Re-Defining the Teaching Artist: When to Switch Hats

(I was recently asked to contribute to an online conversation hosted by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education about what it means to be a Teaching Artist.   I thought that this topic might be relevant to our Art Education community here at City College – especially those of us who are interested in Art Education careers beyond the walls of a school classroom.  So…I’m sharing my part of the conversation here with you!   – Jeff Hopkins, Adjunct Lecturer)


I often need to wear multiple hats!

“Mr. Jeff, which color should I use???”

This was a seemingly simple question posed to me by a sixth-grader last spring in the Bronx.   We were nearing the end of my twenty-week Guggenheim Museum artist residency and the students were completing their final projects.   These were very personal pieces: each student had selected a pivotal moment in his or her life to share through a series of comic-book style panels. Each individual panel was created as a layered composition of text and painted images. I had guided them through weeks of sketching, decision-making, writing, painting, printmaking, and editing. Now, this student was adding background color to a final panel.

The student’s question was much more complex than it appeared. I wanted her to make a color decision based upon her own artistic and aesthetic criteria. I wanted to reinforce to her that she was an artist in charge of her own decisions. However, I needed to use my skills as an educator to help her to develop her criteria and understand her options.

In a moment like this, I need to think carefully about my own job description. I am a Teaching Artist. But…is it “TEACHING Artist” or “Teaching ARTIST”?   Which word is most important in that phrase?

As a Teaching Artist, my job is to collaborate with classroom teachers, principals, and arts coordinators to lead arts-based programs in New York City schools. Often a Teaching Artist is hired by an arts institution such as a museum, theater, or dance or music organization and is part of a larger partnership between the institution and a public school. In New York City for example, there are dozens of organizations that bring the arts (visual or performing) to thousands of school students. In many ways, these arts organizations have stepped up to fill a void left by years of cuts to arts programming and staffing in the public schools.

As a Teaching Artist, I juggle lofty art-based goals with daily educational goals.   As a visual artist, I hope to share with children the process of creating work and all that it requires: developing an idea, finding a voice, making choices about materials and content, and the perseverance necessary to see a project through to the end.   I also hope to inspire students to value art museums, to find art meaningful and relevant, and to look more closely at the world around them.

These “big idea” goals are balanced with daily educational needs. There is a classroom full of children (sometimes as many as 32 in a New York City school.) There have to be classroom management techniques in place. Success in a classroom requires routines, clear communication, and engaging questions and lesson plans. Often, I must also collaborate with a classroom teacher, make connections to other elements of the students’ curriculum, and move deftly from one classroom to another and make adjustments in each new environment.

In my Art in Education 15500 class, students worked to define their goals as both artists and teachers.  They created these relief prints of the most important words related to those goals.

In my Art in Education 15500 class, students worked to define their goals as both artists and teachers. They created these relief prints to represent those goals.

In my experience the most successful teaching artists not only bring together the best characteristics of both teaching and art making, but also know WHEN to wear each particular hat. We use the TEACHING hat to effectively communicate ideas, ask questions that inspire curiosity, and create an appropriate learning environment. We use the ARTIST hat to share processes and techniques, promote exploration and discovery, and ask questions that will lead to more questions. We can introduce big “ART” ideas to a student, but it is our teaching skills that allow us to communicate those ideas effectively.

All of this brings us back to my sixth-grade student in the Bronx. I took a moment and asked her to consider her color options. I encouraged her to try out some color combinations first and I challenged her to determine how certain color choices would affect the rest of the piece. Most importantly, I asked her to choose a color and know WHY she chose it.

She did all of that, and called me over one more time. She looked up and said, “Mr. Jeff, I’m going to use this reddish purple. I want a color that stands out from the rest of the colors that I used. I want people to see this part right away. The red will catch their attention, and show them that this is the most important part of my story.” There it was. She made an artistic choice which assured that her story, and her voice, would be heard clearly.   In small moments like these I know that I have done my job as a Teaching Artist – with an emphasis on BOTH of the words.

More images created by my Art in Education 15500 students.  What are your goals as an artist and an educator?

More images created by my Art in Education 15500 students. What are your goals as an artist and an educator?



Jeff Hopkins


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