It seems every one of us can recall a teacher who made a difference in our life. James Hart Junior High drama teacher Greg Weiss had his “most awesome” teacher in middle school.
And now, as Weiss completes a 25-year career, he is likely to have dozens of students who will say he was their remarkable teacher. Weiss’s personality can fill a room with laughter and imagination. That, he says, is what he’s shared with his students by giving them the ability to be creative with words and actions.
Weiss’ idea behind Hart’s drama class and its student productions is “to allow children to find expression from their own imagination and their own heart and their own mind.”
Weiss begins his program by asking students to write their own material to help them discover how they can present their ideas. One project has students writing commercials, presenting them and then watching themselves on videotape.
“The idea is you need to trust yourself as a creator, you don’t need to follow somebody else’s words,” Weiss says of this exercise for 7th and 8th graders.
“As I tell parents, I’m not here to train actors…I use theater as the medium to help young people find their voice and find confidence communicating their thoughts and ideas to other people. It is one of the most important life skills there is.”
Weiss says he has an easy time relating to his 5th and 6th grade students from Millennium School and the junior high kids. His father changed jobs and he moved from suburban Pittsburgh to New Orleans and back to the Pittsburgh area attending five different schools in a few short years.
When he got to high school, he started to make friends and got involved with the school newspaper and drama program that helped him find his voice. He enrolled at Northwestern University as a performance major, but along the way he decided “I really didn’t want to be in theater just for myself. I had an amazing teacher who left an impression on me from my middle school years and I thought if I could teach this — that would be amazing.”
Weiss got his degree with an education certificate. He got his first job in 1981 teaching speech and theater at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. He left after a few years for graduate school in Philadelphia and ended up working with The Daves, a rock band of Northwestern graduates playing on the East Coast.
“It was great experience. I was their tour manager, the merchandiser and the stage manager in charge of lights and audio. Their presentations where like mini plays for each song. They had quite a following on the East Coast,” Weiss recalls.
While his parents fretted about what he was doing with his life, he kept reassuring them that this was all going to pay off. And it did—big time—in 1990 when a friend from H-F told him about a drama teacher position opening at Hart Junior High.
“The cool thing was everything I did working with that band learning about lights and dealing with sound equipment and just the visual sense of production — it all helped me here. I probably am the most experienced sound engineer in the district,” he said.
Weiss has had Hart students stage either a musical or a storytelling festival each year for the past 25 years. His latest production was “The Snarkout Boys and the Avacado of Death” by Daniel Pinkwater.
“I have to find something in a production that I’ve either seen or heard or read that just appeals to my creative side,” he said. “Then I just look at the general student population to see who’s interested in the production and say OK, what kind of production works for this group of kids.”
Deciding June 2015 was time to leave teaching wasn’t an easy decision, but Weiss is quick to say it’s “not retirement” because he’s not going to sit around. His creative juices won’t let him. He is a professional storyteller active with the Northland Storytelling Network and is the Illinois liaison to the National Storytelling Network. He’ll have time to present at conferences and festivals and to give workshops. He’d consider performing. And he could write a book on teaching drama to middle and junior high students.
“My life’s been happy. People ask ‘How’s it going?’ and I say probably better than I deserve. I just feel fortunate,” Weiss said. “I’ve worked with wonderful people. I’ve had thousands of just awesome young people for students, and I have really good friends and a marvelous family.
“There are so many things that people place as important goals or trophies of life. But I feel the most important is human interaction. I feel so fortunate. I hit the jackpot.”