Reflections | Joan Weber

This is my last entry for ALT/space. I have enjoyed reflecting on my practice and my field. It has informed my teaching and my career path in many ways. I thought I would take this moment to reflect on the field in general and my place in it.

I dropped out of education school because I thought it had too little to do with teaching. I just wanted to teach. I had a talent for it. In education school, at the time, the students didn’t teach anyone for a couple of years. Instead, we read research about education. And, we learned about how to assess and what kind of posters to put on the wall. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It wasn’t engaging. I was (and continue to be) the kind of student that does poorly if not engaged in either the content or the teaching. One of them has to get my attention. In education school, neither did. So I quit.

Being an independent teaching artist was the ideal career choice for someone with my learning style. It’s a vagabond life where change is required constantly. And, arts integration is the pinnacle of that because I engage kids through theater in order to show them how cool social studies is. My goal has always been to be the teacher that I wish I’d had when I was in school: engaging, funny and smart. My greatest joy is seeing the look of “Huh, I never thought of that before” or “I get it now” in a student’s eyes. In that moment, I can see their brains change as they look at the world a little differently than they did before. In my teaching style, I point it out and say, “I just saw your brain get bigger. Did you feel it?”

Unfortunately for me, watching a kid’s brain grow is not a measurable assessment tool and I can’t put it on the grant application. Over the many years in the field of arts education, both teaching and in management, I’ve watched the field move closer to my memory of education school. If I want to go into a school to play improv games with kids so that they’re more confident, I need to show how that activity meets the curriculum content standards established by the specific school district in which I’m working. And, when the program is over, I must measure the results with an appropriate assessment tool.

I understand why the teaching artist field had to move in this direction and become more professional. Schools are under tremendous pressures to succeed and funders want to see a return on their investments. I have even advocated for the approach, teaching that it was the teaching artist’s responsibility to understand what was happening in the classroom so that we could help the teachers meet curricular goals, so that we could show them that we can meet standards in engaging ways. And, I still think that’s true. I believe that it’s important that schools have certified arts teachers in the buildings who worked in partnership with teaching artists in the field.

But I think we may have been had. As teaching artists became more like certified arts teachers without the certification, many principals in Baltimore City started eliminating certified arts teachers. And, why shouldn’t they? Principals can hire a teaching artist contractually (lower rate, no benefits) to come in once a week and teach on a rotating schedule. They can fire them at will without having to worry about a union. Then, they can bring a new one in to jump through the hoops of a grinding hierarchical bureaucracy.

I left education school for a reason and I feel myself disengaging from the practice of being an independent teaching artist for some of the same reasons. My work, like when I was a student, is suffering for my lack of engagement. It may also be that it’s almost June and I’m tired from a long, difficult school year. I know it’s time for me to re-examine my place in the field. Should I stay on the path of the in-school arts integration residency model or opt for the freedom of after-school and community arts? Should I focus on training teachers and teaching artists? Or take a job with an arts organization and return to administration? I will have a month of teaching in Northern Ireland this summer to decide. The future is fluid.

Please stay in touch.

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