Songs for the Struggling Artist

“A passion for this work”
January 6, 2014, 1:05 am
Filed under: art, education, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At a panel discussion I attended recently, an arts education guy said, “We want teaching artists who have a passion for this work. We don’t want people who are just looking for another gig.”

I’ve heard this sort of thing in Arts Education so many times, it’s a little like the refrain of a song. (“Oh, that old line again! Love, love, love, they’re always looking for love!”) But I heard this idea in a new way this time. It occurred to me that the subtext was, “Don’t ask us about how much it pays. Don’t ask us about working conditions. Don’t think about this as a job.” This sensibility is very common in this field and one of the reasons we, as teaching artists, are so under-supported.

We are meant to love our jobs so much that we’d do it for nothing, yes, we would! Sometimes this idea is explicit –  like the time I went to a Professional Development workshop and in the first exercise of the day, we were asked to step forward if we “loved teaching.”  There was an assumption that we’d all have that in common. I have to tell you that in that moment I’ve never hated teaching more and I’m no longer in a place where I can lie about how I feel. I am extremely capable at many varieties of teaching and when I am doing the Work, most people assume that it is my passion and will say so. I hear varieties of “You seem to love it so much!” all the time. At which I smile mysteriously. I feel like it’s nobody’s business how I feel about it if I am getting the job done. It’s not my business if a pilot loves flying planes, I just want my plane to take-off and land safely and get me where I’m going.
There is a strange emotional currency that runs through education and arts teaching especially. Somehow the field demands not only what you do but how you feel about it. I think this adds to the devaluation of professionals in education. You know who’s the most passionate about teaching the arts? Those who have never done it before. And when arts organizations privilege passion over experience, when they hire people who “love it so much!”, they’re devaluing the skill that it takes to hold a room, create curriculum, translate an art experience to a classroom, etc. My own preference is that if I work for you, you get to tell me when and where you’d like me to teach but you don’t get to dictate how I feel about that experience.
I think there’s some confusion about the job here. There’s an assumption that if I can’t convince an education director that I love this so much that I’d just do it for free, I somehow won’t be able to convey the magic of the art to a room full of students. And the ramifications of that assumption radiate outward where we, as teaching artists, don’t feel like we can ask for what we need because we’ve agreed that we do this for love and not for money, right at the outset.
It’s a devil’s bargain and it’s partly why most Teaching Artists last about three years before moving on to something else. This then means that the dominant pool of Teaching Artists are young, very passionate and extremely inexperienced. Those of us who carry with us years experience are the ones making noise about things and we become the nuisance to an organization that wants to believe it’s doing it all for love, despite the fact that almost everyone else in it is making a living wage. Everyone but the ones doing the teaching.

There are many things I do love. Teaching is what I do for money. And I believe in it. I care about it. I am actually very passionate about the work, I will concede. But probably not in the way that guy at that panel discussion meant. I passionately hate it, fight for it, rail against and for it. But I can’t say I love it. Not when I’m supposed to.

It’s like those cash registers at my local grocery store that remind the cashier to smile at the customer. Those messages don’t work. The cashiers smile even less than they do at other grocery stores I frequent. You know what might make the cashiers smile at the customer? A living wage. Health Insurance. A sense of being able to control their experience. An ability to contribute to the greater culture of the business. Funny – those things might actually help me love teaching again, too.


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