For Teaching Artists, Children with Disabilities Offer Challenges and Great Reward

by Aalok Mehta

January 31, 2010

With the proper preparation and some perseverance, teaching artists can make as big a difference in the lives of students with disabilities as they do with other students—and maybe bigger—reported a panel of education experts.

Teaching artists are professional artists who spend part of their time teaching the arts to elementary and secondary school students. Their efforts can be hindered by a lack of training in classroom management, lack of support by school administrators, legal barriers, or such limited or irregular time in the classroom that establishing rapport with kids becomes difficult.

Those difficulties are compounded when classrooms are partially or wholly comprised of students with cognitive, emotional, or physical disabilities, said the educators, speaking on Friday during the Webposium  “What do teaching artists need to know to be successful when working with students with disabilities?” The Dana Foundation sponsored the event, which was moderated by Russell Granet, director of Arts Education Resources.

All three panelists agreed on the most important skills needed for a successful teaching artist experience: preparation, preparation, and preparation. Acknowledging cries of protest from the audience, for instance, Sherry Snowden, an arts education lecturer at Texas State University, reiterated the importance of extensively planning  lessons and visiting the classroom ahead of time. “I know you may not be being compensated for this, that you may not feel productive at these times,” she said, “but it’s essential.”

Similarly, arriving 30-40 minutes before the lesson begins gives artists time to talk with classroom teachers and special assistants about how individual students are doing that day. Many teaching artists also instinctively dismiss standardized lesson plans, she added, but they can be important tools for guiding development of age-appropriate activities and usually have built in enough flexibility to remain useful.

Another common point revolved around making the most of student differences. “The differences are essential. They’re exciting,” said Allison Orr, artistic director of Forklift Danceworks. Orr has choreographed pieces that include dancers who use wheelchairs and who use guide dogs, and pointed out that they add to the range of movements she can use in her pieces. “It’s important to see that person as positive and an opportunity,” and also as someone who could lead the group from time to time.  

Judith Jellison, a professor of music and human learning at the University of Texas, Austin, agreed, saying, “We need to celebrate diversity in the classroom. There is a climate of acceptance that needs to be built.” In many cases, teaching artists can recruit more-able students to assist other s, as long as “children with disabilities have the same kind of experiences as other children to the maximal extent they can.” It’s easy to succumb to a bias that children with disabilities are not going to participate, she said.  

The presenters acknowledged that their guidance could not side-step all the challenges teaching artists face. No matter what advance preparation is done, it’s difficult to get to know students (and parents) if an artist is only at a school a handful of times each semester, and legal rules often prevent teaching artists from knowing the details and extent of their students’ disabilities.

Gauging whether a teaching session was successful can also pose challenges. Orr pushed the audience, some 300 people on-site in Austin and watching via the Webcast, to always ask their students for feedback and lean on the school’s regular faculty for support when they need it. “You have the right to say that I need some preparation, that I really want to come back but that I need to do a few things to do this well.” Jellison acknowledged that children with disabilities often can’t communicate directly, reminding teachers that signs of success “can come in very small increments”—sometimes just a single nod or quick smile.

Teaching artists can have a great effect on children with disabilities, some of whom might communicate well only through art, the panelists concluded. Jellison showed a video of a child with autism who remains aloof and disengaged in normal classroom settings participating and interacting during a music performance. “These are life-changing experiences for children with disabilities,” she said.

The Webposium was an international event with viewers from the US, Turkey, and Great Britain. It  will be posted on the Web sites of the Association of Teaching Artists and VSA Arts of Texas in late February.