To know who you are, you must know where you come from. So too for the emergent profession of teaching artistry, which might be described as a fast-growing teenager—past puberty but still not moving with a twentysomething’s confident stride. This essay aspires to trace briefly the history of teaching artistry. It does not provide the academic rigor of a proper history, and I hope an ambitious historian will take up the challenge and provide an authoritative version for us all. Nor does the scope of this essay allow me to identify the dozens of specific organizations and individuals who have provided important flagstones on the path, or those who are currently doing exemplary work around the country—they deserve to be recognized and thanked.
This essay offers a distilled sense of the journey, its general contours, in order to ground our sense of the complex present and clarify its proliferation of opportunity. Even though the characterizations of decades and phases are oversimplified, given the jumble of activity that unfolded during each decade, I feel the following descriptions are accurate enough to propose as the truthful story. I also offer two organizational constructs at the end of this essay; I hope they provide useful distinctions to elucidate our ongoing evolution. I welcome others who wish to take this essay and expand it in additional foundation-building ways.
In setting our historical context, let’s openly acknowledge some of its “negatives.” The field of teaching artistry does not speak in a unified voice—never has and possibly never will. (This does not negate it as a field at all; does politics speak with a unified voice?) Our growing body of writing about teaching artistry enables the field to begin to know itself. There are increasing numbers of surveys that illuminate aspects of teaching artistry (the insights of which have not been gathered for handy dissemination), and a first national research study coming to fruition. However, there is no widely accepted definition of what a teaching artist is, no established set of work parameters to clarify what a teaching artist does, nor any set of basic practices that may be considered the key tools that teaching artists use. There is not even a sense of what teaching artists should teach; a strength of teaching artistry is responding inventively to specific goals, opportunities, and needs rather than delivering any established curriculum.
Teaching artistry has no national organization, no national certification processes (although local and regional processes are developing), no central location, no suggested sets of curricula, no designated advocates (although many advocate out of personal mission). This lack of key organizing elements may be viewed as a sign of the immaturity of the field, or as a healthy refusal to adopt structures that do not derive organically from the heart of the practice—there certainly is truth in the former view, but I incline toward the latter. In some ways I think this field is growing more wisely than it knows. Teaching artistry is indirectly choosing not to become what hasn’t worked particularly well for other arts and arts learning fields. Teaching artistry hasn’t found the embodiment as a professional field of the authentic tools that provide its power in practice. Yet.