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Conference Reflections: Teaching Artists – You Are Highly Valued!

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Dec 04, 2015
Maureen Sweeney

Maureen Sweeney is the Director of Education at Philadelphia Theater Company, and was a delagate in the Teaching Artist Development track at the 2015 Conference for Community Arts Education.

That’s the headline I would give the Teaching Artist Development track at the National Guild’s Conference for Community Arts Education this year in Philadelphia. Building on the success of last year’s project work session in Los Angeles, the Guild showed how much they value pushing forward the field of teaching artistry by moving this project work session to a whole day pre-conference session—Teaching Artist Development: A Collective Action Approach. A collective of 70 independent teaching artists, managers from organizations that hire teaching artists, funders, administrators from state and city arts agencies, and academics in the arts and education took action by working on one of eight new projects for the field launched in the session.

The day began with a little contextualizing by Eric Booth. To get us thinking about who we are and what we do he asked us to write bumper sticker slogans for teaching artistry. “T and A aren’t just body parts,” “This car stops at all student performances,” and (the crowd favorite) “Artistically Driven” were just a few of the ones created. Next we worked in small groups to create two minute elevator speeches touting the importance of teaching artists. We made the discovery that our pitches were project based, and the teaching artist became the tool to deliver the project.

Project Instigators gave brief descriptions of each project, then the work began. Groups clustered around tables or huddled in chairs near a wall to be closer to the large sheets of paper that would catch their ideas. One group even went to a nearby park. Groups worked for four hours, sending emissaries to listen in on discussions in other groups, looking for possible points of connection as they decided on action steps to bring their work to a close for the day. The projects represented a range of important topics reaching across the field. The projects are:
•    Funding the Teaching Artist Field: Past, Present and Future
•    Create a Video Library of TA Tips
•    Centering the Work: Social Justice and Teaching Artistry   
•    The Teaching Artist Philosophy Project
•    National Field of Teaching Artists in Creative Aging
•    Teaching Artist Compensation: Opening the Secrets, Transparently
•    Inspiration, Aspiration, and Innovation Among Teaching Artists: Collaboratively Imagining
     the Future
•    Failing Forward in Teaching Artistry: Innovating by Sharing and Learning from

Work on these inspiring new projects continued on the first day of the full conference in the session Joining the Momentum: Actionable Projects to Advance the Teaching Artistry Field, led by Jean Johnstone, executive director of the Teaching Artist Guild. This session was more than just a report on the new projects. It was an opportunity for even more stake holders in the field to add their voice to these projects and to commit their own time by joining the group working on a project. Project Instigators set up around the perimeter of the room so participants could flock to three different projects at twelve minute intervals, although I observed many individual migrations too. The ebb and flow of voices commenting, questioning, celebrating and committing to the new projects was evidence of a productive energy around the growing teaching artistry field.

The Teaching Artist Professional Development: Five Effective Models session was a full scale embodiment of valuing teaching artists through investing time, money, and resources in them. We heard how the Community Word Project bravely ventured beyond the island of their well established, highly successful teaching artist training and internship program to invite and encourage other arts education organizations to lead workshops in their areas of TA training and development expertise. The Joan Mitchell foundation told the story of learning the valuable lesson of listening to one of its veteran teaching artists’ requests to document her experience in a guide book for new TAs, then simply getting out of her way and letting her do it. They even share the resulting guide free on their website. DreamYard has a staff position dedicated to TA professional development, and the room swooned as they described extended PD lunches including good food, sharing of the assigned PD project “How I incorporate my own art making into my teaching,” and inspiring discussions with special guests—such as a recent Skype conversation with Noam Chomsky. Philadelphia Mural Arts led us through their multifaceted artist development tracks including internships, mentoring, and training in community art making. Lincoln Center Education reviewed their Summer Forum program which offers an artistically diverse landscape of labs, panels, and performances over a three week period, with tracks designed for beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels of teaching artists. LCE also continues to develop and share a rubric outlining the responsibilities and parameters of quality and growth for teaching artists. And, perhaps the ultimate expression of their investment in developing teaching artists, hiring eight fulltime TA’s who are given 11 paid holidays , a healthcare stipend, and 59 days as personal time that they can use for art making.

The take away from the session Fostering the Creative Potential of Older Adults, led by Maura O’Malley and Annie Montgomery of Lifetime Arts, Inc., was the affirmation that as a teaching artist you already have the skills needed to reach older adults. Working with an older demographic only requires tweaking already used best practices, not a reinvention of the wheel. Those having success in the field are now basing their lessons off of a K-12 model. This engaging presentation offered very practical experiences. A series of “snapshots” of a lesson plan were presented, using attendees as students. The presenters also highlighted a number of different resources offering funding for creative aging projects and a database of teaching artists with experience working with older populations that lives on the Lifetime Arts website.

Throughout the conference Aroha Philanthropies was the showcase example of a funder investing in teaching artist development. In addition to their very generous financial support of the conference, they supported presenters and attended several of the breakout sessions in the Teaching Artist Development track. For me their presence affirmed that we no longer have to preach to funders, they are now sustaining members of the choir. 

Encountering so much evidence of appreciation for teaching artists, I believe, reflects growth in the depth of teaching artistry as a professional field. As Jean Taylor, a longtime LCE teaching artist said, “Teaching artistry is no longer just a good gig, it’s a career choice.”

This resource brought to you by the National Guild for Community Arts Education.