In case you’re not familiar with the role of a teaching artist, it’s just that: an artist who teaches. They’re usually practicing creatives first and teachers second, but many of them go on to get formal credentials. The day-to-day schedule varies but most of us are employed full-time at one organization or work on a freelance basis at several.
I became a teaching artist by chance. I went to art school, graduated with a degree in Interdisciplinary Art, and landed at an ad agency after graduation. The short version is that it was a horrible experience. I quit without a plan B and found myself doing freelance design work to pay the bills. I did a little bit of everything but I wasn’t enjoying it and it felt like I was wasting time.
Then a mentor told me something that I still think about all the time. She said, "Nothing’s a waste. At the end, you know one more thing you don't want to do and that's just as valuable." It was a light bulb moment for me. I continued to take on odd jobs and freelance projects but started looking at each one as a process of elimination.
I ultimately realized that what I wanted was a creative job that allowed me to give back. Another thing I learned about myself is that I prize flexibility over stability, and that I don’t want to do the same thing every day. When I came across an open teaching artist position, it seemed like a perfect fit!
The Chicago Public Library has a program called YOUmedia that puts creative spaces in the library specifically for teenagers. Students can kick back, check out laptops and other professional-grade equipment, and attend free workshops on everything from music production to graphic design. There’s even a little recording studio at one of the branches!
I worked with YOUmedia part-time, Monday-Thursday from 2:00-8:00pm. I taught one hour-long workshop each day but I spent the rest of my time just hanging out with students in the space. I'd work on lesson plans while they worked on homework and we’d chat about their friends, families, or whatever TV show they were watching that week. Every day was different, whether it was helping a student use GoogleDrive or getting my ass kicked at Mario Kart. I lost count of how many prom dresses I looked at that spring!
My position at YOUmedia lasted seven months (the length of a grant that paid my salary). In that time, I taught six-week units on self-publication, graphic design, and creative writing. I also did some one-off workshops to help students create resumes and work on their college applications. Not only was it a great job, it helped me find the path I’m on now.
Chicago has a large number of nonprofits working with underserved youth, most of which employ teaching artists or volunteers in a similar capacity. We’re basically one big extended family, which makes it easy for us to share best practices, collaborate, and connect each other to opportunities. That sense of community is a big reason I love what I do so much.
These days, teaching is about 25% of my work. The rest of my time is spent on the other side of the classroom. I own a small business that works with colleges, community organizations, and bloggers to develop online classes. It’s a dream job that I never would’ve discovered without being a teaching artist!
How to Get Started
All you really need to become a teaching artist is a portfolio that showcases your craft and some teaching experience. An art degree or teaching accreditation definitely helps but isn’t required for most positions.
What is required is a lot of flexibility, patience, and the ability to make things work in less than ideal circumstances. Sometimes your lesson plan just doesn’t work and you have to adapt it on the fly. You’ll likely be working outside the standard 9-5 and may or may not have benefits.
If that doesn’t deter you, I recommend starting as a volunteer. It’s a great way to get experience! I got my job at YOUmedia because the interviewers liked my web development background (hard to find among teaching artists) and that I had planned my own workshops as a volunteer with Girls Rock! Chicago.
Nonprofits like Girls Rock and 826 have chapters all over the country and are powered by volunteers. So are libraries! You can also check out Idealist to find local organizations looking for specific help. It’s important to find an organization that’s doing work you’re passionate about.
I also recommend asking a teaching artist if you can assist them—especially if they teach at multiple places! Many of the people that have assisted me have gone on to do their own thing and I regularly recommend them when I have to turn down a gig.
If you’d like to chat more about teaching artistry, or just be buds, you can find me at Like the Syrup and as @carolinesyrup on Twitter or Instagram. Thanks for letting me share!
Rad Gal, Rad Gig is a new feature on The Clueless Girl's Guide where I invite really neat gals to share their really cool stories. Whether your gig is a full-time job or just a hobby, I want to hear from you! If you think you'd be perfect for Rad Gal, Rad Gig, feel free to get in touch or view the information on the Submissions page! Just submit a short description of what you do and why you think it's rad!