Two Sides, One Coin

Posted by Ms. Erika Atkins, Sep 26, 2018

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” —Pablo Picasso

As an arts educator, it’s crucial to your students that you’re able to bring your artist self into the room as a living example of how they too can be artists. However, it can be difficult for individuals like myself who work as arts teachers and administrators. So how do you balance the two?  For me, the solution has been to let the two be one. It took me a while to do this intentionally, but I let my creativity influence my approach to administrative solutions and let my task-oriented thinking manage the flow of my class. The key is remaining aware and perceptive of when it’s time to let things be, and when it’s time to stay organized—or as I frequently say, “create structure for the chaos to happen in.”

Right after college I worked at a music school in D.C., where I became an administrator and a teacher in our outreach programs. I’d never facilitated in a school classroom in my life, let alone in an at-risk neighborhood. My previous experiences working with children taught me how to adjust in the moment, but in this new setting I learned that sometimes I needed to completely scrap a lesson and build a new one on the spot to meet the needs of my students. Looking back, I realize that my experience in theater had given me the skill set to make that transition. Improv and theater exercises are all about “Yes, and”—the idea that you say “yes” to the contributions of your scene partners and then build upon them. Teaching in this setting demanded that I tap into that philosophy.

Early in my career, I learned that my administrative skills were just as strong as my performance skills. My writing capabilities were useful for many tasks, and I had an intuitive ability to create and implement administrative systems, most surprising of which were financial systems. I love spreadsheets. LOVE them. I also began to develop the ability to identify the kind of professional development people needed to complete their jobs, and to find fun and active ways to meet those objectives. My desire to make things visually appealing also made me highly organized.

The teamwork skills I’ve learned as an artist have also influenced my approach to administration. While I still do a lot of solitary administrative projects, I've learned so much about the value of collaboration when building operations plans. One of the best ways to build administrative systems that work is to let the people who will use them help create them. They will feel more invested. Working with fellow artists, educators, and administrators over the past decade has shaped my views on how teams can creatively work together on a variety of projects and helped me be more innovative.

A few years ago, while studying at Drexel, I did an independent study on creativity in arts administration and education. I reached out my colleagues, mentors, and teachers (including my art professor mom) to ask how they had found ways to identify aspects of creativity in their administrative work. For example, rather than sitting at a desk to do planning you can write on Post-its and put them on the walls, or you can reflect on a project by creating a mini piece of art. One administrator said, “When I’m making a beautiful spreadsheet, sometimes, it’s soothing and lovely. Like a work of art—you work to create something clear.” The feedback I received helped me see more clearly that others in the field also are intuitively searching for ways to fuse their multifaceted skills. I can’t help but immediately think about how beneficial and crucial this is for our students. As the safekeepers of arts education, it’s important that we are able to be examples of the doors arts education can open for people.

Once while speaking on a panel, a fellow panelist told the group of graduate students they should find the part of the artistic process that excites them the most and make a career of it. I realized that I have unintentionally done just that. It brings me great joy that I’m able to use the skills and interest I’ve accumulated towards work that I’m truly passionate about, using arts education to help shape a thoughtful, empathetic, and innovative generation of leaders. As I begin another school year, I have a wish for the young people I work with and who my work touches: I hope they too can utilize their experiences in the arts as an entry point to a larger world of creative thinking, no matter where they go in their lives. I hope they can identify their favorite aspect in their experiences and use it as a catalyst to their passion. I hope that those I work with directly see me as a proof that it is possible.