#TreatYoSelf #ThatTALife

By Erika Atkins & Renata Townsend

Excerpted from Issue 11 of the TAG Quarterly Magazine.

It is an incredible feeling when you see a student, that you have worked with, connect to a new part of themselves. It can be fulfilling, uplifting, and rewarding for both student and teaching artist. Most teaching artists and arts administrators are willing to push themselves mentally and physically to spread the joy of the arts, and more practically, to pay their bills. 12 hour days? Multiple meetings? Classwork? Rehearsals? Traveling to multiple schools in one day? The list goes on. The reality is that as much as we arts educators love the work, it can be grueling.

The Teaching Artist Affairs (TAA) Committee of the New York Arts in Education Roundtable (NYCAIER) recognized this, as many of us struggle with work/life balance ourselves. TAA comprises of teaching artists and arts education administrators who advocate and plan programming for fellow teaching artists in the New York City area. One of our most successful events, “Teaching Artist Meetups,” are quarterly meetings that give local teaching artists a chance to chat, network, and deep dive into an issue that affects their career. As we sought out to plan our first meet up of the year, we couldn’t escape the fact that in addition to fall being its usual arts education crazy, 2017 itself has been a particularly chaotic year for the world. We realized that what the committee really wanted was time to kick back, and indulge in a little self-care – what better way to do that than with wine and cookies?

 In June 2016, Erika Atkins attended a workshop by Beth Kanter at the American for the Arts Annual Convention where she discussed that the idea that self-care was more than just something one individual could do, but it is often more successful if it is a community mindset. Inspired by this, Erika began to build a “We-Care” program at her organization, Opening Act, that emphasized not only committing to your own self-care goals, but doing self-care activities as a group and having a partner to hold you accountable. With this in mind, we decided to not only use the meetup as an opportunity to gather teaching artists, but lean on each other as a support network.

Our event at Abrons Arts Center on December 11, 2017 was small and intimate, which lead to a safe environment and comfortable environment for sharing. The teaching artists had an opportunity to chat while decorating holiday cookies (and who doesn’t love a good cookie?). As we turned our conversation towards self-care, we immediately tackled the biggest elephant in the room, “What does burnout look like?” The answers were pretty unanimous – always being tight on time and not being able to complete your work to the level of quality you want. Symptoms included lack of sleep, short fuses, and constantly using a small digital device to catch up on tasks – because who has time to sit at a computer?

So you have to wonder, if the work we do can be so stressful and demanding, then why do we do it? We’ve found that being intentional and reflective can be its own form of self-care, so we wanted to make sure the teaching artists reminded themselves of what fuels their passion for arts education. Aside from the joy of sharing the arts with others, especially younger generations, there is the obvious fact that many teaching artists have to work at multiple organizations to be able to support themselves. However, beyond that, it’s also a reality that to have a long term career in arts education you have to have some level of business savvy. While you may be stressed out because your plate is full now, there are certainly projects that will pay off later as you’re building your career and networking with others.

After reflecting on the ups and downs of the teaching artist/arts education lifestyle, we had the group brainstorm a list of self-care activities. We challenged them to:

  1. Commit to a previous activity, and
  2. Pick a new one to try out in the new year

Here are some of the group’s favorites:

Reading for pleasure

Not emails. Not lesson plans. Just a good old fashioned story. It’s important to take time to read something simply because it’s fun. Pick up a good mystery book, a historical non-fiction, or a romance novel. You do you.

Gym/Yoga Time

Whether it’s jogging, kickboxing, dance class or a relaxing savasana, many of us recognized that exercise is an important outlet for stress relief. Hot tip: Planet Fitness is a good low cost gym option. If you’re into more into fitness classes, check out ClassPass or your see what your local park and recreation centers offer.

