Finding Time for Art

The Challenges of Being a Teaching Artist

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Man standing and talking to group of seated teens

Dan Crane leading a theater class. Photo by Elizabeth McCarthy

What if the cost of having a creatively fulfilling job that allowed you to have a measurable impact on your community meant a seven-day work week, no health insurance, and no guarantee that any of the several jobs you were juggling to keep financially afloat were going to exist year to year? That doesn’t sound like a price worth paying for most of us. For teaching artists across the country, however, those are exactly the conditions they accept to pursue the work that they love.

Teaching artist positions come in all shapes and sizes: instructors at local arts organizations like youth ballet schools; artists working alongside classroom teachers in local school systems; college adjuncts in fine arts departments; educators who bring arts workshops inside prison walls; and those who work with corporations to help C-suite employees hone their storytelling and speaking skills. For some teaching artists, arts education is their full-time profession while, for others, teaching is just part of or complementary to their own art practice.

Deb Norton, a dance instructor based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, knows firsthand the many challenges of pursuing a career as a teaching artist. Despite the fact that she teaches at an area university, a local dance school, and in the local public school system, one of Norton’s most worrying concerns is still a lack of job security. She has been, for example, bumped from a promised teaching job at the university because that class had to be given to a full-time faculty member whose class didn’t fill. In addition, her work in the school system is primarily grant-funded, which means if the school doesn’t get a grant, she won’t have work. As she described, “Every year I don’t really know if I’m going to have my job there, and that’s where I get my biggest source of income because I can clock the most hours there.”

One year, a former principal at a local school even pulled her into his office to warn her that the funds for her position had been zeroed out. Thankfully, on that particular occasion funding was ultimately secured, but that’s not always the case. “I wish there was some way to have some kind of guarantee that the program [I work on] could continue on and the funding would continue on and my part-time jobs would be available, but that’s not the reality of it,” said Norton.

Because she works as a teaching artist, Norton also doesn’t have a single worksite that she reports to every day, or a regular schedule. “I might be at two schools in one day. You could be at three maybe, and then do your nighttime work. So it can be a lot of running around, too.” Many days Norton works from nine a.m. to nine p.m., after which she heads home to do prep work, many times until the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, Norton said, she checks her schedule and thinks, “Oh, I get six hours of sleep. That’s pretty good.”

Despite juggling these multiple positions, which add up to far more than a 40-hour work week, Norton has none of the benefits of a full-time staffer, such as insurance or paid vacation. Still, Norton noted that she’s lucky because, until recently, her husband’s job provided insurance for them, and she and her husband have no kids. They also both tend to be workaholics. “I have the luxury of working as much as I want because my husband’s a grown man and he can take care of himself, for the most part,” she said.

Woman teaching a dance class to young children

Deb Norton leads first-grade students in a dance exercise at Woods Lake Elementary in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo by Junfu Han, courtesy of Encore magazine

Dan Crane, a theater instructor and working actor in Washington, DC, has his own stories about the precariousness of funding for teaching artists. For example, Crane taught for several years in a theater-affiliated program that was inexplicably cut from the organization’s budget. “The program was fantastic...and even though it was self-sustaining and had its own donors, it ended up on the wrong side of the spreadsheet,” he said. “That was not up to me and that was not a decision that I could make. I was heartbroken.” Crane has also experienced losing a long-time contract simply because the theater he worked with wanted to bring in a new slate of teaching artists.

Crane acknowledged that in his line of work, there are simply no guarantees, regardless of your reputation as a teacher or what might be on your résumé. “I have a reputation for showing up and coming in prepared and doing my job and being porous and getting a strong response from my clients and students,” he said. And yet, “I’m not guaranteed a job. I am not guaranteed to get that contract next time.”

The financial instability inherent in his career has also had an impact on Crane’s plans for a family. “Because of the choices that I’ve made in my life, my wife and I have decided not to have children,” he disclosed. “If we did have a child, we would have to reconsider. We would have to look at the work that I do and say, ‘Is this going to be viable time-wise or financially viable for us to do?’”

Crane advised that anyone thinking about becoming a teaching artist consider the financial aspect carefully before joining the eld. “Make sure you can afford it,” he cautioned. “My wife is the breadwinner for our family and when I go through a dry patch, we suffer, we feel that in our bank account.”

Given the laundry list of frustrations that come with the job, Norton, who’s been teaching since the 1990s, feels grateful to have lasted in the profession as long as she has. Along the way, she has seen many teaching artists change jobs despite their demonstrable talent as educators. “We have lost really great teaching artists. In a way, it’s kind of heartbreaking because for a long time they do the job, and you know their heart is in it. You know it’s what they love to do. You know it’s what they’re very good at. But in the end we all have to survive. If pay can’t sustain a moderate lifestyle, you’re going to quit and go find something else to do,” she said.

Crane, too, acknowledged the real risk of burnout in his chosen profession. “That lack of control is difficult. [You have to ask yourself,] ‘When does it get to be too much? When do those things become too much?’ Then that’s my responsibility to say, ‘All right, I’m not in a position to be able or willing to do this anymore. I need to make a different choice for myself.’”

Dale Davis, executive director of the New York-based Association of Teaching Artists, takes a broader view of the issues involved in being a teaching artist. “The challenge is we don’t really examine the challenges,” she opined. “There’s no infrastructure solidly in place to support this work, to publicly acknowledge the contributions to education and communities.” She further explained that there is no standard set of credentials a teaching artist should have and no pay scale that would give practitioners a sense of what type of salary they should expect given their level of training and experience.

Davis wants teaching artists to talk to each other more so they can find support and strategies for weathering the vagaries of the field. She’d like the community to develop standards amongst themselves that they can disseminate to employers and even parents. “I think [we need] to bring people together, to talk about and listen to what those experienced teaching artists who have made a career of this, what they consider important in the eld,” she said. Davis allowed, however, that given the financial situation of most teaching artists—and their unrelenting schedules—even trying to have an annual professional conference is yet another Herculean challenge to face.