This fall, the Farnsworth Art Museum will begin its eighth year of the Stories of the Land and Its People program, a yearlong in-depth project-based learning experience that connects art and student curiosity to curricular learning in the classroom.
Since the program’s inception, we have had a variety of partners with whom we are in constant dialogue: funders, teachers, students, teaching artists, administrators, other non-profits, community members, museum staff, docents, and parents/families. As the program continues to grow, I am often asked by other non-profits and teaching artists, many of whom juggle a variety of residencies throughout the year, “How have you been able to build and sustain long-term relationships with public schools?” Funding issues and time constraints are usually cited first as obstacles, but even once those challenges are met, hopeful collaborators struggle to engage and sustain partnerships.
Based on my work and research over the years, I can share the following tips and best practices for creating, sustaining, and growing these relationships.
Tip 1: Listen
As we know, public school educators face many challenges, including time constraints, testing schedules, increased demands and expectations, and low resources. My first tip is to simply listen. One of the best things I did in formulating this program was to interview local educators to learn more about their challenges and aspirations. After speaking to over 100 teachers and administrators, I learned that there was not a lack of well-wishing programs offering to engage schools, rather a lack of understanding for the support teachers needed to implement the learning they wished to do in the classroom. These conversations helped me tailor our program to the specific needs and interests of our partners.
Tip 2: Be an Ambassador
As a museum employee, it is often odd for people to hear that I view myself as an advocate for teachers. As someone who cares deeply about the benefits of arts-integration not only for the betterment of public school education, but also for humanity across the board, I have discovered that educators are my primary audience for growth in this philosophy. If educators feel supported and inspired, then their students will be, and shortly after, I see more engagement with parents and the community. If in the listening phase, a teacher identifies a struggle with school structure, I will speak to the administration to potentially re-structure. Flexibility and accommodations are often made when someone else is the advocate. Or when the museum has strict requirements and policies, I find ways to ease schools into the experience or provide additional support. Let teachers know you are aware of what they are facing and that you will do your best across the board to support and advocate for them.
Tip 3: Listen, again
Inevitably as your program begins to steam along, you will encounter new (and old) challenges. To not spiral too far down the wrong track, it is important to build in points of dialogue and accountability (for all partners). In addition to program evaluations, each year we conduct a focus group with our educators to talk “freely” about what worked and what didn’t. This dialogue provides rich feedback for how best to move forward and grow. It keeps our program relevant in the real-world issues of public school education.
Tip 4: Quality
At the end of the day, everyone wants a quality experience. Our data-driven society expects this accountability in the form of facts and figures. If you lack the data team needed to code student outcomes, I recommend other forms of documentation. A portfolio of student work remains the greatest asset to sharing and promoting student growth in our programs. Our exhibitions document and honor process work alongside final works of art to help demonstrate to the visitor the levels of growth our students have achieved throughout the process. For guidance, I reference the 2009, Harvard’s Project Zero publication The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, a report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. This resource is a helpful tool in guiding a quality arts-learning experience.
Tip 5: Make it visible
Communicate your successes! In addition to making student learning visible through public exhibitions and presentations, it is equally important to honor your partners, funders, and collaborators. It takes a village to guide a rich and in-depth learning experience. Acknowledge everyone (educators, administrators, community partners, staff assistants, etc.) visibly and publicly. For an additional touch, include personalized and private notes of gratitude, as well. Everyone works hard. Acknowledgement goes a long way to sustaining relationships with your team.
My concluding piece of advice is perhaps obvious, but it’s worth stating. Have respect for public school educators and the members of your team.
Each person contributes to the process and provides valuable expertise that will enrich the overall collaboration. Tapping into each other’s skills will enhance student outcomes and it is essential to developing long-term and in-depth partnerships.
Andrea L. Curtis
Andrea L. Curtis is the Education Program Manager and founder of the Arts in Education program at the Farnsworth Art Museum, a program dedicated to in-depth multi-visit learning experiences that connect inquiry-based visual learning to classroom education. Curtis holds graduate degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Arts in Education and the University of Maine in Communication with a focus on visual representation, critique, museum studies, informal learning, and children’s literature. She has lectured and instructed at Bates College and the University of Maine in rhetoric and communication and has received specialty training from Lincoln Center and Project Zero educators and artists. Curtis, a writer and dancer, is also a published reviewer of children’s books and young adult novels.