Should a Teaching Artist Become a Teacher?

Back in November, I got an email from a school I had been in contact with about bringing in teaching artists for enrichment programs. “We have an opening for an English teacher for next semester. Would you like to apply?”

“Why not?” I thought. Every teaching artist has been here, needing more work, and more experience. Teaching English does lend itself well to storytelling and drama after all.

Fast forward to January, and I'm offered the job. In fact, I started Monday. I'm really enjoying the position so far, and the teachers and administrators there are incredibly supportive — and curious — about have a linguist-turned-performing-artist in the English classroom. Like any teaching artist, I view myself as an artist first and a teacher second. But when faced with the opportunity to become a full-time teacher, should a teaching artist become a teacher?

Having a number of teachers in the family, and observing great teachers this week, I'm proposing that a teaching artist should be a teacher for a little while, but maybe not for the reasons you'd expect.

First off, teaching is an occupation that has entirely its own skill sets. Teaching artists borrow many of these in creating curriculum and guiding lessons, but for this issue I fall on the side of teachers. There is so much more in classroom management, data tracking, and accountability that a teaching artist (at least typically) doesn't face. That comes with its own challenges for teaching artists — which I'll get to in a moment — but imagine with me what teaching artistry would be if each of us had the finesse and skill of masterful teaching. The arts can still be a part of our tools, and perhaps even what drives us to teach. Nevertheless, masterful teaching is something I believe every teaching artist should learn how to do.

But what about the art? Ah, yes. With testing, grading, classroom management, and so many other things, where is the time for the arts, and art for art's sake? My answer: the classroom.

Starting next week, my students and I are doing a long unit on Taming of the Shrew. We'll be reading sonnets, exploring Elizabethan norms, and going through the play thoroughly, up until we go to see it produced at the end of February. A theatre's outreach department is coordinating getting us scripts and tickets. Imagine this from the theatre's point of view: another teaching artist is actually the English teacher preparing the 9th grade learners for the show. My point is that while I've aligned my unit with the necessary standards and objectives, my focus is relentlessly on the arts. We'll discuss the richness of the language and the profound contribution that the Bard has made to English, but at the end of the day, my goal is to meet my objectives through targeting the arts learning.

In other words, I don't see myself as sacrificing my integrity as an artist. Right now I'm reading The Teaching Artist Handbook (which I'll review later this month), and the focus for the first portion is on guiding teaching artists through what and how to teach. All in all, its practical for teaching artists, and no less practical for teachers. At first I worried that becoming a teacher would neglect my art. Then I thought, “What is a good lecture without storytelling? Or what is a good English class without drama and theatre to drive its inquiry?”

Ultimately, will becoming a teacher make you a better teaching artist? To answer that question, I want to make one final point. We position ourselves as advocates for the arts and more hands-on learning, right? So let's remember that teachers more often than not are our allies. They meet standards, prepare students for tests, and work relentlessly to educate young people — and many also say, “The arts are something great to integrate with that.” If they don't do so, the might not know how. A teaching artist who becomes a teacher is still an advocate for the rich, artful learning already witnessed — and he can show others how to do it. Above all, he is still an artist, and with that can teach from a place of profound abundance.