Crafting for a Cause with Amber Coppings Part 3: All You Need to Know About Becoming a Teaching Artist

NOV 30, 2018 updated Jun 3, 2021

Are you a creative person that would like to know how to become a teaching artist, or need some helpful hints as to how and where to volunteer your skills? Artist Amber Coppings is back to give you the inside scoop on the various places where teaching artists and/or volunteers are needed and provides you resources on how to put your best foot forward!

Before you dive in, be sure to read part one and two of Amber’s teaching artist series. 

First, what is a Teaching Artist?

Eric Booth, known as the father of teaching artistry, has this definition: “A teaching artist is an artist who expands her artistry to directly engage with participants in community and educational settings.” Settings can include schools (both during and after school hours), human/social service organizations (such as POWER), hospitals, outpatient facilities, city parks, festivals, corporate workshops, and more. In my experience, elementary schools are the most common setting. Time frames can vary widely from a single one-hour workshop, to a year-long project.

One of the foundations of the teaching artist model that I currently work within, an Arts-in-Education Artist Residency Project, is that the art programming must intertwine with and be inspired by the expertise of the professional artist that is teaching the classes. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts defines an artist residency as “…substantial periods of time in which an artist (or artists) works intensively with small groups of learners (“core groups”) on one or more long-term projects. During this time, learners exercise creative control over their work. The artist’s role in such work is that of mentor and facilitator, leading students through guided self-discovery, and of technical advisor on important artistic concepts and skills. Residencies are developed collaboratively between the artist and the host organization.”

Since I am an artist/designer and an accessories maker, this means that I have focused on teaching fiber art, surface pattern design, sewing, and some traditional fine art skills. I have worked with students ages 5 to 96 years old in a wide variety of settings, including homeless shelters, K-12 public and private schools, rehabilitation centers for stroke survivors, psychiatric hospitals, local arts organizations, and private lessons in my studio.

It is imperative to continue to invest in one’s own studio practice. Teaching experiences can absolutely enhance one’s relationship to your favorite mediums and techniques. Numerous times, a student has asked a wonderful question that has triggered a line of inquiry that helped me take my own work further, or showed me a new technique that came naturally to them that I had never thought of. It’s a symbiotic relationship. A vast majority of teaching artists do not teach as full-time work. Instead, this is one income stream that helps to support our work as professional artists.

Second, where can you get started?

Teaching artists often start by volunteering for a local arts organization as a summer camp counselor, get hired as an independent contractor to teach weekly classes, or might teach in an after-school program. I highly recommend volunteering your time first, if feasible, and learning from a more experienced teaching artist before leading your own class. As an example, I currently I have an assistant at the POWER House who is a POWER House alum. She expressed interested in learning more about being a teaching artist, so she will assist me in set up and clean up while also connecting art and recovery for the current POWER House women. Other awesome assistants have volunteered their time to work with me at the POWER House, including two retirees who love art, but did not want the pressure of leading their own classes. Teaching is not for everyone, so try it out in small doses at first.

Every state in the United States has a Council on the Arts. Google your state’s name and “Council on the Arts” to find out what they are up to. Pennsylvania, where I live, has a robust Council on the Arts that provides a lot of support for regional artists. Other states have a more narrow focus on what kind of programming they can support.

Third, planning and expectations…

There is a wide range of situations where one can find teaching artists. Each will bring its own rewards and challenges. However, a few things are key to a more successful program.

  • Plan the Class. Here is the sample lesson plan I use. Always include an icebreaker, so students can get to know each other and you. Most people are nervous about introducing themselves, so have them do a very short activity as they settle in. Often I bring a small pile of fabrics that I dyed and ask people to choose one. As they introduce themselves they can tell the class what attracted them to their choice. This process unveils something about themselves to others and the student that is talking usually feels a lot less nervous.
  • Have a conversation in person, or on the phone, with someone at the host organization/school. Ask about logistics, emergency plans, who may be available to help. If you’re teaching children, will there be another adult in the room? Where is the nearest water source? Is there storage for art supplies? Should you plan to adapt your lessons or techniques for those with special needs? Do you need a background check or clearances to work in their school?
  • Be organized. You will likely have to bring all or most of the supplies. Rolling bags and small containers are your friend!
  • Adapt for different learning styles and for various age groups. This is important and will become easier with time and experience. I recommend the book “Yardsticks” by Chip Wood for a good overview of what elementary aged students are capable of at various ages. It does not focus on art, but the information is easily applied. Have lots of visual aids and be ready to change how you state instructions.
  • After school programs are a great way to gain experience as a teaching artist. They are also notorious for lots of student fluctuations- you may have 5 students one day, and 15 the next! Be patient and flexible.
  • Online teaching may be an option for you, or teaching from your home or studio.
  • Reflection is important. Giving students a chance to give feedback both about their own progress and to you as the teacher is integral to the learning process.

Fourth, resources! 

Thankfully, the field of teaching artistry is blossoming. There are many opportunities to bring your artistry to others. It is an important way that creative individuals can give back to their community using parts of their best selves. As one of my students that graduated from the POWER House said, “The art class at POWER was a great help in my recovery. It showed me how to use my creativity as a coping skill. It was beneficial to learn new skills and see how others’ perspectives are not always like my own. Reconnecting with art reminded me that there is hope and a positive future.” -POWERful woman Angela M.

Wishing you many beautifully creative moments! – Amber

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