Like countless other classroom teachers, I have experienced my share of both inspiring and disappointing lessons by visiting artists, also known as teaching artists.  I’ve seen not one, but two visiting artists lose their tempers with sixth and seventh grade students.  I’ve also seen students so enthralled by performances that they keep coming up in conversation weeks later (I’m talking about Project Voice, a group of spoken word poets who do amazing work in schools–and on the stage).  What are some of the differences between effective and ineffective artist visits?

Actor and professional development guru Eric Booth has a fantastic post, “Guidelines for Teaching Artists” that I think all artists who are new to education should read.  If you want something with a bit more brevity, “How to Become a Great Teaching Artist” by Jeff Antiuk, a Washington, D.C. jazz musician who also works with local schools, is clear and concise.  Based on his post, an effective visiting artist:

  1. puts on a spectacular, jaw-dropping show
  2. has had pedagogical training and undergoes regular professional development
  3. adapts their lessons to suit the students and curriculum
  4. is courteous, collaborative, and congenial with school staff and faculty
  5. is a practicing artist in the real world

Other teaching artists have argued for a different balance of priorities, emphasizing the “artist” or the “teaching” more, but I like Antiuk’s list.  I haven’t performed Bharatanatyam (classical South Asian dance theatre) regularly in over ten years, so I can’t claim to be a practicing artist in the real world, but I cover the other four attributes.  Even before I became a classroom teacher, I ticked most of the boxes when I gave workshops for a World Theatre class at a community college.

It is pretty clear what traits one needs in order to be effective as a teaching artist.  Search as I might, however, I have not found similar posts about how classroom teachers can make the most out of artist visits.  Teachers are also responsible for utilizing teaching artists’ expertise in order to enrich student experiences.  So, teachers, if you want to get the most out of artists’ visits to your school, try these 5 things:

1. Reach Out

Send a friendly email providing a brief summary of your unit concepts, overarching questions and themes, content, and assessments.  Ask the teaching artist if she has any ideas of how to integrate her work into the curriculum, and suggest some ideas of your own.  Let the teaching artist know how much you are looking forward to her visit, and that you want to make the most of it by collaborating.  You can even ask if she is available to co-plan in person before she begins teaching lessons.

2. Co-Plan

If you don’t have time to meet with your teaching artist in advance, use a tool such as Google Docs (and maybe the phone!) to collaborate on lesson plans prior to the visit.  Come up with lesson objectives (goals) together and let the teaching artist know if there is any content (plenaries, vocabulary words, connections) you’d like to include.  Talk to the teaching artist about your students so that he knows what to expect.  Remember that the teaching artist should demonstrate his work before beginning workshops, as this will validate his expertise and engage students.  Give the artist time to shine and acknowledge his work.

3. Surrender Control

letting someone else take charge of your class can induce anxiety akin to leaving your child with a babysitter for the first time

The teaching artist may want your assistance during her lessons, she may want you to help with classroom management, or she may not want your help at all.  Defer to her preferences.  If she is a professional teaching artist, she will have her own style of effective communication and classroom management.  You can also demonstrate your respect by participating in her activities with your students.

If you’re like me, that third step may seem the most challenging of all.  Classroom teachers can be protective of their students, and letting someone else take charge of your class can induce anxiety akin to leaving your child with a babysitter for the first time.  Remember that you will be there the whole time, and able to put out any fires that may arise.  And enjoy the experience!