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excerpt from Barbara Hackett Cox’s essay “Who, What, How, Why and Where (do we go from here?): The Teaching Artist in Context”


Why Do Teaching Artists Teach?

 Why do artists take on the role of teaching artist?  There are as many reasons as there are artists.  In my work as a teacher, jazz historian in residence, arts administrator and arts education coach, I have worked with artists in many different disciplines, experienced teaching artists, emerging teaching artists and artists who are just beginning to look at teaching as an option to supplement their work as an artist. No matter the discipline in which they work or the contexts in which they might find themselves teaching, artists need to know why they are teaching.

Why do you teach?  Why did you choose to teach? Why do you want to teach?

Here are some responses to those questions from artists I have worked with over the past few years:

Nirmala Rajasekar is a world-renowned Carnatic Veena virtuoso and educator of South Indian Music.  She teaches when on her world tours as well as at home in Minnesota in K-12 classrooms (she is affiliated with several teaching artist rosters) and is the founding artistic director of the school Naadha Rasa where she leads workshops and holds ongoing classes for students who range in age from 9 to 80.  When I first met Nirmala, her experience in arts education was more performance-based for school groups through presenting organizations and for school assemblies.  She was in the process of applying to three different roster programs and through the Artist to Artist network (see below), we worked together on the development of her lesson plans and residency framework. She is a master of both her art form and her teaching practice in K-12 settings.  Just recently Nirmala was preparing with me to lead a professional development workshop for teaching artists and music teachers.  As I had done years before, I once again asked her why she teaches….


“I teach because I have to. This music is an older tradition. It goes from master to student and then back around—the student becomes master. It is a cycle and it keeps the music alive.  Also, when I teach I learn and teaching takes me into uncharted places where no one has seen me before. Music is my medium of expression; I can say things with music I can’t otherwise say.  Being from India and living in Minnesota, my music allows me to connect with folks who might see me as different but through the music it can bring us together. Being an artist is a blessing and being able to teach others is also a blessing. It is satisfying to see that what you teach makes a difference to somebody.” 


Peyton Scott Russell is a visual artist who co-founded Juxtaposition Arts, a hands-on visual art and design program for youth located in North Minneapolis where Peyton grew up.  He now works as an independent teaching artist and continues his work as a muralist and graffiti artist working nationally and internationally. Peyton was interested in adapting his community based and home school teaching to a school residency model. When I talked to him recently he was preparing a residency plan for two very different secondary school settings. The first residency would be with four non-arts teachers, five classes in the English and Humanities department with 9-12 grade students.  The second residency took place in two 11th grade studio arts classrooms in a public arts high school.  Both residencies were designed to integrate visual arts and literacy. As I worked with Peyton on the design of both residencies I asked him why he teaches and why he chose to teach in these different contexts….

“I want to work with both arts students and non-arts students to give them a chance to experiment with and use mixed media in a self-identifying way. I want them to find ways to express something about themselves: personal or something that relates to peers and/or their community by experimenting with text as an image. I am also interested in my own inquiry around imagery as literacy.  When does that begin with children?  I want to work with a larger student audience who might not have the skills and experiences in visual art mediums to provide access to more students.  I learn a lot about my own work as an artist from working with both arts and non-arts students.” 

Peyton also described his own experiences in elementary and middle school and his love/hate relationship with text.  Here are the questions he posed for the students he worked with in the two residencies:

How do we see what we read? What is the difference between seeing and looking? How does my personal experience affect the way I perceive text? How do I visually express/demonstrate what I understand in the text? What does the text say? How does the use of acronyms and phonic spelling in text messaging contribute to a new and innovative system of communication?

Kristine Sorensen is a media artist who runs a small volunteer-run organization that I already mentioned called In Progress. In Progress has both in house and outreach activities that grew out of Kris’s work teaching media arts and filmmaking in K-12 schools through residencies and workshops.  I first met Kris in 1998 when she was the arts partner in a grant program I coordinated for secondary schools in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  Five years later, Kris was again an artist in residence in a small rural school in out-state Minnesota as part of a new art education partnership program.  In 2012, we crossed paths again. This time I tapped into her vast network of media artists who are former students of hers from all around the state and are now teaching artists themselves affiliated with and taking leadership in running In Progress programming.  As a means of sharing her work with the co-planners of this upcoming workshop, I asked her to talk about why she started teaching and why it was important to continue working in this way….

“It started as a one-person run digital storytelling program for young people. I started working with schools in the 90s and for some reason the program seemed to appeal to Native, Latino and Hmong student populations.  I was approached to expand the work statewide through community partnerships with public schools, tribal schools and arts and cultural organizations. The program became mobile and adaptable and focused on digital media training and artist mentorships. 

A number of young artists who participated in the program created some good work and when the program ended, they wanted to know how they could take their work further.  One particular student, at 13 or 14 years old, wanted to not only continue the work, she wondered how she could learn to do what I do—teaching students like her—and the student’s curiosity led to what is now a central part of In Progress’s practice: teaching students to teach others. Now, in the organization’s view, which grew out of the student’s thinking, part of being a media artist is being willing to mentor and teach others.  Most of the mentors and teachers in the program are former students from the past 20 years. I saw the value of working with students to develop their skills in media first and out of that, as they applied the skills, the artistic content developed, which empowered them to develop their own artistic vision and aesthetic.

A List of More Reasons Why Artists Teach

  1. To perpetuate or keep alive cultural and historical traditions
  2. To supplement their income
  3. To increase their own skills and develop their own art making process
  4. To share their passion for what they know and can do as an artist
  5. To create opportunities for under-served communities to learn to make art
  6. To develop capacity for teachers and community organizations to incorporate arts experiences into their classroom/programming
  7. Teaching is inherent or intrinsic to their art form or traditional practice
  8. To mentor youth 
  9. To contribute to, invest in and give back to their community
  10. As a form of community activism
  11. To make a community a better place to live
  12. To provide neighborhood-based arts activities
  13. To bring people together
  14. To provide students more equitable access to arts learning
  15. To help to make school and community settings more interesting
  16. To increase student interest in school and improve student achievement
  17. To develop audiences
  18. To reflect the demographics of the school population and/or the broader community 
  19. To make visible marginalized art forms and traditional and non-traditional cultural resources
  20. To improve and increase career opportunities
  21. To extend arts programming to schools and communities lacking in arts resources
  22. To provide art as therapy in hospitals and community centers