The Business of Being a Teaching Artist | Joan Weber

I am in the beginning weeks of a ten-week residency that I am developing for a local university law school center.  The University of Baltimore Center for Families, Children and the Courts is a successful early intervention program that focuses on truancy in Baltimore City Public Schools.  They have recruited several circuit court judges to mentor middle grade students who, while not necessarily truant, are showing behaviors that could lead to greater truancy and, later, dropping out of school.  The center has developed a holistic approach to truancy issues and mobilizes resources to help each student succeed.

As a former staff member at the University, I was in a great position to recommend adding a theater component to the Truancy Court Program.  Using personal connections, I was able to get in the door in order to pitch the idea to the top leadership at the Center.  They have self-funded the pilot program and are actively seeking funding to expand the program to the rest of their schools.

When I met with the Director of the Center and her senior staff, I presented a fact sheet on the benefits of theater education to at-risk students.  The arguments are very persuasive, as we all know, but the impact on those not in the arts education field is in the delivery.  I had outlined my presentation and was prepared to give a PowerPoint demonstration.  I entered the room as executive director of an arts education organization instead of as an independent teaching artist.

As the executive director, I can negotiate budgets, write funding proposals and hire staff as necessary.  This approach works well for me because I spent a very long time as an arts education administrator, including as an executive director.  I can speak fluent edu-speak, non-profit-speak, as well as several specific dialects within each language, such as marketing, budgeting and fundraising.  I can speak curriculum and “scaling up,” board of education politics and organizational development, research analysis and human resources.

Independent teaching artists are the CEOs of our own companies.  Because we work both within the world of the arts and the world of public education, we must be credible in all topics to all people.  The only way that I am able to do that credibly is by staying current on what is happening in arts education, theater education, education reform, education politics and the theater arts community in which I work.  And, now I’m learning about truancy issues.

The ability to speak multiple education jargons continues to be an important element of my credibility in the classroom.  Being able to speak credible non-profit organization jargon is equally important if I wish to create work for myself that is sustainable, whether that work is independent or within a larger arts organization.

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