Becoming an Artist Who Teaches | Caleb Winebrenner

Nobody admitted it, but we all thought teaching artists were better than teachers. We could do “more creative” things in our classes, and we could teach in places other than schools. Teachers were the grey flannel suits to our beat revolution. That was life in graduate school.

But life has a funny way of turning things around. In the winter of 2013, I was jobless, and I felt hopeless. Gigs kept falling through. Things had to change. Then I got an email from school that had my resume. “We have a last-minute opening for an ELA teacher,” it said. “You should apply.”

Those three words — you should apply — were the most certainty I’d had in my professional life in weeks. So I applied. And in very short order, I was invited to interview. Panic promptly set in. The interview required a lesson demonstration, with a very structured lesson plan.

I remember I relied heavily on my graduate school notes when preparing that lesson plan, trying to get down to the nitty-gritty of the teaching. In the interview itself, improvisation and storytelling skills kept me calm and able to do what was needed. When the lesson was done, one of the administrators told me, “Okay, good. Now we’re going to give you feedback. You’ll have about 10 minutes to revise your lesson, and do it again.” Yikes!

The feedback wasn’t surprising:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Keep your lesson activities structured
  • Get specific about what you want students to do.

In short, I had a lesson that was engaging and had a couple creative ideas. But I knew very little about “the science” of teaching. I sat down and revised that plan, and I got the job.

My teaching career thus far is like a big game of tug-o-war. On one side is strict, by the book, follow-my-lesson-plan teaching. On the other is the creative storyteller who would love nothing more than to get the kids up and moving and playing with words in creative and nonlinear ways. Here are some examples of that push and pull, from nearly a year and a half in the classroom:

Not quite ready for creative risk
It was the first day of the new school year. I had a lot of theatrical, creative ideas. I also had names to learn. I thought, “I know awesome games for this!” I picked Sha-Booyah (a.k.a Roll Call) from Boal’s games. What I got was a lot of confused and blank stares. One boy even said, “I thought this was supposed to be fun.” Okay, noted. My students weren’t ready for a creative risk, and maybe I wasn’t either.

Too far in the other direction
After how Sha-Booyah went, I dove back into my books on “good teaching.” My lessons became very structured and detailed. It’s like the shy kid who mentions he likes to draw, gets laughed at, and then doesn’t draw for weeks. I fully assumed my role as “teacher.” My art would have to wait until after hours.

Take for example, my lesson on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” It was pretty by-the-book: listening to the speech, pausing for annotations, then outlining a response, then writing a response essay from a prompt. It was clean, clear, crisp….and a little boring. In my opinion, it took the “science” of teaching too far, and left out the art. One of the most impassioned speeches in modern history became yet another five-paragraph essay assignment.

Folding in my expertise
Later in the semester, some of my students found out that I’m also a professional storyteller. “When are you going to tell us stories, Mr. W?” The chance came.

I was teaching Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. It’s a Holocaust story, set in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Each day we listened to the audiobook in class. When we stopped to discuss, we didn’t just talk about the book, but about how the reader presented characters with her voice. Response questions for the reading made room for imaginative and opinionated answers. Not to mention, throughout our Holocaust unit I told stories from the Hebrew Bible, from World War II history, and from my own family and the disappearances that happened in Austria.

In finding ways to teach imaginatively, I became an artist who teaches. Teaching is what I do, 50+ hours a week on average. But I do so knowing that “storyteller” is as much a part of my identity as “teacher” is. The key, I find, is balance. My principal put it well: “Focus on the learning, not on the teaching.” That’s the common thread as I became a teacher. I no longer acquiesce to that grad-school opinion that teaching artists are better simply because we are different. No, I’ve had to accept how little I actually know about teaching. This is just a thought, but maybe we aren’t really artists in the business of teaching. Maybe we’re in the business of learning. And if we’re in the business of learning, then teachers and artists could learn a lot from each others’ methods, too.


  1. avatar says

    I cannot tell you how much this essay resonated with me! Just brilliantly written…and with the same humility I have felt for the last five years when I took that left hand turn from an orchestral career into teaching in the Caribbean. I have shared this with my student teaching artists, who are currently preparing their own lesson plans for a short term residency in Trinidad.

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