It’s no secret that teachers are a creative, hard-working bunch.
Take Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell in Lafayette, for example. When she isn’t teaching at Episcopal School of Acadiana, she’s writing short stories, acting in three improv groups or cooking.
On the opposite side of the state, Paul Adams teaches English to eighth-graders in Shreveport, while also making and selling unique, book-inspired soaps, and Monroe sixth-grade teacher Nick Harrison is a karaoke DJ, sports broadcaster and “a little bit TikTok famous.”
These Louisiana educators are channeling their creative energy into side hustles that have nothing to do with school to find balance and remind students to follow their passions.
Improv and ‘staying in the struggle’
Tidwell, 36, teaches third- and fourth-grade language arts at the Lafayette private school. It’s her 10th year at ESA, but she didn’t take a direct route to teaching.
“I kind of had a long road to finding out what I wanted to be my career,” she said.
As a child she’d wanted to be a teacher, but she pursued other passions in college, first studying voice and music in her hometown at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and later switching to culinary arts for a year at John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux.
She “eventually landed back in education,” she said, finishing her undergraduate at Louisiana State University and an online master’s program via Northwestern State University. That roundabout journey taught her a lot that she wanted to take with her into the classroom.
“The whole reason why I felt OK about my strangled route to education is, through all of it, my parents always said, ‘Education is never a waste,'” Tidwell said. “‘If you’re learning and enjoying learning, it’s not a waste.’ That feeling of freedom and safety to explore is something I wanted to pass along.”
So, while she was excited to teach the content, especially writing, she was just as interested in guiding students to think critically and be curious.
“I wanted to be a part of growing people into leaders and into being curious,” Tidwell said. “I love being that person.”
But she found that also could be an overwhelming responsibility. She needed another outlet, so she tried improv theater about five years ago, taking classes with a local troupe called the Silverbacks.
“It came from a desire for balance of personal life and career,” Tidwell said. “I had kind of lost myself in teaching. You want to give everything you have to it.”
She already had a passion for performance and found she loved improv. Today she’s part of three troupes, including one she started herself. Since the pandemic began she’s been part of some digital shows, she said.
In the meantime, she’s using improv games in the classroom to engage students.
“It’s really freshened up my practice,” Tidwell said.
Tidwell has brought another passion of hers into the classroom, as she’s shared her love for writing and her ongoing journey to get work published. She keeps a spreadsheet of submissions and responses and is open about them with her students, too.
“I shared rejection letters with them for two years before I got published the first time,” Tidwell said.
In this her kids are seeing firsthand a motto at ESA. “Stay in the struggle” reminds students and staff alike to keep working hard and “understand what you want doesn’t come fast,” Tidwell said.
“Looking at writing and creativity as a skill that they can develop helps them have a growth mindset,” she said.
Her side gigs have made her a little extra money, but that’s not her “why.”
“If I could make a little money from any of these things, I’d be happy about it, but I’m pretty realistic,” Tidwell said. “All these things I do are about reminding myself that yes, the job I do is important and fulfilling, but I have to make time for the other things that make me me.”
Soap and being your own boss
Adams, 33, was an orchestra director and music teacher in Shreveport for seven years before he got a master’s degree and shifted to teaching English. He’d always loved that content, and the change was important to retaining his love for music and performing with his viola.
“While I was teaching orchestra I was in symphonies, I was playing at weddings, I was just music 24-7,” Adams said. “The problem with that is you experience burnout at some point and you figure out that if you want to still be passionate about this thing that has been a part of your life since you were 11 years old — and I started piano at 7 — then maybe you have to cut something out.”
Now he’s in his third year of teaching middle school English in north Louisiana, and he’s found a passion for working with middle-schoolers and watching them grow.
“I love being able to reach my students at such a pivotal age,” Adams said. “Middle school is the time when students are figuring out who they are, the people they want to become. I love getting to be there for those discovery moments.”
He’s still performing outside of school, but he’s also discovered other outlets, like making his own soap. He loved it so much he built it into a business, opening Epilogue Soaps in June. He creates cold-processed soaps inspired by books and other media, and it all started because of a YouTube video and a pandemic.
“I’m a mega extrovert, and the world shut down for several months,” he said. “Throughout the shutdown, I was painting, I was writing, I was doing my typical creative outlets, I was making music, and one day I was cleaning the house and watching YouTube.”
The website suggested a video of someone making and designing soaps. His first thought was that the process was fascinating. His second thought was, “I could do that.”
“Thus a monster was born,” he said with a laugh.
Today he sells bars of soap, bath bombs and more online and at local pop-up shows. He’s sold out of product multiple times, prompting him to think even bigger.
