How To Become A Great Teaching Artist

Posted by Jeff Antoniuk, Mar 13, 2014 8 comments

Antoniuk and his sudents Jeff Antoniuk

Gang banger or set designer? Bored and disconnected, or improvising jazz on a Duke Ellington tune? YOU are in a position to change a life, and maybe one day save a life with art. So let’s look at five important ways to maximize your potential, your influence and your long term success as a Teaching Artist.

1) You Gotta Have Chops

2) Hit The Gym (aka Professional Development)

3) Autopilot is a Killer

4) Strong Relationships With Teachers and Administration

5) Keep Your Inner Artist Alive


1) You Gotta Have Chops

Most importantly, you need to be an Artist with a capitol “A” first. Sure, your job description includes administrator, roadie, booking agent, disciplinarian, IT manager, wrangler, and much more. However, you need to be able to drop jaws with what you do in your art form.

Certainly some art forms lend themselves to “big, colorful, or loud” more than others, but be sure you are really bringing it when you perform or display for the children you see. Those young minds have a keen sense of when someone is phoning it in or bringing the kiddie version of something. Challenge yourself to present art at a level that YOU would pay money for. Constantly be striving for excellence in your art form.

2) Hit The Gym (aka Professional Development)

Some us love it, some of us hate it, but we all know it’s good for us. Like going to the gym, professional development is important for your long term health. Yes, you are a great artist and you have a lot of technique, excitement and information to share. Be sure, however, that you are building your muscles on the “teacher” side of the Teaching Artist equation as well.

A great part of my relationship with the Washington Performing Arts Society (Washington DC) has been the years of professional development they have afforded me and my band. Although Jeff Antoniuk & The Jazz Update was always an entertaining and engaging band, our abilities as teachers, our ability to focus and drive home a concept in minutes and not hours, has been honed to a fine skill. Be sure you are taking workshops, seminars and professional development sessions each year to learn how to be a better educator and communicator. The word “teacher” is in your job description, after all.

Antoniuk teaching Antoniuk teaching

3) Autopilot is a Killer

Any classroom teacher will tell you that having a game plan is crucial.That said, blindly following your carefully laid out game plan can also be the quickest way to lose your audience, and possibly that residency for next year too! Running on autopilot and “just saying what you said last time” is lazy, and might cost you that all important chance to CONNECT.

Always be looking up and out. Be glancing into your students eyes. If you can’t see the faces of half the class, guess what? It’s time to modulate something - the tone of your voice, your position in the room, your analogy, perhaps even your topic. Reading from a script, be it in your head or on a music stand in front of you is NO different than that terrible math teacher you had in 8th grade, reading from the text book day after day. You hated that then, and your students hate that now. Be in the moment. Observe, engage, connect.

4) Relationships With Teachers and Administration Are Key

You are a guest in whatever school or classroom you may find yourself. An honored guest perhaps, but a guest nonetheless. Know the rules of the road for each classroom and teacher, because they vary.

Styles of discipline or the particulars of each student population vary. Communication with the teacher is how you’ll know what/who is just around the corner for you.

Emotionally challenged children, kids sensitive to loud sounds, learning disabilities and more are just of few of the populations I’ve run in to over the years, with good success due to good prior communication.

Getting to know the school’s administration is very important, even if you aren’t in direct contact with them as a Teaching Artist. Principals and arts administrators like to know who is coming in and out of their school, and a small bit of face time on your part can help everything from your general acceptance in the school to your next round of scheduling and funding.

Antoniuk and his students Antoniuk and his students

5) Keep Your Inner Artist Alive

Keep feeding yourself if you want to have the energy to feed others. Nothing is worse than a burned out artist trying to fein enthusiasm for their art form, and I’ve seen it too often. Teaching and coaching is exhausting work, and it will drain you fast and hard. Be sure to make time for YOUR art. Keep your gas tank full, people!

Take a class, schedule a show or exhibition, learn some new repertoire, or simply attend a concert. Get fired up about the power of art, so that your next Teaching Artist engagement has the energy behind it that it deserves. You are an artist first, so don’t shortchange yourself in that department. Keep finding ways to excite yourself about ART, and you’ll find that the time and money spent more than comes back to you many times over.

8 responses for How To Become A Great Teaching Artist


March 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Jeff--I LOVE your list of the 5 important ways to maximize your success as a Teaching Artist! Well-said! So true!
The schools in our area are so lucky to have T.A.s like you available to enrich the arts learning experiences of their students. I hope you also get to bring your music and teaching beyond the DC region.
Keep up the artistic work and the fine example!

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March 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Thanks so much for the kind words Rosalind! I live and die by lists, so I thought I'd share one with the world at large!! I hope you are well.


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March 14, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Practical, real. Nice summative. Thank you!

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March 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Thanks Kristy. I appreciate the "practical" word. It's easy to come up with "pie in the sky" ideas, but "rubber hitting the road" is pretty important too. Thanks for taking a minute to write.


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Kelly Wohlbier says
March 25, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Nice article. The part about how much energy it takes is so true! Especially when you can get them excited about something. Also the advice to take classes on teaching. Not everyone who can play, can explain what they're doing in a way that a kid can understand. The opposite of the old "those who can't play, teach"! Is your program on addition to their regular music, or is this all they get?

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March 25, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Hi Kelly. Thanks so much for reading the article. The workshops that we do are usually in addition to what the kids get to do during the day, often times during their regular music class. In the DC area however, music and art can be pretty minimal in the schools. It's a real honor to get to hit these kids with this great information, which they often don't get from any other source.

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March 25, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Congrats Jeff on a very fine article! Good food for thought for me, as I find myself in various teaching/mentoring situations here and there. Thanks for sharing some of your "secrets of success"...I Tweeted and Facebook-ed this!

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Erica R. says
November 20, 2014 at 10:20 am

I really appreciate this list!
I've had the opportunity to work with teachers and directors who introduced me to this notion of continuing to be a working artist as a major part of their responsibility as a teacher. Both as career development and simply to keep things in perspective, this notion is one that has stuck and you articulate it really well.
It's not possible to be a teaching artist if you lose sight of half of that identity, and no matter where other people place you professionally, making meaningful art that is constantly being developed and expanded upon is still the thing you do because you can't imagine not doing it. For me, it's that mentality plus the idea that I can't personally ask the young people I work with to do something daring unless I can assure them that I'm daring right along with them, both in this work and in the work I do elsewhere. When we fill the shoes of a teacher, this obligation to be great artists is even fiercer and the stakes even higher because tomorrow's teachers and artists are watching.

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