Sunday, January 19, 2014

My journey from private studio instructor to public magnet school teacher

In 1993, ten magnet schools were created in my city.  Federal funds were used to set them up.  There were a variety of magnets:  science and tech, math and applied arts, academies where students had to wear uniforms (shudder), a Montessori school, and a visual & performing arts school.  I found an ad in the classifieds announcing a search for "community arts specialists" to teach theatre and dance at this new magnet arts school, grades 4 - 8.

At the time, I had been teaching acting at a local performing arts studio for a number of years. The studio offered various dance classes, piano and voice training as well as acting.  I was the sole acting teacher, and taught classes ages 3 to adult.  I was synthesizing and applying everything I had learned about acting during my years away from Akron, especially the physical training work I'd learned at Earth Onion Women's Theatre in Washington DC and the Leonard Pitt School of Mask & Mime in Berkeley, CA.  When current professional responsibilities overwhelm me, I often think of those glorious studio days when I could teach without any interference from administrators, politicians and educrats. In those days, I was free to design and implement each course, focusing on the needs of each individual so that each could develop and grow at her/his own unique pace. 

I also had rich experiences teaching creative drama/theatre with the elderly, leading a senior citizen's theatre company as well as teaching drama classes for every senior citizen's community club around the city.  I spent two summers working at a CYO summer camp for students with special needs,developing ways to involve every kid in camp, creating radio dramas for the blind students who loved using their voices to act for their peers as well as improvised movement to music for kids in wheelchairs paired up with kids who were ambulatory.

So when I went to interview for the job of community arts specialist, I spoke with complete confidence, stating at the top of the interview that I was the best acting teacher in town, then showing them my portfolio.  I brought along some of the masks that I had made over the years, and I think those sealed the deal.  I was hired.  By the way, the title of my job category meant that certification by the state was not necessary and that I'd be paid hourly.  I was not in the teacher's union and I had no health benefits.

Since this was a brand new school with a brand new population and teaching staff, that first year was one of the most challenging yet invigorating years in the lives of everyone involved.  Our mission was to not only teach the arts, but also integrate arts and academics in every classroom -- art teachers would integrate academics in their lessons and academic teachers would integrate the arts in their classrooms.  All of this meant massive professional development. And we dove right into it!  This was our mission -- we were hired to make this notion of enhanced learning using the arts to inspire students who had talent for one or more of the arts.  That first year interested students went through an audition process but were selected by lottery.  By the second year we were holding auditions for students to get into the school.  The state education department granted us that authority.

In retrospect, I do believe that the magnet schools movement in the early 90s was a harbinger of charter schools to come.  Here is a fascinating history of the magnet school movement in the United States.  Our school was and still is a public magnet school.  However, sometimes I think we'd be better off going charter -- more money from the government and less interference!

Next up -- developing my own curriculum and standards.

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