The Teaching Artist: A Leg of the Arts Education Table

In 2011, there are those who are suspect of the teaching artist field. Some who still see teaching artists as an easy way for schools to outsource arts education, bypassing professional arts educators and the costs associated with certified arts teachers.

And, as in any field of endeavor, there are those who complain about the training, professionalism, quality, etc. Like all things, there is good and there is bad, and the spectrum of everything in between.

If one were to think of arts education as a table, then the teaching artist has surely become one of those legs. Although, it is often difficult to discern it from looking at the now outmoded state arts standards or from what one still hears at a fair number of conversations about K-12 arts education.

011 Three-Legged Table copy.jpgLook, I would challenge anyone to find an independent organization that has fought harder for certified arts teachers than The Center for Arts Education. And, as executive director, I have led the charge.

That being said, while I understand the importance of certified arts teachers, it is often difficult to listen to those who state, as a matter of gospel, that the arts must be taught be certified teachers. And that teaching artists must be complementary to certified arts teachers.

In many school districts, that is indeed how it works. It defines the relationship.

However, there are school districts and/or individual schools, which simply do not hire any certified arts teachers and/or enough of them. It’s true, some of these schools use teaching artists instead of certified arts teachers. And guess what? The districts allow it. What is more, there are schools that bring in teaching artists to provide after school arts instruction, work with non-arts teachers, and more. And, if that isn’t enough for you, there are schools that bringing in parent volunteers to teach the arts.

Recently, a very senior state school official said to me: “the schools just won’t hire arts teachers.” Was it hyperbole? Sure, it was a broad generalization that as a statement of fact is wrong. But what this official was talking about was both the present in too many schools, and the future, again in too many schools, and about what would happen as state education budgets decline precipitously next year.

I take this official’s point at face value, (which by the way, was made in response to our advocating for more certified arts teachers) and certainly in urban school districts across America, where the exception proves the rule, there aren’t enough certified arts teachers to justify arts standards that are built exclusively on a foundation of certified arts teachers.While I understand both the aspirational and political context of standards, I have come to the point in my career where I would rather deal with what is, than what isn’t. And not having an adequate number of certified arts teachers is as the great Mark Knopfler sings, what it is now.

Today, the majority of the state arts standards do not reflect the role and place of the teaching artist. They don’t reflect what is. As some states will move to revise these standards, it might just be a good time to ask how teaching artists will be situated in these standards. Moreover, as Charlie Parker wrote, Now is the Time for teaching artists to have a place at the table that will write those standards. Will the standards reflect the increasing reality in many schools or will the standards define the role of the teaching artist as being complementary. Will the standards even recognize the teaching artist?

I admit, its a bit tricky, since you want the standards to drive the optimal, and I would certainly be in favor, as I have advocated publicly, for the adequate staffing of highly qualified certified arts teachers supported and complemented by high quality teaching artists. But at the same time, the standards have to reflect the dynamic reality in the trenches and find a way to push equity, quality, and a teaching of the arts that is based upon a bigger and broader arts ecology than we have ever seen before.

In an arts education environment where arts organizations non-profit and commercial, in school, after school, at the venue, and via technology are more involved in schools than ever before in schools, the primary means for most of this activity is the teaching artist. And it’s a field that is rapidly growing, in numbers, skill, and knowledge. On one hand it is the brass ensemble doing a lecture demonstration. On the other hand, it is the teaching artist who has gone on to acquire advanced degrees in education, providing in depth instruction, professional development, and more.

And, whatever anyone may say about the quality of these teaching artists, they may very well be no different than the certified arts teacher in the range of quality from good to bad to great.

They are here to stay, I believe, and it would do us all good to recognize them as a fully built leg of an unfortunately unsteady table.

Dewey21C: My Best Work as a Teaching Artist, An Arts Education Reflection

Dewey21C: A Teaching Artist Circa 1982

Dewey21C: The History of Teaching Artistry, by Eric Booth

Dewey21C: Guest Blogger, Jon Deak, Creating Music with El Sistema, Eleven Part Series