being a teaching artist is not all about entertaining. Sure you can get away with being amusing and fun, have the kids write an acrostic poem or two, or ride an invisible horse while shouting the verses to the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. But sooner or later you are going to have to do your homework if you want to get anywhere in this business beyond an opportunity for a teacher to grade papers in the back of the classroom.
One of my favorite lines re: working with kids comes from the insanely prolific and successful children’s author Jane Yolen. When she is asked if she ever thinks she’ll graduate to writing for adults she questions back – “Would you ask a pediatrician if they someday hope to treat adults?”
There is a perception out there that working with kids doesn’t require a whole lot of grounding (or at least not as much as working with adults) both by some of the people bringing in teaching artists and more dangerously even some of those actually presenting to young folks. All good teachers know that this assessment is wrong.
As teaching artists our job is to assist the classroom teacher in furthering their curriculum. Our job is not to try and look cool in front of the students or to simply put in our day rehashing some dog eared exercises that the kids probably have already done seven times in their academic career. We have a responsibility to keep up with pedagogy and policy. Our job should be to go out and find the stuff that works. The stuff that classroom teachers increasingly do not have the time to dig up because they are – well, teaching five days a week, grading papers seven days a week, possibly coaching some sport or another, mentoring, tutoring, running the snack stand at the cross country meet etc. etc.
Every time I speak at a conference I attend the keynotes and also take a couple sessions. While most teachers are lucky if they can get to one or two professional development opportunities a year I have the luxury of attending dozens of these events annually. I would be remiss to pass up these occasions to gather new ideas. I read texts on teaching and educational theory suggested to me by folk way smarter than me. My first question to a teacher when I enter their classroom is “What would you like to see happen?”
Like any good artist, a teaching artist should be able to hide their work, embed strong strategies and best practices within their instruction so that is remains accessible to the student. Like a sketch underneath an oil painting, all the big ideas need to be there – just not necessarily over top of everything else. The best abstract painters are grounded in realistic technique and theory. Similarly, the best teaching artists take the time to learn good teaching skills.
I’m hoping that with the coming of the new administration in Washington that we will be seeing more use of teaching artists in the classroom. President elect Obama has stated the need for more professional development in education on several occasions. I am also hoping that those providing this instruction take their roles seriously because there could be a real paradigm shift in the next decade. There is a lot of work that needs to be done and I think teaching artist could be a profession that helps get this job done.