Since Amanda Gorman's performance on Inauguration Day, it is nice to see the world acknowledge spoken word, poetry’s power, and organizations like Urban Word, Youth Speaks, and Get Lit who dedicate their energy and funding to keeping that power alive in young people. As a poet and performer, it is like seeing a good friend at the party enjoying themselves when you haven’t seen them in a long time. Spoken-word, as an art form, now has a national platform and it is finally receiving flowers. Its connection to healing and liberation is being shown. With that said: Educators, policymakers, journalists, and community organizers who have spoken word on your mind these days, I have one request: Please take this time to listen and take advantage of teaching artists in your community.
When I say take advantage of teaching artists, I mean pay them more, I mean to hire more of them, I mean listen to them, I mean treat them like a vital part of your educational community and not an elective side dish that you might be in the mood for sometimes. As a teaching artist myself, I too have the battle scars and the championship belts of doing my best to get spoken word in the classroom. Sometimes it felt like I was pushing on a heavy door just to have the opportunity to defend art education’s case. Poetry gave me a voice as a young Black girl when I didn’t know that I had one. Spoken word and performing reminded me that my voice was valuable and could be put to use for my liberation. As an educator, I have a mission to give that gift back to students who may need the reminder of how much their voice means to the world. But once I pushed the door open and got the chance to do that work as a teaching artist, I was either a ghost or a hologram. The teachers didn’t see me, the principal might know of me, and in the community, I was a blip on the schedule. The collaboration was rare from exhausted teachers who had their heavy door to push to get their job done and afterschool programs that were already stretched thin as it is. Systematically, I get it. Education has much healing and re-prioritizing to do. But now, in 2021, there is nothing but time to imagine a new possibility and have the courage to make some changes. Teaching artists can help.
After some years of going to empty classrooms where they forgot I was teaching and seeing teachers enter after-school classrooms loudly and disrupting the learning that was still happening, I had to take a stand, so I decided to go back to school to get my master’s degree. I was tired of being seen as the “little teaching artist” who likes to perform, a disposable moment. During my time in graduate school, I sought out teaching opportunities that valued me as an educator and artist holistically. I demanded to know the principal’s name, the security guards, the teacher’s struggles and goals, the student’s lives, and their desired milestones. This was not easy, but it could be easier if organizations and educational districts opened their ears and hearts to arts education as you did when Amanda Gorman took to the podium on January 20th. That is when I decided to write an autoethnography for my thesis on my experience as a teaching artist, the systematic challenges we all face, and the ways we can address them in our communities.
Teaching artists are not only poets and painters who need a job. We are passionate pioneers who will do whatever it takes to allow students to experience art in the classroom. We have ideas that go beyond being a blip on the schedule and we can help if you listen and hear us. Spoken word’s power is not new, it’s eons old and if you are truly inspired then please invest in the voices, artists, and organizations available in your district, on your block, in your network, because we’ve been telling the truth for a long time and it has never been a secret. Given everything that this past year brought us and taught us, I ask that educators, district leaders, policymakers, journalists, and community organizers be courageous in implementing change that gives spoken word and other art forms a more permanent home in education, classrooms, learning spaces and healing spaces. Turn your admiration into sustainable change so that this inspiration doesn’t become a fleeting feeling… Teaching artists are a great place to start.
Tayllor Johnson currently resides in New York City where she has begun her journey into Poet. Passion. Period. In between those learning moments, she sometimes has just enough time to jot a few lines...