Learning to teach in art and design

Have you ever thought of teaching as a possible future career or way to support your practice? Dominique Hurth, an artist who has taught in art schools in Germany, France and the UK, tells it like it is

Teaching is first of all not a question of methods or techniques, but of personality; lasting influence is personal radiation…
- Josef Albers, 1940

To students, teaching often looks like a great future source of income. It enables more or less flexible hours, depending on the contract, and students may have the impression that all that teachers do is talk about art and give feedback to students. A dream job, it may seem. However, from teaching from one class per week to the conceptualisation and management of an entire course, the reality of teaching can be really different and involves a lot of administrative tasks, mental engagement that goes way beyond tutorial hours, and a never-ending intellectual process to stay up to date with the discourses in your field and related areas. All this while also keeping up with your own practice and everything connected to that.

Until recently, it has been possible to teach in art and design colleges and art schools on the basis of the artist’s body of work and reputation and his or her interest in education, although nowadays it is increasingly common for institutions to ask for formal teaching qualifications. Encountering practicing artists in art colleges is still the core of art education in most European countries, and exchanges with faculty or visiting artists often become landmarks in a young artist, designer or researcher’s development. Those encounters are personal, based on sharing, on gestures, and opening up new modes of practices and thinking processes. Both sides seem to be winning: the students are brought into contact with practising artists and learn from their experiences, while the teaching artists can get a lot out of the dialogue with students, stimulating an on-going process of reflection on artistic production.

My own way into teaching art happened mostly by accident, even though I have been interested in teaching for a long time. Through several workshops, invitations to be a visiting lecturer or to take part in graduation assessments, I acquired some insight into how art education works in various colleges and countries. This experience came through my peers –  other artists and thinkers whom I met when we gave talks together, or exhibited in the same show. Networking with your peers (artists, designers, writers, curators, theorists), as well as an eagerness to share your thoughts and ideas, make it more likely that you will be invited by art and design colleges for talks, studio visits, workshops, or even to teach a class or two. This has two clear advantages – you get more experience on your CV (in order to get a job in education, you have to show experience, sometimes many years, but you also have to show activity as an artist), and it also gives you an idea, a glimpse, of what teaching in art colleges can be. The difficulty is often the multi-faceted profile of institutions in art education (from universities, to small art school, via big colleges), as well as the different levels of teaching.

Because I was sick of freelancing and of full-time positions that were taking up all my time and leaving me nothing for my own practice, a position as associate researcher seemed ideal. After some months however, I had to ask myself several questions about teaching. These were brought into focus by the constant juggling between my practice, which remains my priority, and students, whose practices also demand my energy. I was teaching, tutoring and supervising on all levels, from BA, MA as well as being part of the PhD board on research in the arts – and all on a part-time basis. The questions were there from the beginning and I have not yet fully answered them; instead they have remained a general and inherent part of how I approach teaching:

  • Is teaching right for me and for my practice?
  • Is it the right time for me to teach?
  • How can I commit to both my own work and my students?
  • How much can one give of my own confidence and trust when those are fragile elements in my own practice?
  • How much can I get from the exchange?
  • How can I balance my own interests and the general interests of the department I teach in?
  • What can I actually teach?
  • What are my expectations of my students?
  • What language shall I use?
  • How can I work in more than one place?

…and so on. Art education is based on something that cannot be taught, that sometimes remains in the space of an encounter, and if teaching seems ideal for many reasons, it can also include tons of administrative and bureaucratic tasks that you may have little experience of and also may simply not be interested in.

In my first months of teaching, I tried to share as much as I could with my colleagues and friends who are also teaching: talking, complaining, laughing, getting enthusiastic, reading texts written by artists teaching, reading about art education (including critical voices as well as official university reports) and keeping myself open to the feedback from my students. In other words, I have been trying somehow to train myself, as I have no formal training in education. I am not sure training is needed, which does not mean that every artist is automatically a good tutor or lecturer, but I do believe in an artist’s ability to give something to a student that may not seem material or fixed, and may crystallise perhaps only years later. I am gaining my training through my practice, as I cannot imagine disconnecting the two parts of my work, but I also have to expand it through the teaching itself. I rely on practical experiences from previous jobs, advice from peers, and time.

Advice from others has been extremely important, covering practical issues (timetable, the dreadful grading and marking) as well as conceptual ones. In my first months of teaching, I also tried to maintain my own practice as much as I could, continuing to spend time producing, exhibiting and travelling. In other hands, I have been trying to merge two full-time positions in one week and one body. Even though my teaching position is not a full-time one, it is hard to draw a line, teaching not being a 9-to-5 job. The discrepancy between what makes you attractive for an art college – your practice, your portfolio, and your network – and on the other hand the abstract field of art education itself, can be on one hand an ideal space in which to move in and give you some kind of stability, or, on the other hand, a suffocating space for an artist.

These basic parameters seem to me to be important to consider while applying for a job in art education: how often would you like to teach (full time, part time, temporary)? What kind of formats (class, studio visits, tutorials, workshops), and where and what levels (undergraduate, university, foundation courses, etc.)? Are you more interested in teaching tools and techniques or general thinking and discourse? Why teaching seems to me too difficult a question to answer, as it is often based on your own experience on your own education; however, it is important to think about the reality of keeping up with a practice, if you think that teaching art only makes sense when done by practitioners themselves and not pedagogues. In the end, although I teach, I don’t see myself as a teacher, but as an artist, and that is how I can be of most value to my students.

How to look for jobs in art education

Get in touch with friends who teach and your former tutors, and ask if there are any opportunities to take part in their programme as a guest artist or visiting lecturer.

Individual universities and colleges usually advertise on their websites, but here are a few more general websites that often advertise teaching posts:

The Guardian Jobs arts and heritage section

The Arts Council’s jobs site

Academic jobs website ­– search for specific schools, or browse by subject