At the End of the Day, a Teaching Artist is an Artist First
I graduated conservatory in 1988 and my first job out of school was as a teaching artist. I moved back to New York City after completing my studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I was looking for work and had no interest in returning to my previous life in college as a bellman - a gig that paid well, but this was before luggage had wheels. I asked a buddy of mine from high school, who had also moved to NYC to pursue a career in professional theatre, what he was doing and he said he was a teaching artist. I had never heard the term before so I asked him what it was and how I could become one. He said the job had three requirements and in this order:
1. You had to like kids
2. You had to be a morning person because school started early and you couldn’t be late
3. You had to have an expertise in an art form
Sounded reasonable. I applied for a position at the same organization where my friend worked. I got the job. My first assignment was to co-teach with a woman from Schenectady NY, neither one of us had ever stepped foot in a NYC public school. I was given a name of a teacher, room number, and grade level and so began my career as a teaching artist.
I loved being a teaching artist. I loved the dedicated partner teachers I had the privilege to work beside. I especially loved the kids – they always made me laugh. My claim to fame is I have been to every last subway stop in NYC. I never cared about the commuting distance on a subway as long as it did not involve a subway and a bus. Something about transferring to a bus put me over the edge. Like many of us, I worked for many organizations over the years and some were better organized than others, but by and large all my work colleagues were talented artists, dedicated educators, and fun people. I am sure I have stayed in this field for a variety of reasons both personal and professional, but mostly I have stayed because I love the people I get to work with every day: students, artists, teachers, and administrators.
Teaching artists existed years before I started, and in fact, the term teaching artist was “invented” at Lincoln Center in the mid-seventies. For most teaching artists, professional training was sporadic at best. I should point out most arts organizations did the best they could, but quite honestly funding at the time was focused entirely on direct service to kids and only a few of the more progressive-thinking funders understood the value of professional development for artists.
When I began as a teaching artist, my various employers did not ask for a lesson or unit plan, or that I align my work with state arts standards, or articulate my behavior modification strategy, or design modifications for students with disabilities, or find ways to meaningfully involve the classroom teacher. I focused on what my friend told me: like the kids, show up on time, and share my artistic expertise.
It is now twenty-six years later and teaching artistry is big business. As a friend of mine said recently: “it’s easier to get acting work than to get hired as a teaching artist.” Let me be entirely clear: I am not for one minute suggesting we return to the “good ol’ days” of no training or lack of accountability, but I worry a little that teaching has started to dominate the term teaching artist. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand child development, universal design for learning, arts standards, the common core, effective partnership techniques, and to be versed in collaborative action research strategies so we can all get better at telling our story, but these essential skills that help professionalize our field should be in support of our artistic pursuits with students, teachers, and community members and not in place of artistic pursuits. On any given day a teaching artist will be more a teacher than an artist or more an artist than a teacher, but at the end of the day a teaching artist is an artist first.