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What makes a good creative arts teacher

Brooke Boland

From Facebooking lectures to more human connections, the relationships between arts educators and students has definitely changed.
What makes a good creative arts teacher

Arts education is a highly competitive field and the best courses are constantly revising how they teach as new technologies and changing workplaces create new opportunities and challenges.

But whatever equipment or studio is available, the student-teacher relationship remains key to effective education. So ​how do creative arts courses ensure their teachers provide the guidance students need?

Leading by example

Teachers who have deep experience themselves are key to the education students receive at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Marketing Recruitment Manager Scott Bellamy said students at the school benefited from being in a city where there are high quality working actors. 

‘Being a drama conservatoire based in London, students benefit from intensive teaching hours compared to traditional university courses,’ he said. ‘Staff at Central are not just here to train you, but are at the cutting edge of their field, many of whom are acting practitioners themselves.'

Bellamy said staff were able to teach through example and to help students make connections with the industry. 

‘Central is one big community of people who are all passionate about creative and performing arts; this is evident from the moment you walk through the door with staff who are not only immersed in their subject but active practitioners passing on existing knowledge and creating new knowledge through their research.’  

These relationships continue when students leave the course, with many alumni continuing to have contact with the school and future students.

Enabling exploration

At NIDA, teachers navigate a careful balance between control and allowing students to self-govern.

‘NIDA is a conservatoire style school, so the teachers work alongside the students instructing and developing the various practices taught here. We are all on a first name basis and we try and engender as relaxed an atmosphere as possible. While it’s necessary to stay in control, there’s no expressed hierarchy between staff and pupil,’ said Nicholas Day, Head of Staging at NIDA.

The approach is ‘arms-length’ explained Day, so that students can discover the questions they often need to solve. ‘We’re never too far away with the answers if needed. I’d like the students to feel we’re both part of and exploring our domain together, not being dictated to from above.’

Open communication

When teaching students at the Academy of Film, Theatre and Television, Kim Ramsay focuses on developing a humanl relationship with students. ‘I see teaching as more like a mentoring relationship,’ she said.

‘I have students contact me on Facebook and ask me questions like, “can you look at my showreel and give me advice?” “I’m tossing up between these two ideas, what do you think?” It’s about being accessible and able to offer support.’

Ramsay and other teachers at AFTT often remind students that the minute they step into film school, they are part of the industry. ‘It’s a two way street for communication,’ explained Ramsay, and often it doesn’t stop just because they graduate.

‘Sometimes you can help them get some work after film school or maybe, when they are one or two years out, they get in touch and say, “Hey, I’m ready to put my show on the festival circuit, can I ask you a few questions or can you read my new script.”’

Developing students’ autonomy

Anne Wilson, lecturer in art and performance at Deakin University, said the relationship between teacher and student has ‘definitely changed.’

‘The old model of getting up and lecturing to students is outdated: it is more about activating this sense of agency. We give them a provocation or an enquiry, then facilitate their learning.’

This focus on building agency helps students to develop their critical thinking skills, rather than encouraging rote learning. The thinking behind this approach is that students will be better prepared for their future careers in the arts, where a lot of value is placed on self-direction.

‘The lecturers are very aware of the world that the students are going into. We work a lot in collectives and with collaboration. It's important that we facilitate their agency, and give students a sense of autonomy,’ said Wilson.

‘Because we give the students a sense of agency, lots of self discipline and self motivation is required. They need to be driven and engaged.’

Building respect 

Respect for the content of the course - and for the people involved is essential, according to JMC Academy lecturer Antony Waddington 

‘The fundamental requirement I would suggest that must exist in any training domain is respect. 'As long as students feel they are in a supportive environment, hopefully they will feel confident to contribute their responses to ideas and theories that are being examined.'

Waddington believes students come to respect the value of a humanities degree in its ability to foster creative and versatile thinking not just to provide job opportunities. 

‘The realm of humanities (arts, creative industries) is one where an ability to engage in informed dialectic requires developing skills in reason and critical thinking.  This in turn produces emerging talent who can contribute to any field with a competent creative sensibility: i.e. they can synthesise complex problems and proffer multi-faceted alternatives. ‘

More often people extol the value of arts degrees as students graduate with the ability to rethink traditional models and are seen as more socially engaged.

‘We hear much about the importance of STEM subjects in our national debate and how can one disagree in terms of building a knowledge economy.  However, adding the letter 'A' to that acronym produces STEAM - surely a more productive and exhilarating equation.’

Keeping fundamentals unchanged

Technology has also had an impact on the way educators work, but this can be both positive and negative. ‘Mobile phones have become not only the bane of theatres but also learning institutions,’ said Head Lecturer in Acting at the National Theatre Drama School Trent Baker.

‘I don’t mean this in a superficial reaction to new technologies. I personally love new technology. I mean that the addictive nature of phones and social media serves as a great distraction to the mind of the student... I personally make sure all technologies are off before class begins.’

But fundamentally, Baker said the relationship between student and teacher has stayed the same. ‘The teacher is entrusted with the welfare of the student. The teacher’s responsibility is to educate, support, nurture, challenge and question the student. The teacher also needs to know their material inside out. The students’ responsibility is to learn, listen, take risks, work hard, be attentive and be open. In the 18 years I have been teaching the same basic principles have applied.’

While the basic principles may still apply, things have changed in the ballet studio. ‘The ballet studio, in my day as a student, was an atmosphere of do not talk, and definitely do not ask questions,’ said Beverly Jane Fry, Director of Ballet at The National Theatre Ballet School.

‘My style of teaching, since I started, has always been about a positive interactive atmosphere in the studio. The students are encouraged to work as a team, think for themselves and process all the information which has been delivered with clear guidance and a vibrant energy.’

About the author

Brooke Boland is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.