Dallas — For this column, I am deviating from my previous work because something completely unexpected occurred: I received two job offers from two universities for full time positions in the next academic year. Completely by surprise. I hadn’t been searching for jobs or writing letters to apply, everything just aligned. And boom, here are two chances to start a new life.
This good fortune came at a needed time, because even though I am an adjunct at two universities (with a total of five college level courses lined up for the fall and directing a college production) and a teaching artist with six major arts groups in Dallas, the finances were simply not adding up. I was starting to plan how I could add on a more stable part-time job on top of my other work in the fall. This is something a lot of other teaching artists do, because our work is simply not as stable or regular. So for this article, I’d like to discuss the teaching artist as a worker. A laborer.
Not to be harsh on my profession (after all, this is what I chose to do), but I do wish that someone had sat me down and told me the reality of a teaching artist’s job when I first started working four years ago. Even though I do see the change I am making in my students’ lives, there are significant drawbacks for this profession. You know, there’s really no such thing as a full-time teaching artist. We all work multiple places and juggle schedules as best as we can.
In my first job as a teaching artist, I made a deal with a theatre company to be the assistant director of a youth training program, working full-time hours (four hours in the offices in the mornings, four hours with students in the afternoons, plus some Saturdays too). They offered me $200 a week plus housing in an unair-conditioned dorm. While I was excited about the opportunity to teach, I had also just finished an MFA program. I thought: Wow. That is really what I am worth. Have I made a terrible mistake?
Two years later when I moved to Dallas, I reached out to many theatre groups about teaching artist opportunities. While the market for teaching artists is actually quite good in comparison to the rest of the country, earning a living with brief and unpredictable contracts can be quite the challenge. The regularity of these opportunities is questionable, getting funding for programming is really out of the teaching artist’s hands. The unpredictability of some of these issues has led me away from taking a normal part time job, because you never really know when the phone will ring with an opportunity. Companies are waiting for an opening, they have to either gather students who will pay for programs or find funding elsewhere. As a teacher, I don’t have any real say in this, I’m waiting for an administrator to line everything up so I can actually teach and get paid.
I also wish that someone had told me how different the duration of contracts could be. It’s truly a puzzle to make them all work together. Some contracts, I’m on campus for an hour, others up to five. It can be stressful trying to align all of these different teaching schedules that you desperately need. I have had contracts for a day, two weeks, to one I’m working right now that is a glorious nine-month contract. Nine months of consistency. It may only be four hours a week, but I still weep a tiny bit just thinking about it.
Part of what makes the full-time position so enticing, is that I am constantly thinking about what happens after the end of each contract. You may get an offer for a job, but it will only be for 10 weeks, then the contract is up. You can’t live on 10 weeks with 20 hours of total work; it’s impossible. What will I do next? Who should I check in with about spring, summer, or fall opportunities? Have I bugged some people too much? I actually keep a chart of who I have contacted and the dates so I can know when I’m being too aggressive. There are also dead periods and busy periods. The fall is typically light, since school is just getting started, spring gets busier, and the summer is the time for a lot of work since students are out of school.
During one of the worst times in the fall, my schedule was completely packed and bizarre. On Mondays, I would drive an hour to one campus near Irving for one class then head up to Richardson for one class then go to Highland Park for two classes, then go back to the Irving school to direct a show. I won’t tell you about the rest of the week because it would make you dizzy. Right now, I am contracted with five separate groups, and it would be simple if I were just teaching five classes (five microcosms). But that’s never the case. I actually teach 10 separate student groups with 16 class sessions a week. They range from three year olds to college students. All kinds of theatre, all kinds of maturity levels, lots and lots of code switching.
When I get a teaching artist contract, although I am happy about getting work, there are also a number of other factors that eat at my mind. One in particular that a significant amount of companies use is “independent contractor” status. For those of you who are oh so lucky to be fully employed, here’s what the IRS has to say about it (I know, we’re talking about some sexy stuff today): “ The general rule is that an individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done… The earnings of a person who is working as an independent contractor are subject to Self-Employment Tax.” And oh, I felt the burn of Self-Employment Tax a month ago. It reminded me of when I was a teenager, someone told me to put some salt and an ice cube on my hand and wait. I felt the pain.
A few of the companies I work for hire me as an independent contractor, but upon further reading, my status appears to be grayer. In some ways, my work does fall under an employee as all the companies I work for do tell me “When and where to do the work.” I mean, I don’t show up to these schools at random hours of the day. A couple of companies also offer training sessions, show us how to make suitable lesson plans, give me assistants to accomplish the work, and evaluate instructors. Those all fall under “Employee Behavior Control.” Another issue that raises a red flag is that if the worker’s “services provided as Key Activity of the Business” then they should be listed as an employee. Now, this is a puzzling one. If the organization is set up to bring arts instruction to students, then it may seem pretty obvious that teaching is a part of the key activity of that business. But then again, these contracts are for a set period of time with only a few hours a week, so can that really be considered an employee? And I’m hired for one project and then move on to something else, there’s a definite end. It’s a very muddy issue. Teaching artists don’t regularly meet to discuss it, and when people do start bringing this up, it can lead to being blacklisted. I deleted a lot more about the specifics but there is a fun four-page questionnaire you should check out on the IRS website. (I’m gonna guess you didn’t look that up.)
With the debate about workers' rights and compensation in the service industry, adjuncts in universities and most recently nail salons, there are parallels to a teaching artist’s work. But I doubt you will see strikes or loud protests, partly because most artists are grateful for any opportunity to work in their field. There’s a tendency to think that working in the arts is not a real profession. (For example, I have an uncle who asks me every Christmas and Thanksgiving: When’re you gonna get you a real job? I reply, “Thank you for your concern Uncle Don, I have eight jobs.”) You should just be grateful to get any kind of job in the arts, like these financial logistics don’t matter as long as you get to create your work. Well, maybe I watch Shark Tank too much, but I don’t buy it. I believe that teaching is work.
Another element that I see missing from some teaching artist programs is community. It’s a very isolated kind of work. Even though you have 10 to 20 students at a time, it’s really rare to see your peers. You may see them at a training once or twice a year or catch up with other teachers during a break, but there are some places I work for where I get a phone call with the location and show up on the first day without even meeting face to face for a planning meeting. I’m just curious what this is all doing for arts in education. It’s a job that is temporary and kind of unsustainable. If you have a workforce like this, it makes a revolving door effect.
When I reflect on myself as a worker, I can’t help but compare to the “perfect life” myth I have created for myself. I think we all have some sort of grandiose vision of what we can achieve, what we can dream for ourselves. Mine includes making an impact on a specific community and being able to live without worry. But I have a significant amount of stress always leading back to money. In those wonderful moments where I can feel that my students are learning a lot about themselves and each other in my theatre classes, I know that 10 minutes later I need to zoom away to the next teaching gig all the way across town or send out an email to grab my next job. There’s not a lot of room to simply breathe. I think sometimes I spread myself too thin, constantly having to switch myself without some sort of home base. It really makes it easy to say yes when a full time opportunity in the arts comes along.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages. Below is a list of previous columns: