At the End of the Day, a Teaching Artist is an Artist First

Posted by Russell Granet, Mar 10, 2014 8 comments

Russell Granet Russell Granet

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.

8 responses for At the End of the Day, a Teaching Artist is an Artist First


March 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Yes, I too have been a teaching artist, and I agree, the emphasis can be weighted too much on teacher and less on artist. Unfortunately, here in Dayton the organizations currently have little money and tend to favor the performing arts over the visual arts (me). The teachers often want a "performance" - I actually have one that I do - but still seem to value a "show" over a creative activity.

I have extensive training in presenting and designing workshops for teachers and students that was supposed to lead to jobs throughout the state but it has never amounted to much. Guess it looks good on the resume!

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March 10, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Yes! I too have stuck around mainly because I LOVE the people. The students, the teachers (most of the time) and especially, my peers. I love being around an amazing group of peers who are artistic, a little quirky, and above all, love to serve. Truly, teaching artists are some of the most genuine, inspirational, and loving people on earth.

And Yes again. How to remain an artist first. Teaching is the action of who we are - artists. How do we bring our artistry into the classroom? How do we inspire students by showing them our artistry? This is our gift and something we should celebrate. In our quest to become more informed teachers, let's not lose sight of this.

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Joy says
March 10, 2014 at 11:02 pm

I'd actually have to disagree, though this is a bit of a semantic argument about personal lexicons. I think the new paradigm for a teaching artist is not about "at the end of the day being an artist" or "at the end of the day being a teacher". The entire point for me, actually, is that I am a teaching artist. I chose to be a teaching artist from the first it wasn't something I fell into because forerunners like you blazed a trail. But the fact that I chose this as my art from the beginning also creates something new that didn't exist perhaps in this form 20 or 30 years ago.
Neither part (my teaching craft or my theatre craft) outweighs the other and each is informed, deepened, extended through a generative tension with the other. Collaborating and creating with my students is my medium for creative expression - they are my art. I am a teaching artist. I think this balance is at the core of what it means to be a teaching artist and not an artist in residence, who is at the end of the day an artist first and a teacher second.

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March 11, 2014 at 10:21 am

Thanks for articulating something that has been a topic of conversation among teaching artists, but never (to my knowledge) described in “print.” I do agree with Joy in her comment previous to mine that teaching is also an art and that the strongest teaching artists merge and balance both aspects of the job title. But when I break down the job title grammatically, “teaching” is the adjective and “artist” is the noun and it’s the noun that, to me, matters the most.
My education, experience, and practice as an artist firmly ground my work in classrooms. I believe that my teaching is also strong, effective—and artistic. (If it weren’t, I wouldn’t stand a chance with students or teachers.) But, time and again, I have experienced how deeply my work as a theatre artist informs my educational work; a teacher with little to no theatre background trying to accomplish the same thing with students does not have the same well of experience to draw from.
I remember when we used to be called arts educators—“arts” being the adjective and “educators” being the noun. I much prefer “teaching artist,” because, like Russell Granet, I believe that the noun “artist” in this job title is the definitive word.

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March 12, 2014 at 11:06 am

This is a great discussion! Thanks Russell for sparking it. I agree with so much of what has been said. I do think that it is the ARTIST part of us that is at the heart and soul of our magic and power. It is the ARTIST part that inspires our desire to teach others what we know and what we do. But I also agree with Joy's comment above...that there are some of us who really embrace both the artist AND teacher sides of ourselves and are committed to this as a profession 100%...we're not just waiting around until we get the next acting gig...or whatever. It makes me excited for the diversity of this professional field of ours. Like, take lawyers...there are so many specialties to practice. Some lawyers are in it for the money. Others to make change. As the teaching artist field grows and grows, we will see this kind of diversity. There is no one way to be a teaching artist and no one reason for wanting to be one...except, unlike lawyers, so far, none of us are doing it to get rich...can't wait til that changes!

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Natasha says
March 14, 2014 at 1:26 pm

I would like to respectfully disagree. I am a rather accomplished artist, and a NYS certified Visual Arts teacher, who still works as a teaching artist (thanks Bloomberg's hiring freeze!). When I began as a teaching artist, before I went to Graduate school to study education, I'm not sure that I was the best teacher. Yes, if you are not a dedicated artist, you absolutely cannot be any good as a teaching artist (or DOE art teacher), so in that I agree with Mr. Granet. However, I MUST emphasize that teaching is an academic skill that MUST be learned. Teachers are professionals who's unique skill set must be respected. The so called "Charter School Movement"- and corporate "reformers" do not recognize this, and essentially want to turn teaching into a low-paid fast-food technician job instead of a career that is respected and paid accordingly. Teaching artists must hold themselves to a high level of pedagogic rigor, if not, we will be failing to teach our students that art is not some fluffy, extraneous hobby, but a necessary creative, and yes, ACADEMIC pursuit that is essential to Human Development, and children's cognitive and emotional growth. We need to know how to write a curriculum map and lesson plans, with the right essential questions and solid goals for our workshops. We should be familiar with education trends and controversies, and have access to academic sources that will not only improve our practice as teaching artists, but as individual artists of any discipline. Otherwise it's just fuzzy math.

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March 16, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Such an important conversation! While we all seem to agree about how critical it is to know, practice and excel at teaching methodologies, it is also true that it is first as an artist that most of us come to the work of teaching artistry. I have not yet met a classroom or community teacher who decide to hone their arts-making skills in order to become a better teaching artist (though you may know a couple who are the exception to my own experience!). But really, isn't rather artists who recognize that we want (and need) to become better at meaningful engagement in order to be better teaching artists who commit to building our essential teaching and engagement skills? Being artist-centered does not mean setting aside our professional embrace of educational practice--sometimes, though, I find it helpful to remind myself (and my teaching partners) that my artist self has an endlessly renewing and renewable source of creativity which I need to continually engage with. Holding myself to pedagogic rigor is incredibly important; at the same time, if pedagogic rigor isn't invited in to my artist soul and perspective as it exists at my core, then I feel I have a lot to lose. The teaching artists I know who last the longest and find the most joy seem to me to be consciously tapping into and reminding themselves of their art-making. (Brief disclaimer: I've done some work developing the concept of the Artist-Centered Teaching Artist with the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, CA. It's usually those who want Teaching Artists to act just like traditional classroom teachers that I like to remind that Teaching Artists are artists the sense that this is where our journey really started for most of us. And it's what makes our practice of educational pedagogy unique and effective.)

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Jason says
March 18, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Russell makes a wonderful point, and I think some of the above comments are not seeing the actual point.

A teacher of the arts, a teacher who uses the arts to augment or supplement their work academically is different than an artist who uses their finely honed gifts to teach, inspire, and explore. Part of this very basic difference is internal and personal it seems. Does one fundamentally identify as an artist? Does one fundamentally as a teacher?

Teaching Artists are artists who teach and should be supported as such, support the artist-self not the teacher-self. I don't think anyone wants to argue semantics and languistics, what is so important to articulate is how do best use a most valuable resource - the teaching artist.

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