I’ve worked alongside many artists during my 18 years in English language teaching. For almost every arts discipline I can think of, there has been a colleague who has worked away at their arts practice outside teaching hours. I myself have a cross-disciplinary practice that includes video, photography, spoken word and painting. My discussions over the years in language school staffrooms, from New Zealand to Spain, have swayed between our teaching and our arts practices. Trying to reconcile the two – that of the teacher, and that of the artist, has been a recurring theme.
Like many artists, I taught English because it afforded me a timetable to be able to pursue my arts practice that couldn’t support me financially, much less a young family. The many language school communities in which I’ve worked have suited me because there has been a connecting thread. Research at my former place of employment into the profile of its staff revealed that the English language teachers in that school were anti-authority, hated bureaucracy, and disliked being channeled and constrained. These are very similar reasons why many people participate in the arts, so it’s unsurprising to me that half the school staff were creatives on the side. Bureaucracy, standardization and homogeneity reduce creative possibilities.
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. – George Bernard Shaw
A colleague made this observation once. She herself was an actor who had come to believe it for herself. The saying really refers to singers who teach singing and painters who teach painting. Although I wasn’t directly teaching my craft, I shivered. Success for me at that time looked like this: my work in a well-reputed gallery being gushed over and written about in high profile art magazines and sold at high prices. Teaching wasn’t part of my success story. I wanted to get away from it. The comment had tattooed itself on my soul.
I have since come to see this comment as ill-informed and de-contextualised. Shaw had obviously suffered poor teaching. The truth is that a tiny percentage of artists make enough money from their art to survive on it alone, yet success is consistently framed to and by artists in these terms of profile and money. Meanwhile, those who do work full time as artists complain of their creativity being enslaved to money or the next arts grant. There is a joke that bankers will talk art at dinner and artists will talk money.
Smash it and make new.
Last year, while supporting a group of teachers working for the first time with CLIL, I went to observe one of the teacher’s music lessons. Later in our feedback session we observed the video together. Time constraints, interruptions, class layout, structure, instructions and activities all combined into a lesson where there was little music and little learning happening. We talked about those issues naturally and considered approaches, but there was something else missing. I wondered how to help the teacher move her teaching practice into a new space. A couple of weeks later, another teacher invited me to join the group to go together to see this same music teacher perform a leading role in a musical version of Émile Zola’s Germinal. That night I had the pleasure of being introduced to the music teacher as artist. All I could think, as I wandered home after a performance that had moved me to tears, was how could this person display such artistry in one field, but not make use of that in her classroom? Why could these two practices not converge and create something exciting and new to the benefit of her learners, the learning, herself, her colleagues and our wider profession?
I had already begun to reflect on my teaching and art practices and realized that they had been converging quietly, roaming in and out of each other’s spaces, right below my nose. I began researching the idea further and found myself reading a lot and with a sense of eureka! about the practice of teaching artists.
The Teaching Artist
“A teaching artist is a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills, curiosities and sensibilities of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of people in learning experiences in, through, and about the arts.”
– Eric Booth
An artist who teaches is not a teacher who makes art. Neither does she or he always teach about the arts. They may not even have a physical “product” to install at a gallery or see or hear. Process, place, people, moment and product are inextricably linked for the teaching artist and the aim is to expertly handle it. A teaching artist harnesses their creative process to better understand learning and learning situations with a variety of topics. The approach can bind many subjects together in such a way that the result often defies traditional subject definition according to the academy. I believe there is a lot we artist-come-English-teachers can draw from their practice.
How can artistry influence a physical lesson and how can it provide insight into learning? First, we need to consider what we really know of our own creative practice. Can we recognise our own creativity’s narrative arc? Through tuning into its processes and external influences we can then begin to observe how that transfers through to our teaching, consciously or unconsciously. Then, we can find ways to challenge and enrich it.
A lot of my teaching these days is online, with small teacher development groups and through workshop. Through approaching my teaching practice more as an artist and through my arts process, I’ve found that I am energized with the idea that a workshop with teachers at a conference, for example, can be approached as an art form, rather than as “talkshop” with slides.
Artists are Experts in Play – Tony Gee
Curiosity and free play lead to playful and focused investigation and learning (Gray, 2013). Many mammals do it, and none better than us humans. Carl Theodore Sørensen built the first junk playground in 1931 in Denmark after watching children play on construction sites. To his mind, a nicely designed playground, with hopscotch marks and neat and tidy swings was a profound misunderstanding of play and its purpose (Whiston Spirn, 1998). If we consider experiential, project-based, social, physical learning and learner-centred approaches, the creative process includes many similar aspects.
Never Stop Feasting.
There is a fine balance to maintain for any teaching artist. English language teachers who are artists should never stop investing in their art and in reflection of its process and product because in order to teach from creativity, we need to spend time with and in an arts practice that is alive, reflective, and (almost) understood.
Artists are present in the staffrooms of language schools all around the world. What known and unknown richness do they bring to the language learning profession and to learners? What more is unharnessed, what opportunities are missed?
I’m interested to hear from artist-language teachers about their arts practice and their teaching practice to deepen my own research and understanding of the field.
Re-Defining the Teaching Artist: The Marriage of Pedagogy and Artistry, Sobha Kavanakudiyil
Free to Learn, Peter Gray, Basic Books 2013
Workshop a Moveable Feast, Tony Gee, Darlington College of Arts, Kingfisher Print 2003
Arts and the Creation of Mind, Elliot Eisner, Yale University Press, 2002
The Language of Landscape, Anne Whiston Spirn, Yale University Press, 1998
History of Teaching Artistry, Eric Booth, Post in: http://ericbooth.net, 2010