What is a Teaching Artist Anyway?

The conference began with a simple question: what is a teaching artist? In California, it is my job title and I wear it proudly. To others in other places doing this kind of work though, it’s not a title that’s looked on so kindly. You’ll have to ask them for the particulars, but the overall impression I had was that most people in the profession consider themselves to be, first and foremost, professional, practicing artists. So what’s the need for a job title other than, simply, ‘Artist’? My own two cents is that, in bringing our skills to a classroom, we’re arriving with a different set of tools than we take into our studio, or rehearsal room, or writing desk. We are bringing our skills as an Artist, that’s undeniably true, but there’s more to it than that. And a different toolkit deserves a different name–whether you call it Teaching Artistry or something else is a matter of opinion (and for the sake of simplicity it’s the term I’ll be using here to refer to the job).

Over the course of the conference it became clear that there’s a great deal of commonality in what we do, even if we can’t agree on what to call it. The ever-eloquent Eric Booth spoke on the underlying qualities that unite the field, and what it seems to boil down to is quite simple: We invite other people to make stuff they care about. And we do our best to be great humans while we’re at it.

Everyone in this job brings others to the experience of making stuff, whether it’s a piece of art, a text, or an experience. When we do our job particularly well, we facilitate the making of things that people care about deeply. In that Norwegian conference room alone, there were Teaching Artists making stuff with school-kids, street-kids, convicts, and members of remote Tanzanian villages. No matter who you are inviting to the table, getting them to make something meaningful can’t be done by force of will. It can only be done by giving “irresistible invitations to create” (another Booth-ism). Getting that invitation accepted is where the part about being a great human comes in–it only works if you really mean it.

Photo by henskechristine

Booth speaks directly to this ‘great human’ bit through what he likes to call “the law of 80%” (‘Law’, he says, makes it sound nice and official. The 80% is a made up statistic, but it serves to illustrate the point). The Law of 80% states that 80% of what you teach and the impact you have is who you are–it is the quality of your person. Much of the work that happens is not what you teach, but who you are as you teach it.

I absolutely believe this to be true in teaching across the board, and especially in the world of Teaching Artistry. If facilitating authentic artistic experience is at the heart of what we do, then there must be an authentic, present human leading the way. Artistry and humanity have always been, and always will be, interconnected and inseparable. Whether we call ourselves Teaching Artists, Artists, Curators, or Snow Goons, we are all working to bring others into the best of their humanity.

And that’s how the conference began.

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