As Teaching Artists Energize, Opportunities Abound

July 30, 2008

Teaching has been a part of the arts since the days of cave paintings (32 millennia ago), if not even earlier. Artists have always been teachers, sharing their techniques and innovations, mentoring apprentices, and, once bartering was invented, turning to teaching as a means to supplement income. The “teaching artist” has been around since the first voices lifted together, the first drums thumped out in unison or counterpoint and the first ritualistic dances began to define culture.

So it’s interesting to note that teaching artists are finally getting their act together.

In the 30 years since arts education began disappearing from many schools’ curricula, educators have looked for alternative ways to bring the arts into schools. School leaders who valued the arts turned to arts organizations and artists outside the system to provide arts learning opportunities: lecture demonstrations, field trips, workshops and residencies. For years this was ad hoc—scattershot, improvised—and the results were uneven at best.

But slowly, with the increased demand for arts in the school day, coordination has crept in.

As practitioners have shared methods, articulated common goals, developed systems of measurement and the like, the role of teaching artist has gained definition. In the past 18 months, the momentum has been unmistakable: Professionalization of the teaching artist is a hot topic.

No fewer than 10 surveys were circulated for and about teaching artists in recent months, each gathering data about a different aspect of the work ( has details on some of this research and many other resources). And recent national convenings such as the National Performing Arts Convention and the Americans for the Arts (AFTA) Conference had sessions geared exclusively to teaching artist concerns.

Attention is trained on those issues already ingrained in other professions but still in formative stages for teaching artists: how to approach health insurance and certification, why there aren’t more arts-educator degree programs, how to go from supplementing an income to earning a living, who might launch a national service organization, how to handle intellectual property rights, even whether to form a union.

Although the field is gaining a new sense of community and connection, at one of the AFTA conference sessions I attended a group of teaching artists identified “isolation” as one of the main obstacles to their work. They feel untethered, outside the school culture and without a support group of their own. They pine for more interaction with other teaching artists, with school staff, with a network that might provide them resources that deepen and inspire their efforts. However, when asked what they could provide to improve their working conditions, the obvious answer, “I could make connections,” eluded them.

Of course, being an artist requires an element of isolation. Self-expression, originality and uniqueness are paramount to creating art. For many artists it takes real effort to set aside the required separateness of the creative process and participate in the group activities of life.

But in these last few weeks of summer, before the rush of the new school year overtakes us, it’s time to take action. Making connections doesn’t require a multi-task strategic plan with committees, timelines and a budget. You don’t need to wait around for someone to organize a teaching-artist study group or set up a round-table with classroom teachers. Grassroots networking begins with individual gestures. Finding a few moments to reflect on hopes and goals with a colleague or two may develop into a regular gathering and, before long, look suspiciously like a support group and a natural bridge to larger efforts and resources.

If you need a little extra inspiration to make the first move, check out “Teachers Cross Cultures” on our front page for an uplifting look at an exchange between Pakistani and New Hampshire teachers. Or join the virtual conversation provided by Teacher Magazine, an excerpt of which appears in “The Power of the Imaginative Mind” on page 7.

The field is abuzz with opportunities: conferences, training institutes, Webinars. And, since the Internet has replaced those cave paintings, there’s an ever expanding amount of information available to support the teaching artist’s work.

There has never been a better time to engage with the collective teaching-artist consciousness. But you have to let them know you’re out there.

Why wait another 32 millennia?