A Teaching Artist’s Journey: From Serving Kids to Building Teacher Capacity

In 2009, when I began my first year as a Ford’s Theatre teaching artist, our youth programming was focused primarily on teaching oratory to middle school students through out-of-school time residencies. We specialized in long- and short-term residencies, with a curriculum that led students from analyzing and reciting historical speeches in their schools to performing original speeches on the stage of Ford’s Theatre.

Oratory students performing at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Gary Erskine.

I settled well into these direct-service residencies at area schools—relishing the light in students’ eyes when I came through the door, delighting in each learning breakthrough and moment of self-discovery. In this time of educational challenges both local and national, I championed the role of the teaching artist, a person who could help facilitate a customizable arts-integration experience in the classroom. I earned the respect and admiration of colleagues who felt I had a unique ability to guide young people toward significant demonstrations of self-expression.

Quite simply, I felt special.

Over the following two years, Ford’s refined its education focus and began to devote more resources to in-school residencies and building teacher capacity. I was going to need to work more closely with teachers and model my arts-driven lesson plans for teachers to repeat in my absence.

Initially I was resistant. As unreasonable as it sounds, deep down I felt that if I revealed my “secrets” to unlocking the students’ ability to express their learning in a creative way, I would become obsolete. I would no longer be special. If a teacher could simply replicate my work, then what would be the purpose of engaging in future teaching artist residencies? What would be the purpose of the teaching artist? Didn’t my distinctive combination of skills and training in artistry and teaching made me irreplaceable? Students typically reached their learning outcomes. Wasn’t that good enough? Wasn’t I special?

National Oratory Fellow Dave McIntire and his class at work.

In time, I would come to face the harsh, necessary truth that I was, in fact, not special. That the strategies I introduced needed to be duplicated by the teachers I worked with, in order to build capacity.

The light bulb first came on when I was required to observe the work of some of my teacher-partners. I watched them repeat several of my performance and team-building strategies in class, and the students were successful in their subsequent learning demonstrations. I would come to learn that direct service with students, while personally fulfilling, was limited to the space I occupied at any given time. My teacher-partners could create an environment where my work would reverberate to a wider radius, reaching more students over time. Further, I learned many classroom management and content-related strategies from the teachers I’ve worked with. It began to dawn on me that a successful in-class residency requires a combination of the teacher’s content expertise with my performance and team-building proficiency. That was special.

Oratory Festival students perform at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Gary Erskine.

I am admitting to a prior misunderstanding of the power of my own work not for public catharsis, but as an acknowledgement of the time that it often takes to truly appreciate the value of the teacher/teaching artist connection. The reciprocity of our learning process helped me understand that in-school residencies are not about filling in holes, but about using my artistic and teaching skill sets to broaden and enhance learning: the students’ learning, the teacher’s learning, and my own.

Thembi Duncan is former Lead Teaching Artist and Programs Administrator in the FTS education department. A native of the Washington area, she has performed as a professional actor in the region for over a decade. She holds a BA in Theatre from the University of Maryland and is a published poet and emerging playwright.