Less time on social media

While social media is an amazing tool to stay in contact with people and promote your own work, too much social media can leave you feeling a little out whack. A recent study shows that “exposure to the carefully curated images from others’ lives leads to negative self-comparison, and the sheer quantity of social media interaction may detract from more meaningful real-life experiences.” To that end, many in the group made a commitment to cut back on screen time. Some ideas included not getting on Facebook right after waking up and right before going to bed, and perhaps limiting the amount of times you post in a day.

Saying no

This is a big one for teaching artists and arts administrators alike. For teaching artists who work at multiple organizations, it can be hard to say no. Especially when you consider that the fall and spring are very busy, and winter and summer can be slow. How can you say no when you’re not 100% where your next check is coming from or if you’re going to miss out on a great connection by not being involved in a project? However, we agreed as a group that you can’t do anything well if you’re spread too thin. The same goes for arts administrators. It’s no secret non-profit culture often requires a lot of responsibilities to be put into one job, but don’t be afraid to say when there’s too much on your plate. As you grow in your career, it’s important to evaluate the work you’re doing and try to focus your time on projects that really matter to you, so that you can complete them successfully.

Advocating for your needs in a work setting

“Saying no” feeds into the last big takeaway many of us committed to. Sometimes it’s not quite as much about saying you can’t, you just need to advocate for your needs in the workplace. Maybe it’s not that you can’t do a project, you can’t teach that class – you just need more support do it. Sometimes we think people can tell what’s going on with us, but most of the time that’s not true. Everyone else is pretty busy thinking everyone else knows what’s going on with them. Speak up, ask for help, and you might be surprised what happens.

Being a teaching artist gives people the flexibility to make their own schedules and decide what work they are interested in taking. Unfortunately, due to a variety of a reasons like, pressures from the outside world, fear of not making enough money, and the artists “I can do it all” attitude, many times teaching artists overbook themselves and are taken advantage of. On a larger scale, the field of Teaching Artistry needs to continue to conversation of how the field is supporting their teaching artists to avoid burn-out. How are arts administrators setting their teaching artists up for success? How are teaching artists structuring their lives to avoid burn-out? What can we do as a field to further support the work so teaching artists feel fulfilled? Through this experience, the TAA committee wants to remind teaching artists that they are in control of their schedules and to identify what they need and advocate for those needs. When work is slower, take advantage of that time and use it as an opportunity to self-reflect and plan for the future.

Interested in finding out more about the NYCAIER and Teaching Artist Affairs Committee?

    • Day of Learning on Equity and Inclusion – The Roundtable will host its 3rd annual Day of Learning on Equity and Inclusion in partnership with RestorationART, a cultural anchor in central Brooklyn for 50 years.
      • Date: March 9, 2018
      • Location: RestorationART, 1368 Fulton Street Brooklyn, NY 11216
    • Face to Face 2018 – a professional development conference for arts administrators, teaching artists, and others interested in the field of arts in education.
      • Date: April 4 and 5th, 2018
      • Time: All Day
      • Location: The City College of New York, Shepard Hall – Convent Ave between W. 138th St. and St. Nicholas Terrace

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out the rest of the TAG Quarterly, here!


Erika Atkins

Over the past decade Erika has worked as an arts administrator, youth development professional, teaching artist and performer in not only New York City, but also her native Washington D.C. area. Erika’s life changing experiences growing up as a young artist led her to attend George Mason University, where she obtained a B.A. in Music. She has served as the Director of Operations and Communications and a Teaching Artist at Opening Act since 2015 and also holds a M.S. in Arts Administration from Drexel University. She currently serves on the boards of the American Alliance for Theater Education(as Communications Director) and the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable, where she is a Co-Chair of the Teaching Artist Affairs and Membership Committees, and a member of the Taskforce for Equity and Inclusion. She also serves on the Arts Education Advisory Council of the Americans for the Arts.

Renata Townsend 

Renata Melillo Townsend creates shows and content for kids, adults and their families. She has worked at the The New Victory Theater since 2010 and is the Head of Enrichment for Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, as well as a teaching artist and performer based in New York City.

Education: BFA from the University of Maryland and a MA from City University of New York.