As teachers increase their focus on arts-inspired creativity, in part due to recent advances in cognitive neuroscience that link arts education to the skills needed to succeed both in school and in the modern workplace, a new education professional is rising to greater prominence: the teaching artist.
Working musicians, actors, dancers and visual artists who help educate students at K-12 levels, teaching artists are among the only professionals who spend regular time working with full-time classroom teachers, in-school specialists, and students in elementary, middle and high schools. Cooperating closely with school personnel, these artists bring an engaging as well as inspirational practical component into the classroom, experts say. The result is increased engagement and attention from students.
But teaching artists are somewhat ill-equipped to deal with this growing interest. Information and resources available to interested teaching artists remain sparse, and those working in the field often aren’t aware of the tools that do exist. And because they are largely disparate and disorganized, no one knows what kinds of backgrounds teaching artists have, what exactly they do in each place of employment or how they learn to do their jobs. It’s unclear even how many of them are out there.
Nick Rabkin aims to find out.
An organizer of the Teaching Artist Research Project at the University of Chicago, Rabkin is helping to conduct the first systematic survey of this unique part of the educational system. At the heart of this endeavor from the artists’ perspective is a longstanding concern: money. Only a small subset of artists has regular, full-time employment; most of the rest work as freelancers, making their incomes primarily from irregular commissions or projects.
“There are no teaching historians or teaching scientists,” Rabkin said during the Web symposium “Artists in Classrooms: What Is the Role of the Teaching Artist?” on June 19. “No other field … is so gainfully underemployed as to work for peanuts in schools.”
Because of the varied styles of school systems, which are run mostly at the local and state level, much about how teaching artists do what they do remains undefined. Though they often work alongside full-time arts teachers, teaching artists sometimes work for arts organizations that manage assignments or in other educational settings, such as community groups or libraries, and exact duties vary from place to place. This assortment has muddied people’s vision of the roles of teaching artists and has curbed the establishment of conferences and national organizations as well as a set of teaching and training standards, speakers at the symposium said.
Thus far, teaching artists have “invented the work they do,” Rabkin said during the event.
“We keep returning to this question: What is a teaching artist?” he added during a phone interview after the symposium. Although artists have taught in U.S. schools for about 100 years, he said, “we really didn’t call them teaching artists until 10 or 15 years ago,” making the field seem brand new.
Such nagging questions led him and his colleagues to launch their research project, which centers on teaching artists in 13 communities across the United States. Using an extensive survey, they will gather data about teaching artists’ ages, educational backgrounds, work experience and employment. Other questions cover their career plans, compensation, availability of opportunities and work satisfaction.
Rabkin and other teaching experts already have some ideas about what kinds of challenges are likely to emerge. “The most common questions I get are, how do I get started as a teaching artist? What do I need to know? How do I find work? Where I can find good training? How do I work as an independent contractor?” Dale Davis, executive director of the Association for Teaching Artists, said during a phone interview.
Getting teaching artists talking to each other also is difficult. “The first real challenge is finding them,” Rabkin said by phone. “Nobody has a database or anything like that.” In addition to hosting the survey online, Rabkin and other project organizers are soliciting participation through community outreach and organizations that cater to teaching artists and educators. One avenue is the Association for Teaching Artists, which plans to host a conference sometime in 2010.
But many teaching artists lack the funds or support to attend such meetings, and that’s why the Web symposium, which was sponsored by the Dana Foundation, and similar events are a good start, said Russell Granet, founder of Arts Education Resource and moderator of the symposium. “It’s very clear that this is an alternate way to reach out to those who can’t attend national conferences,” Granet said afterward. “It was shocking to me to see what the numbers are. We had capped the symposium at 499. We actually closed registration at close to 600. And there were still people calling who couldn’t get in.
“The response to the invitation was incredible,” he added. “Clearly there is a need for teaching artists to talk.”
Another sticking point for teaching artists is appropriate classroom training, Granet said. “One of the things teaching artists struggle with is how to work with kids with all different kinds of disabilities,” he said. “Teaching artists need to have more info on classroom management, child development and grade-appropriate activities.” Universities are starting programs to teach some of these skills specifically to artists, but they remain limited in reach, Granet said.
To ensure that they adequately consider such complex challenges, Rabkin and his colleagues will supplement the survey data with more exhaustive analysis and investigation. “In each of communities, we will conduct more in-depth interviews with teaching artists and leaders in the field,” Rabkin said by phone. “The idea is to find out about the dynamics of the field in different locations in the country. We’ll get a sense of how the community is organized. [First,] is it organized? … Building communities is one of our real challenges.”
In addition to Chicago, study sites include Boston; Seattle; Providence, R.I.; and eight California communities: San Francisco/Alameda County, Los Angeles, San Diego, Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Santa Cruz, Salinas and Humboldt County. The researchers expect to release their results by August 2010.
Rabkin acknowledges that the information they gather will be limited because only study areas with resources available to fund a survey are included, participation is voluntary and respondents not will reflect a representative slice of the national community. “We don’t know what proportion of teaching artists will respond,” he said. “But we still think we’ll get valuable data. Right now we have no data, and any data is better than no data.”
He thinks the results will offer positive news not just for the teaching artist community but for educators in general. “Does it make sense to think of teaching artists as strategic resources for the development of arts education?” Rabkin said. “Our hypothesis is yes. I’ll be pretty displeased if we can’t link it up.”