In response to the recent “Studies Project: Artist in K-12 Schools,” Movement Research received the following writing as an anonymous letter. We’re posting it as part of our effort to foster more dialogue among teachers and teaching artists. The letter expresses the viewpoint of the author, one artist in the Movement Research community. It does not represent the organizational viewpoint of Movement Research. Check out the “Arts in Education” tag on the blog to read and see more artists’ viewpoints and to keep the conversation going.
The anonymous letter reads as follows, without any editing on the part of Movement Research:
“This week I found myself receiving an email from an administrator from a teaching artist organization I work for that relayed a request from a school coordinator to boost numbers in an afterschool club I run by putting my regular students on, and I quote, ‘autopilot’, in order to literally teach a simultaneous afterschool program in gaming or animation… I am disgusted and horrified by the request. Not only did this coordinator ask me to teach two programs literally at the same time (which is of course impossible) for no increase in wage, but worse, he actually asked me to ignore the 46 students that have been coming to my program regularly… I am now experiencing a deep sadness for the state of the arts in education and the public education system as a whole. I know all of this is quite complicated and wrapped up in policy and funding and what it takes to ensure that a school receives funding regularly… it is all very sad… anyways, earlier today, when I sat down with the school coordinator and explained to him my background as an artist, what I currently teach and create, attempting to propose a way of collaborating together to find some sort of program that would fit the schools desires, he shrugged off the conversation and told me that he would have to consider a menu of options that said organization had provided him that was literally sitting on his desk. I then felt I am the lowest, I am insubordinate, I am a waiter that brings food. Literally the artist who enacts 95% of the delivery and creation of the arts programing is null next to some document of curriculums that said organization has compiled and published what is something like 25 years old… Yes! I know there is an incredible amount of administrative work that goes into it both from this organization and on the school coordinators part, but also from me! (and I’m not paid for any administrative or planning time!) Everyone is underpaid in ways and undervalued in ways… I write my curriculums, I find my sources, I go to the art store and buy materials, I scan the internet for children friendly dance music, I read pages upon pages of graphic novels to make sure there is no inappropriate content for use in lessons, I create the choreography, I wake up at 5:45 to travel to the Bronx (some of my students wake up earlier), I sweat, I get home too tired to go to the studio to work on my project after 8 hours of teaching dance classes, I show up to my school early and on occasional days that I don’t teach to hand out fliers and visit classrooms to promote my afterschool program UNPAID (I shouldn’t do this or I should demand payment from the organization), I get blamed when a school is unhappy because the customer is always right, and I have no idea how much my organization makes from my teaching residency (because that information is literally hidden from me, and I am asked to hide how much I make from the schools… hmmm…) but I would make a lot more money and have a lot more freedom and probably create a lot better and more effective programming if I were just contracted independently with the school which I know does happen at private schools and can in certain cases happen at public schools (I think, I could be wrong).
“In some ways it feels to me that this very well known arts education organization has become a monopoly in its field, literally selling artistic programing to schools citywide via ‘menus’. Yes, I know that organizations like this fulfill a need for arts programming in public schools, they also give me a job, thus paying my rent, thus keeping another artist alive. Any 45 minutes a week a child gets to dance or draw or think creatively or is not yelled at to shut up is a good 45 min. But, after today I reflect about the organization (any organization) as a parasite to the artist. It feels that the educational administrators from organizations such as this hire us artists to fulfill a predetermined agenda that a school may have (and obviously since we artists are the currency a predetermined income that the organization must make in order to pay its admin and keep the organization running) without actually meeting who will be teaching or what they might actually know. A completely impersonal exchange. It is problematic that I, a cisgendered white male contemporary dancer, am repeatedly asked to go into schools of predominantly black and latino populations and teach Hip Hop In the one case in which I actually have ‘taught’ this I was explicit that I was ‘teaching’ something inspired by ‘Hip Hop’, and had the kids make up most of the choreography after researching and learning a small vocabulary of Hip Hop moves. In a recent post on facebook asking for friends who teach or do Hip Hop if they would be interested in teaching through the organization I work for I got at least ten comments or tags of friends within a day… organizations need help from artists in communities of the curriculum that they offer, and they need to utilize the skills of the artists they have when they provide programing to schools.
“I know, in reality, that many schools are willing to work with the artist despite what the organization may have sold them also, when approached or under duress to provide artists the organization I work for will also collaborate with the artists to sell a residency that utilizes their skills. More times than not I have gone into a school and the coordinator is open and flexible and excited about what my idea for the program could be. The problem, however, with this incident is that the skills, ability, and interests of the artist are not honed on a personal level from the get-go. There are too many organizations where this is the case. Alternatively, there is one organization I have encountered that is very different, I have only started working for them recently. I’m not sure what to call them, or if they would wish to be associated here, but they have been an experience which has been a complete 180 from this first organization I described their entire approach to arts education has been renewed in the past few years to embrace contemporary artists (not fear them!). They engage schools with the artists on a personal one to one level. Through this new organization, I have had personal conversations with administrators about what my skills, training, interests are as an artist, and when matched to teach a my first residency which couldn’t have more perfectly met my background and interest, I personally sat down with educational programmers and the school coordinator to advocate for the potential of what it was I could offer as an artist. Instead of being devalued as a server to relay and reinforce curriculum, I was valued as a skilled expert. I was no longer a history teacher there to teach some form or to support some A-rrelevant knowledge (made up word for tangentially related…), but I was there as a contemporary to have a process with and facilitate an experience for students to create art BECAUSE ART AND ARTISTIC PROCESS IS VALUABLE ON IT’S OWN. This not only raises the importance of the arts, but respects and affirms the creative potential of children.
“My pursuit in emailing you these thoughts is to emphasize that not all organizations are valuing artists in the same way that Movement Research may value an artist’s process. Some organizations that offer jobs to dance makers to teach in school systems K-12 are certainly not doing this. From being in the MR community, I know that you are already working as hard as you can for more hours than you can and for less money than you can (as many of us do), but nevertheless, I behoove you and others at this panel discussion, to please not only discuss the utopian image of what it might look like to be a dance artist visiting public schools sharing your contemporary process, but to reflect upon the realities of arts education, the systems that stop us from doing this and those that create and actualize opportunities for us to do this as well, I urge us as a community of artist to actively cultivate and increase alternative structures where this utopia is enacted.
“I hope your discussion will inspire the hiring of more artists through organizations that work personally with them in public schools need us. I hope your discussion will create more relevant jobs, will link community members to educational administrators that will meet and employ them. I hope that your Studies Project will create happiness for children. In reality these things won’t all happen (at least) at once. That is no reason to not try. Public schools need you. Public schools need me. Public schools need artists. Administrators like you are needed. Events like yours are needed.
“As a final reflection, I dream of more artist run organizations where the artists are the administrators banded together to affirm and ‘legitimize’ the importance of what they can offer presented in understandable, accessible, and expansive potentials. That is the proposal that I have. That is what I would do with my current strategy of acting outside of current (ineffective and dead) structures.”