SAMOHI — It moved clockwise, then counterclockwise and then back right again, a blur of neon 1980s-era oversized shirts, leggings, baggy jeans and tank tops swirling around in circles, laughter and stomping feet filling the muggy room.

At the center of it all is Darryl Hovis, running after students who screech and laugh as they try to avert their new drama teacher, moving clockwise and counterclockwise, depending on the direction in which they’re chased.

He tags a student. Now “it,” the student proceeds to chase his peers.

Panting and trying to catch his breath, Hovis turns to a group of students who are sitting and observing the game of tag, instructing that they “keep watching their faces.”

It’s all part of the engaging lesson plan for the newest face at Santa Monica High School who started his first day of classes on Wednesday with little lecturing, some games and a lot of interaction.

“I want to set the tone for the year,” the drama and English teacher said on Tuesday. “Usually the first day is a lot of let’s do the syllabus and the teacher talking.

“I’m not planning on doing a lot of that tomorrow.”

In a year when school districts are tightening their budgets and laying off teachers, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, which is experiencing its share of financial hurdles, welcomed 37 new teachers this year, including 24 at the secondary level, six at the elementary level, and seven support personnel, including counselors, nurses and librarians.

They come from different districts far and near, some with decades of experience, but almost all new to the SMMUSD.

New year, new beginnings<p>

The bell rang and in an instant, the hallways that remained silent throughout the past three months swarmed with colorful backpacks and the chatter of summer vacation, students hugging each other, one girl remarking out loud “we’re seniors,” as she embraces her friends.

But all was still quiet inside the English Building’s Humanities Center Theater where Hovis, deep in thought, stood at a podium reading over some material, his students filing into the large black box space, taking their seats that were positioned into a U-formation.

The bell rings again and Hovis lifts the podium and brings it closer to the students as he greets them.

“How are you?” one student responds a bit loudly, smirking.

The students come from all grade levels, the majority of which are sophomores and juniors with a few freshmen and seniors sprinkled in. Some sit straight up, appearing eager to begin their introduction to drama, while others sit slouched back, seemingly disinterested with their arms crossed.

But the disinterested become interested once the lesson begins.

Hovis pushes the podium back and begins circling the room, asking how many students are nervous, watching as several hands move up slowly.

He then walks to the first student and begins counting them off in pairs, asking all of the “ones” to stand up in the middle of the room. The last student in the group to say “not it,” becomes the first to chase their peers in a game of tag.

Five minutes later, the nervous energy is let off in the room. Students laughing as they chase one another.

“Acting for me can be a very nervous process because you are laying yourself out there,” Hovis said. “That’s why we do this game, to get rid of that nervousness.”

The games and the interaction are all part of Hovis’ teaching approach, one that he calls physical in that the goal is for the student to become comfortable with themselves on stage.

“I am very much about truth and honesty on the stage and the work,” he said.

The 44-year-old Huntington Beach resident and married father of three children began his career in 1988 at the Calvary Chapel High School in Costa Mesa, teaching theater, economics, government, Algebra II and TV production in the span of one year.

He left the following year to teach at Whittier High School’s Music Department for two years, going to Edison High School thereafter to run the theater program. In 1993, Hovis began a 14-year teaching career at Culver City High School where he co-founded the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts in 1998.

In 2007, he became a theater and vocal music teacher at University High School in Irvine but left two years later, wanting to leave the conservative restrictions of the school for what he sees as the creative flexibility and diversity of the Westside.

“I think this community fits in more with my style of teaching of theater and definitely will be more supportive of the work that I do,” he said.

After the game of tag is over, Hovis walks to the white board and writes, “acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” asking his students to repeat the statement several times.

It’s time to begin game number two.

The previously-designated ones and twos are asked to line up and face each other, asked to carefully observe each other’s ensembles. The students are then instructed to turn away from each other and change something physically about themselves before turning back, some tying their hair back, others lowering a sock.

They quiz their partners on what’s different.

First day jitters <p>

While he’s taught for two decades, Hovis admits to first day jitters, having just gone through a major change by going to a different school just two years ago.

But there’s also excitement in not just starting a new job, but also growing along with his students.

The goal for the school year is to teach students that theater isn’t just entertainment, it’s provocative.

Entertainment is a byproduct.

“There are so many avenues to teach students how theater can be a political tool, a social tool,” he said. “It’s not just dancing and singing, but really about conveying a message, raising questions about our society and how we can make it better.”

The students giggle as they try to guess what’s different with their partners. Hovis instructs the pupils to turn around once again and change four things. They gasp.

But shortly after the bell rings and the students begin filing out for their next class. Smiling, Hovis waves his students good-bye.

“All right, my friends, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He prepares for his next class — junior English — where Hovis will face an entirely different set of students. There’s more interactive teaching involved as he will pair students again and ask them to interview each other. Another ice breaker.

“I want to learn about them as people and as students, but also set the tone that I am very serious about what I do,” he said.