Teaching artists are still learning their roles

by Aalok Mehta

June 19, 2009

Despite a long history, the exact roles that teaching artists play in schools and the best ways for them to interact with fellow teachers and school administrators remain fluid, according to veteran educators.

The role of the teaching artist “is a perpetual question in the field,” said Nick Rabkin, a researcher for the Teaching Artist Research Project at the University of Chicago. “It haunts us and vexes us—or we’d stop asking.”

Rabkin was one of four panelists who spoke during the June 19 Web symposium “Artists in Classrooms: What Is the Role of the Teaching Artist?” All agreed that teaching artists can have big effects at many levels, from individual children all the way up to whole-school administration, and that the ambiguity of their exact purpose offers both obstacles and opportunities.

Teaching artists have been around schools and communities for at least 100 years. As working musicians, writers, dancers, actors and visual artists who choose to spend part of their professional lives in public classrooms, they are a unique part of the educational system.

Thus far, Rabkin said, because of their unique nature, teaching artists have “invented the work they do.” Depending on context, he said, they serve to increase access to arts education, improve arts appreciation, improve student performance, engage reluctant learners, connect school life to real life, help students express themselves and even “bring light in what can be a somewhat dreary school day.”

Such ambiguity may allow teaching artists the opportunity to actively shape their place in the school system to maximize the good they do. “Public education needs help from outside; teaching artists are one of the resources bringing that help,” he said. The proper question may not be what role they play, but rather “what role do you, teaching artists, want to play in public education?”

One of the significant roles of teaching artists is to “de-isolate” arts teachers, who can suffer in comparison with those who teach subjects regularly tested at the national level, such as reading and math, said Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. The combination of a dedicated arts teacher and teaching artist in the same room is particularly powerful, she added—“if you are a teaching artist fortunate enough to have an arts teacher, you maximize the opportunities for connectivity,” she said.

Echoing those comments, Naho Shioya, production manager and teaching artist at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in Seattle, said, “We are teaching artists to both students and teachers in the classroom.” The mere presence of the teaching artist, for instance, can bring back the optimism and joy that spurred many arts teachers to enter the field but that can quickly become lost amidst restrictive school policies and dwindling resources. But at the same time, teaching artists need to follow school guidelines and administrative policies that may limit what they originally had envisioned.

Learning to navigate school policies is just a first step to practicing a kind of “subterfuge” that allows teaching artists to reshape school policies and content, said Lisa Fitzhugh, founder and former executive director of Arts Corps. Particularly important, she said, is bringing “the language of love and learning” back to schools that have become increasingly dominated by “technocratic language.”

About 600 people registered for the symposium, which closed with a reminder for teaching artists to participate in Rabkin’s research project, a 12-city survey that aims to offer, by August 2010, quantitative answers to some of these issues and possible new directions for teaching artists. Moderated by Russell Granet, founder of Arts Education Resource, the event was sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation and will be available for re-viewing starting on July 10, at www.teachingartists.com.

from the Dana Press blog