day — for the betterment of our students."

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Credit Jessica Bakeman / WLRN
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WLRN
Charles Williams and Sybil Wilson -- who play science teacher Mr. Tarver and school security guard Vivian -- rehearse a scene on stage at the Miramar Culture Center earlier this month.

"Well, look, man, I know that, and you know that. But the powers that be — they don't give a damn about none of that," Vivian says. "You know, it's not about the students anymore. It's all about business and politics."

The principal, Mrs. McPhee, argues that politicians blame educators for students' academic struggles without considering the issues they face at home.

"They don't see that student working that night job trying to help his parents make ends meet," McPhee tells Tarver in the play. "They don't see that student coming up in here molested and abused and neglected even. Sometimes starving. They can't wait to get up in Hiawatha for that free breakfast and that free lunch. You know about 30 percent of my students are homeless, don't you? They're living in shelters with their families.

"But they don't see that," McPhee says. "They don't see us. We're invisible to them."

Mr. Tarver's darkest moment in the play is when he loses a student to gun violence.

The story comes from Lightbourne's personal experience. She started her teaching career at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School north of downtown Miami — the same school she attended as a girl. She lost students while she was there. And later, some of the kids she taught in elementary school were killed in shootings when they were teens.

"We're always trying to figure out what can we do to protect our kids," Lightbourne said. "It's a burden that we bear … when we lose our children that way."

Charles Williams plays Mr. Tarver. In real life, he's a father of five who leads a nonprofit called Generational Cure, which focuses on mentoring young people. He said his experiences as a dad and a mentor influence his portrayal of the science teacher. And he, too, has experienced losing friends in shootings.

"Coming to school and seeing an empty seat, realizing that someone who has grown up with you as a peer is no longer there — that's a painful feeling," Williams said. "That's a pain that you may never be able to overcome."

Lightbourne has invested a lot in the first production of "The Teachers' Lounge" — for one, thousands of dollars. Her husband sold a piece of land and donated the proceeds to the effort. And the couple has been saving for the past year, putting any extra money toward the play. That, plus advance ticket sales, have helped to pay for the venue, the set, the promotional materials, videography and more.

Lightbourne is hoping to take the play on tour. She dreams of writing plays full time, even though that would mean leaving her school.

"I love teaching. But right now, I have become so frustrated with the politics. And I don't feel the freedom I once felt when I started out," she said. "That hurt because I love my students."

But, she said, maybe she can do more for them from outside the classroom.

If you go:

The single performance is set for 8 p.m. on Jan 26 at the Miramar Cultural Center. Tickets are $32, or $25 per person for groups of 10 or more. They're on sale online and at the door.

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.