“One of the things I have learned is that while I am not unhappy teaching, I do have a part of me who wants to be my own boss, and as I have experienced a lot of success with my soaps… I can kind of can see that if I do this right I can make a business out of this,” Adams said.
“While starting a business has its own unique troubles that I am definitely not trained or prepared for, it’s an opportunity to be my own boss.”
Seizing opportunities and learning as he goes is how he’s always followed his passions. He learned how to draw, create art and make soap on YouTube, and he incorporates that idea and technology into the classroom, too.
“I’ve found that evaluating the way I learned and the way I was inspired helped the things that I do in my classroom, too,” Adams said. “My students don’t want an hour of me lecturing at them about a book that we’re reading. So I have actually incorporated TikTok book reviews where I review what we’ve read in class in less than a minute then upload those for kids, so they have just a minute video to watch and they’re back on track.”
He uses all of these experiences to remind his students to keep learning and that “failing” isn’t a bad thing.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from my extracurricular pursuits is that I never want to stop learning,” Adams said. “I’m a perpetual student, and part of that is that I fail an awful lot. I’ve made batches of soap that have completely bombed. I’ve made works of art that I would never let anybody see. I’ve written things that I have destroyed, deleted, or trashed immediately.
“But these things are all reminders that any time we’re growing, failure is a necessary part of that. It reminds me to extend grace to my students when they struggle with failure, and to remind them that failure is just a step towards success.”
Those lessons are as important for him as they are for his students, especially this year, he’s quick to admit.
“This is a hard year to be teaching,” the eighth-grade teacher said. “It’s probably the hardest year I’ve ever had. I am grateful that I have my pursuits outside of my classroom to keep me grounded and to remind me that there is more to life than teaching. This has been the year of recentering of myself and reminding myself that my pursuits, my passions outside of school are just as important as my passions within the classroom.”
Teaching, karaoke and TikTok
Harrison, 40, also took an indirect route to teaching, beginning as a theater and speech graduate of his home school Grambling State University. After earning his master’s in theater from Louisiana Tech University, Harrison taught theater at GSU for seven years.
In 2013, he decided to shift to teaching elementary school for higher pay, but that meant more college for him.
“It was difficult because I had to go back to school and get my degree in education,” he said.
But he didn’t leave behind his theater and speech training when he stepped into the sixth-grade classroom. It’s useful in teaching as well as his side job as a personality with Bayou Independent Wrestling, an amateur wrestling circuit that operates in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
“I’ve loved wrestling ever since I was a kid,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s first role was as a “bad guy,” but his latest has been as a commissioner on the “good” side. With the pandemic, he hasn’t had the opportunity to get in character lately, but is ready for when shows return to the area.
In the meantime, he’s keeping plenty busy. Three nights a week Harrison hosts karaoke at venues in Monroe and West Monroe; then on Saturdays he does play-by-play or color commentary for Grambling State football games. That’s on top of grading papers and lesson-planning.
“I don’t sleep,” he said. “I’m just kidding. I sleep — sparingly.”
“It’s a balance,” he continued. “I only take it on if I can fit it in.”
One way COVID-19 restrictions have helped Harrison to fit everything in is that venues can’t stay open past 11 p.m., which makes getting up early for class the next morning a little easier.
But when push comes to shove, he knows which job comes first, he said. Evening parent-teacher conferences trump karaoke gigs and so on.
“It has forced me to be more attentive to what I’m doing in the classroom to make sure nothing bleeds over,” Harrison said. “My teaching job is Job A, Job One, the priority. That’s the one that garners the most attention. That’s the career.”
The others, he said, are for fun. They’re passion projects that also provide a little extra income.
“If you’re going into teaching for the money you’re going for the wrong reason,” he said. “These jobs on the side have really helped me save money and provide for my child. The real A-job is being a dad.”
One side gig that might “bleed over” a bit is his videos on the popular app TikTok. He started his account — mrprofessor318 — in April, early on in the state’s experience with the pandemic, and now he has more than 360,000 followers.
His videos feature his favorite things — musical mash-ups, silly dancing, dad jokes, wrestling impersonations and teacher humor.
“I really enjoyed the fact that people were watching and I was making people happy in a really tough time,” Harrison said.
He’s still making videos, one of which just went viral, and his students can’t help but notice.
“They’re 10-year-old kids; they absolutely know,” Harrison said with a laugh. “They get mad, like ‘How did you get TikTok famous? You’re old.’
“I’m just myself,” he tells them.
Contact children’s issues reporter Leigh Guidry at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.