Monday, May 2, 2011

The Importance of Artists Working as Teaching Artists

As we face more budget cuts in the New York City Public School system and know that those cuts will inevitably trickle down to the certified arts teachers, I started to think about the expanded role cultural institutions will have in the public schools. Regardless of how much Mayor Bloomberg has to cut schools’ budgets, schools will still be required to provide arts education at each grade level. In New York City over the course of a year, each child in elementary school is required to have 186 hours of arts instruction from grades 1-3 and 93 hours of instruction in grades 4-6. If the school has to let go of their certified arts teacher who do you think will be providing that service? Given that there are less than 200 certified drama teachers in the system and around 1,700 schools in NYC, the task of teaching the arts to our City’s children falls on the shoulders of cultural organizations, like The New Victory Theater.

Javier and Annie team teach an in-classroom workshop
One positive aspect of this dire circumstance is that most cultural organizations hire practicing professional artists to teach in-school workshops. At the New Vic we go through a rigorous process for finding those artists. The process is important because not every artist can teach and we only want those who understand their art form, have the ability to share the art form and, maybe most importantly, work well with children.

The process starts with artists applying to be a part of our teaching artist roster. They send us their professional artist and teaching artist resumes, and a sample lesson built around one of the shows in our season. Our staff then weeds through these submissions to find the ones who demonstrate excellence in professional and teaching artistry, as well as a really strong sample lesson. Then we bring those people in to audition for us in a group setting. The prospective teaching artists lead one another in an exercise they would use to teach one of the shows in our season. Through this process we as a staff witness how they work in a group, how they approach the art form, and how they interact with others. For the 2010-11 season we had over 100 applications and auditioned over 30 artists, all for only six open slots on our roster.

One would think that the process ends there but that’s not true for us. We believe it is extremely important to train and mentor our teaching artists before they ever set foot in a classroom to work with children and represent the New Victory Theater. The new teaching artist is assigned opportunities to visit a classroom where we are conducting a workshop so they can witness the work we do, how we interact with classroom teachers, and how we conduct ourselves in a school setting. We also require they attend our training sessions where we introduce our guiding principles for classroom work.

The New Vic provides team teaching opportunities which means teaching artists are never on their own in the classroom. A new teaching artist team teaches with a more experienced teaching artist. They are also assigned a mentor who observes the new teaching artist’s work and meets with the new teaching artist to discuss their process.

What we value at The New Victory Theater are working artists who teach. It is an important classification or distinction because a working artist always brings to the classroom a different way of thinking from standard curriculum methods and that is something we especially value. Artists that are practicing are involved in the creative process-- maybe rehearsing an experimental play, maybe experiencing a difficult rehearsal process, maybe enjoying the feeling of working with a great ensemble. No matter what they are experiencing they bring that problem solving experience, that creative thinking, that sense of imagination and play to the classroom. They bring energy to the classroom that provides a needed spark and that’s what kids respond to, that’s how learning happens. The classes are never spent sitting down but rather, with students and teachers physically engaged in the creative process. Even more exciting is the fact that they have no preconceived notions of the students. Those students who have been forgotten in the back of the classroom all of a sudden have a second chance and it is very often these students that are most surprising to the classroom teacher. These students often shine in our classes.

It is so interesting to see how students react to the New Vic teaching artists when they walk into a classroom. There is an incredible sense of excitement. Granted we are not their usual teachers, so some of the excitement is due to the novelty of having someone new in the classroom but I believe another part of the excitement generates from the fact that students know they will be challenged in a different way. That they will be asked to participate and create in an art form that doesn’t ask for a single “right” answer but has many answers to a single problem. The only important element is engagement and active involvement in solving the problem. This engagement is something we value at The New Victory.

[UPDATE 5/04/11: The Education Department is now accepting teaching artist applications for the 2011-2012 season. See job description here].

Joseph Giardina is the Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. From 2002-2010 he was the Education Director at Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), an award-winning, classical off-Broadway theatre company. Their Education department is the largest to introduce Shakespeare and classic drama to New York City Public School children. Prior to his position at TFANA he was the Artistic/Education Director at Arts Horizons. From 1995-1998, Mr. Giardina directed and produced the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival. He is the former Artistic Director of UPTCo and a Founding Member of Off World Theatre which was housed at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ.


  1. Ashley Bishop, Teaching Artist & Secondary Ed teacher, Chicago, ILMay 2, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    Where does the funding come from for your program? If you don't mind me asking! Do schools pay? Do you write grants? Donations from the theatre's supporters?

  2. Hi Ashley,
    Funding comes from several places. Like most non-profits, we have a robust Development department that includes grant-writing and also our Friends program, patrons who make donations. The schools pay a $100 annual registration fee to be a member of our Education Partnership. This is a link to the support section of our website, if it helps to look at it!

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