I Got to Be a Teaching Artist this Week

By Kerry Warren, TAG Co-Executive Director

I’ve celebrated a year of Co-Leadership at TAG and this venture into arts administration is not uncommon for teaching artists seeking consistent pay and benefits. What I appreciate about this opportunity is that it is the mission of the Teaching Artists Guild to be practitioner-led. I’m already accustomed to the multihyphenated nature of balancing my career as a teaching artist and as an actor who pays rent in the most expensive city by teaching theater in its public schools. Why not add arts administration like so many of my mentors and colleagues have done?

With the school year starting, I noticed a lack of emails from program managers scheduling work. I think of these program managers as agents, putting out offers, acting as the connector between teaching artists and the residency site. I attended a few arts in leadership meetings through the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable “We Support Arts Educators” session and heard from other staff at New York arts organizations about the frustrations of cut funding. Most of the arts programming would be for next year. I found it hard to think so far into the future looking at the strikes from my union (SAG AFTRA Home | SAG-AFTRA Strike) and the halt of work. As an actor, I am no stranger to rejection and even isolation, but this time it cuts deeper.

I received an email Monday from a program manager with this question: “Availability tomorrow morning?” I was curious and learned that an asylum school needed a substitute for an arts residency. My next question was, “what is an asylum school?” Families immigrating or seeking asylum with children can receive education and enroll them in public education. The class, which I would lead solo, consisted of 20 high school students who spoke more than five different languages amongst them. The class would meet in the auditorium, on stage, a space shared with four other schools in the building. The numbers were not in my favor. 

I felt nervous, like before a callback audition or waiting backstage before my cue to enter. I had less than twenty-four hours to plan but felt confident in my ten years of teaching. I arrived early and made my way through security, like at the airport, and signed in at the desk with my ID. Luckily, a teacher used their elevator key so I didn’t have to take the four flights up to the administration office. Already lost, I thought about the new students having to take the four flights between class periods and lunch. The hallways were covered in signs translated in multiple languages. In the main office, I waited in line and overheard two students translate paperwork to the secretary. She glanced over their shoulders and asked who I was subbing for. I shared that I was a teaching artist and pointed to my t-shirt/unofficial uniform, which stated the arts organization I worked for. She looked confused and I shared the name of the assistant principal cc’d on the email from my program manager. I felt as if I wasn’t on the list for auditions, and so was just dropping names to the casting director in order to be seen. 

The secretary called the assistant principal on the corded phone on her desk and handed me the receiver. 

“Thank you for being here! You’re the fourth substitute they had! I have your class list but I’m working on coverage at the moment. I can meet you in the auditorium, there’s a class there now but you can use it after. I’m not sure if there’s a speaker.” 

I replied quickly, “No worries! I brought a portable one, my bag is like a traveling show.” 

 As I made my way to the first floor, I passed by security and entered the auditorium. The stage lights weren’t on but I made my way backstage to see if there were chairs to make a circle. I found boxes of yoga mats and blocks and a white board on broken wheels. I began making a circle with the random chairs I found on stage. My ritual for class is always circles. 

The assistant principal, with a few students in tow, approached me. 

“Here’s the attendance, do you have any experience working with ELLs?”

The acronym stands for English Language Learners. I asked the students to make their way on stage and find an open chair. Out of my traveling bag, I pulled out a large post-it and markers, my teaching artist props to write my name and our agenda on, like an actor’s lines I have spoken before. I began stage left and adjusted my blocking for a different audience. We started with a ritual, a theater game in the round, and then, using the chairs, I brought in some new material from my yoga teacher training. The short one act only lasted an hour. 

I was asked to return the next day to sub again. A callback! This time I made edits to the script. I researched best practices with multilingual learners, and visuals became the key. I added props like my yoga workbook and the www.teachwithgive.org visual vocabulary for theater. I signed in at security and returned to the auditorium stage with a new idea for the set. Instead of chairs, we would use yoga mats. The assistant principal added new students to the cast list and we began reviewing yesterday’s material. The students were confident and translated directions or took the lead for games they had played the day before. There was more trust, but still more to build. At the end of the class, we passed around a neon green ball that I use for icebreakers with the directions to share one word or squeeze. Each student squeezed and passed, the silence I felt during that meditation was the holding of breath. Tension and no release. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to work as a teaching artist. However, time is always a constraint. There is only so much I can do with less than twenty-four hours notice and two hours of instruction. Trust cannot be rushed. I think this past week I realized that this will be my last time subbing. I thought about the phrase “the show must go on” and how dangerous that concept can be. As a teaching artist, I need to be more decisive about the work I choose to engage in. I need more clarity on the work that’s being asked of me and I need the time to plan and build trust with my students. I am lucky that I have resources like the Teaching Artist Project Alliance, who shares best practices for educators in ELL/ENL/MLL spaces. (Alliance Workshops – Community-Word Project—I encourage TAG members to sign up for their panel next month or reach out to TAG National Advisory Committee member Dale at tap@communitywordproject.org). 

You’re not alone in this struggle and, here at TAG, we hope you’ll connect with other teaching artists and find community so you can also thrive. Never forget you have agency and it’s your choice in how you want to work. If you haven’t yet, please check out our Slack Channel where TAG members share funding opportunities, professional developments, and job postings. If you’re struggling with current events, here are resources you can use to talk with your students: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1EWEM0Icr282I4Ys0dZMo9hmzlf-R0w6Tk-N93592I34/edit 

Look out for an updated resources page thanks to the Knowledge Committee and stay tuned for our awards theme/save the date. We hope to see you at the TAG Awards next year and celebrate teaching artistry across the states.  

Thank you Katie for encouraging me to write. 

If you want to write about this topic or something else, we’ll pay you for your work! Just reach out to us at info@teachingartists.com.



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