The Reality, The Road, The Rez and U2

This month I am going to begin a series of posts dealing with the realities of the life of a teaching artist.  In Minnesota, I am one of the “veteran with a capital V” teaching artists – those of us who have been around for what seems like FOREVER.  We started in the good old days, when it seemed like the worst issue in a school was the condition of the meat loaf at lunch that day, all the students were polite and called you, Ms., Mrs. or Mr. and class sizes were a manageable 15 to 20 students.  Back in those days, when I did Create your Own Script exercises my worst-case scenario was fluffy bunny confronting the evil tree harvester.

Oh, my goodness, how things have changed.

Over the next few months I am going to be writing about day-to-day life outside the classroom (The Road), some teaching artist experiences that have shaped how I view my work (The Rez) and how technology and media have changed how I reach my students (U2).  In this post I confront ‘The Reality.’

As a veteran TA, I am often approached by beginning TAs about what it is like to be a working teaching artist.  I love my job and what happens in the classroom when I am with students.  To me, this is what matters, so I forget the down side, the hardships, and the failures.  A new TA brought this home to me, several years ago, at an annual conference and retreat for teaching artists.  After exchanging some pleasantries, she finally, very honestly, said,

“No one ever told me how hard it would be, how lonely it can be out there and although the rewards are great, I am thinking of quitting – it is just so hard.  I don’t know how you do it.”

Most of us know the realities all to well, but for those new to the field or thinking about the field this is a good reality check.  First of all – most TA ‘s are hired as independent contractors; this means no taxes withheld, no workman’s comp, no paid sick days, no health care insurance options from the school, no benefits of any kind and at tax time you will need to match your own SS contribution.  You are your own small business, so treat it as a business.  If you aren’t good at that yourself, find someone to help you.  I have yet to meet a successful artist/teaching artist who doesn’t understand the business aspects of their career.

Contracts are there to protect you, as well as to protect the organization.  I have developed my own contract.  I define how I will be paid, when I will be paid, what I provide and what the organization needs to provide, what happens in case of severe weather, sick days, acts of God, etc., what kind of space I need to do my best work, what kind of support I need in the classroom, length of sessions and number of students per session, mileage, lodging and per diem requirements and, finally, a cancellation policy that protects me if the organization cancels at the last minute.

Develop a relationship with staff at the school or organization.  This is my mantra.  The most important person to know at any place you are working is the custodial engineer (janitor) because this person has the keys to everything.  The next most important person on my list is the school/organizational secretary or administrative assistant.  This person knows everything that is going on – they control the school calendars and master scheduling of available rooms.

Know where the staff lounge is and hang out there during lunch and your time off. In the classroom we are too busy working with students to develop relationship.  I have accomplished more team building with teachers in the lounge than in the classroom.  It also gives me a sense of community, and I don’t feel so alone.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of pre planning with the classroom teachers with whom you will be working.  Although the arts board, principal, human resources department, PTO or any number of other persons may hire you and set up the experience, in the end it is the classroom teacher you will see every day, have to develop a working relationship with and who’s space you will share.  The number of teachers, who didn’t know in advance who I was or what was planned for their classroom, has amazed me.  Pre planning is the base to build a wonderful TA residency experience. 

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