Poor Righteous Teaching Artist

I am a teaching artist. This is how I make some money. This would imply that I already make money as an artist, and I teach in my spare time as a way of giving back to the community. This is only half true.

I am a teaching artist mainly because I am a mom of three. It’s solid part-time work (because we all know that mothering is full-time work, right? Right.) I get to call myself a professional writer. You have to show that you’re a true artist in order to be a teaching artist in the first place. And of course, you have to have some teaching skills. Therefore, I am an artist who teaches. As opposed to a teacher who is an artist, I guess.

Rather than rambling on about the joys of being a TA, I’ve included an FAOQ (Frequently Asked Obvious Questions).

1. Can you become rich by being a teaching artist?

Hell no.

2. Is there a teaching artist union?

Are you kidding me!?

3. Do you get health insurance & a retirement plan as a teaching artist?

Okay. Let’s break it down. We have TEACHER and ARTIST combined to create one profession. Two of the most undervalued, overworked, underpaid careers in modern day culture. We’re not talking teachers with Ph.D’s and tenure at some highfalutin university, TED talks and expert analyses on PBS documentaries. Or artists turned popstar entertainers who’ve sold their souls to the highest bidding corporate machine.

4. Well, exactly how DO teaching artists make their money?

Most of us work for ourselves. We’re called independent contractors. Or we’re part-time employees of non-profit arts organizations (or for profit orgs as well—this puzzles me). TAs work in public, private, and charter schools, community organizations, senior citizen homes, halfway houses, prisons, hospitals, and libraries—just about anywhere there are people who are willing to learn an art form. Organizations will receive grants, public, or private funding to carry out their mission. They then hire visual artists, actors, puppeteers, writers, circus clowns, ballroom dancers, spoken word artists, etc. to go bring the arts to wherever. Sometimes there’s a fee an organization or school must pay, sometimes not—and these visits are usually called residencies. TAs will get paid on a per hour, per session, or per diem basis. Basically, TAs are freelancers. The pay depends on the craft, the organization, and the length of the residency. Average pay ranges from $50 to $85 per hour. This is meant to supplement any other income you may be getting as an artist.

A TA can also apply for public arts grants for their own programming. That’s what I did with DAWP. The key to being a successful teaching artist is passion. You have to really care about your craft and have this narcissistic idea of it being the only way to change the world. This will give you the courage to find the most destitute corner of the city where there is an “underserved” or “at risk” (non-profit orgs love these terms) population whose lives will be completely turned around with just a few short weeks of exposure to your art form. And you must convey this in 500 words or less in your grant application. And the wee bit of funding you do get is hardly ever enough, of course. So there’s Kickstarter! Thank the goodness of humanity for Kickstarter. And then voila! There is enough for you to eat and pay your cell phone bill and order pizza to bribe the little darlings into coming to your FREE program at the local library, and chips and juice boxes to keep them coming because at the end of it all, there must be a PROJECT. The community must be involved, the participants must be transformed in some way, and you, dear teaching artist, will have been given enough wherewithal to trudge forward with your own projects. You would’ve gone through all the funding, but the true compensation is in the… I dunno. Sometimes I forget.

Oh yes. When a darling sees you in Target or at the post office with their mom and asks, “Miss, you gonna do that program again next year?” And the mom tells you how her daughter talked about you all the time. And the librarian pulls you aside and lets you know, “They’re always gonna remember this. They’ll never forget what you did for them.” *Tear.*

4. Well, why not just be a teacher? Why do you have to be an artist, too?

The rewards of teaching filters right into the rewards of being an artist. One organization I work for mandates that TAs share their own work with their students. It validates us as artists, and it affirms what we’re asking them to try to do. It’s no question that more and more schools are removing the arts from their curriculum. There just isn’t enough money to pay full-time art and music teachers. So, these “enrichment” programs, as they’re called, are pushed back into the after school hours. And let me tell you, there is money to be made between the hours of 3 to 6pm. Gone are the days “latchkey kids”. Parents who work long hours are willing to pay for tutoring, homework help, and quality enrichment programs during after-school hours. And parents who can’t afford this? Well, here comes your local arts or social service organization to save the day! (Sometimes, not so local. The Bronx seems to be the go-to borough for this kind of stuff, regardless of the org’s location.)

I recently attended a workshop on the new Common Core Standards implemented by the Obama Administration. It’s a nationwide mandate to place every student in the same grade in any given part of the country at the same level. Good idea, right? Well… A fellow teaching artist told this joke that I’m paraphrasing here: An English teacher was waiting for a box of brand new books about teaching writing. The box arrives, she opens it, and there are no books! Fiction books, that is. Literature. Stories written by actual writers. Basically, the new standards for writing are based on college and career readiness for kindergarteners and up, with very little room for imaginative writing, creativity, innovation… ART.

I know somewhere in the universe is a quote/proverb about the decline of creativity coinciding with the fall of civilization and certain self-proclaimed empires.

So, yes. Teaching artist work is very important work. So, dear unemployed/underemployed person with a vision to save the world, if you can string some beads together and call it jewelry-making, you don’t mind little darlings flinging your precious gemstones at eachother, and you’re not afraid of [insert yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood here], then you too can be a teaching artist! And your students make the best (and brutally honest) audience for your work.

schools, teaching, Writing

4 Responses to Poor Righteous Teaching Artist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *