Am I a Teaching Artist or an Administrator?

Tone Deaf: Reflections on the National Association for Music Education
May 16, 2016
They Don’t Really Care About Us
August 15, 2016
by James Miles

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake.


I was a teaching artist for 15 years before I made the leap to full-time administrative work. A lot of factors contributed to this decision: I quit acting (feeling I needed to establish myself as something more than a performer), my wife lost her job, and I wanted to develop new skills. At that time, my colleague Michael Wiggins, newly crowned Director of Education at Urban Arts Partnership (UAP), was focused on increasing the pedagogical acumen of the organization. He hired me as an Instructional Coach for Fresh Prep (a groundbreaking program using Hip-Hop music and culturally responsive pedagogy to support previously failing New York City students as they work to pass the Social Studies and ELA Regents Exams). So I left acting in November of 2013.

“I realized that although teaching artists live from paycheck to paycheck, if scheduled strategically, TAs can make more money than their administrative counterparts.”

My first task at UAP was to write a process-drama curriculum that supplemented the program’s academically oriented Hip-Hop music; this was right up my alley, as I love designing engaging lessons for students. The wonderful thing was that writing this curriculum wasn’t too far off from the teaching artist work I’d been doing; the only difference was that I myself wouldn’t be teaching every lesson. It seemed like an easy transition into full-time, gainful employment. And, as I pushed to finish the first edition of Global History lessons for Fresh Prep, not once did I miss performing, particularly because while I was writing I was also able to observe our TAs in classrooms and lead professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. I was working in a field directly related to my passions, without having to worry about finding the next gig. Well, kind of…

What I learned — the hard way — is that my full-time salary, paid regularly every two weeks, was not enough to successfully subsist. Taxes were exorbitant, and I had to be in the office five days a week, so it was difficult to pick up extra work; I realized that although teaching artists live from paycheck to paycheck, if scheduled strategically, TAs can make more money than their administrative counterparts. As a teaching artist, I could cobble together various residencies to make a decent income. I didn’t receive paid vacation, but on the other hand I was not beholden to be anywhere. I could work a three-day week, focusing on something else the other four. I could go to a bar at noon on a Tuesday (which I often did, before my kids were born). This full-time job was actually putting me in the hole. I had to find a way to make more money.

As an actor, I always had a backup plan; with this in mind, I made sure that I stayed on the teaching artist rosters at several organizations. I was able to work weeknights, on Saturdays, and could even teach the occasional early-morning class before heading into the office at 10. I was hustling just as much as I had before my full-time gig, and yet I knew I needed to continue working as an administrator. Why? Because I felt people had more respect for an organization’s administrators than its teaching artists. Sensing an opportunity to grow as an educator, I had to spend less time in the classroom and more time behind a desk; it was frustrating, but I believed it would be beneficial in the long run. And, because I was a good Instructional Coach, I was quickly promoted to run UAP’s Professional Development Program. This seemed like a great move, mostly because I happen to love working with teachers and informing their practices; in fact, it is what I love most about being an adjunct instructor at NYU.

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James Miles played "Dax" in PBS' "The Electric Company."

Did I forget to write that? I’m also a university professor on the side. In 2010, when I was still acting and freelancing as a TA, I was asked to teach a college course, and over the years I have been offered several more.

In my first position at UAP, I juggled teaching multiple courses, writing curriculum, and working hands-on with Fresh Prep teams in schools. However, in my new role as Professional Development Manager, my primary focus became coordinating schedules; I was rarely able to observe team members, because all the workshops happened either at the same time (in four different boroughs) or during school hours, when I needed to be on-call for our TAs and partner organizations. This was a highly administrative job, and it did not allow me to teach as much as I liked. I was becoming the admin guy.

Did I miss performing? Not really. But I did miss being in the room with a group of students, creating magic. The days of “make a circle” and “clap once if you can hear me,” or “tell me how that made you feel,” were gone. I was beginning to long for those precious moments when I’d have to ask students to stop throwing markers, fighting, or, you know, licking each other. I was now a program manager who knew how to make one sick spreadsheet, use Salesforce, and transfer attendance records for the accountant to report. I was sinking into a sea of systems, trying to claw my way toward the light just above the breaks.

Soon after making this move, UAP received an Arts in Education — Model Development and Dissemination grant from the U.S. Department of Education to adapt Fresh Prep for middle schools; this new initiative was called Fresh Ed, and I was asked to come on as the Project Director. I would have to build the program from scratch: write new lessons, coordinate schedules, manage a multimillion-dollar budget, and create digital content. I was also elected to serve on the Board of Directors for Arts in Education Roundtable. Then came the news that a session I submitted had been accepted at SXSWedu. I would be facilitating a workshop in Austin, Texas, focused on teaching history through Hip-Hop. My hard work was being noticed and rewarded. I was beginning to see how I could live my life as a full-time arts educator.

Still, something was missing and I couldn’t really put my finger on it.

I don’t regret my decision to become a full-time administrator, but I sometimes wonder if it was the right choice. When I quit acting, I was a working actor, and as crazy as it seems, I really miss the need to look for more work. It kept me hungry. It drove me to be a better performer, educator, dad, and husband. On top of that, I long for the days of less predictability, when I could go home to visit family, have a beer with friends (even strangers), sit down to read a novel, work out, take a nap, and of course worry about money. Yes, there is some security in being a salaried employee, but there is nothing like working a gig and just getting paid for it. Every penny seems earned. As a freelancer, there was an immediate sense of value attached to every acting job or classroom residency. I honestly miss traveling from school to school, going from audition to audition, and living paycheck to paycheck.

On the other hand, I love the work we create and implement at UAP. I love empowering other teaching artists, and I love collaborating with people from different fields, on local and national levels. UAP was once again accepted to SXSWedu; this time I’ll moderate an earth-shattering panel: Can Hip Hop Save Us? Beyond SXSW, we’ve been able to showcase our work at NY Tech Meetup, NYC DOE District 75, NYC DOE iZone, Google Education Think Tank, Google Geek Street Fair, NYU, and more. And, in spite of all that, as an administrator I maintain a pretty consistent schedule. I am not flying to Iowa for a small part in a movie or traveling to DC for 3 months to work on a new play. I may travel for events, but those trips are planned months in advance and they’re always brief. For the most part, I see my family every day.

But I have to ask myself: am I happy? Is this what I set out to do after earning my MFA in Acting from Brandeis? I always knew teaching would be a constant (even when I was at Morehouse College, exploring different majors, I was a Benjamin E. Mays Teaching Scholar), but I had also assumed that I would continue to perform in some capacity.

Two years ago, my wife worked as a costume designer for MTV, so I stayed home with my kids and played all summer. I auditioned, I got work on a few TV shows, and I read a lot of books. I was relatively content, and my wife liked knowing her job was only 3 months long. We didn’t necessarily know how we would pay for food or rent when her job ended, but we were happy. And shouldn’t life be about happiness? That said, would we still be happy if/when acting jobs dried up and the relentless schedule of TV designers became a long-term reality for my wife? I guess we’ll never know.

Over the years, I have been able to build a strong reputation in the field of arts education; my passion for performing may have waned, but my passion for education has remained.

What would you do?

Written by: James Miles Project Director @ FreshEd

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