An amazing thing happened in March of 2020 – with no preparation, no warning, and no training, teachers around the world had to pivot toward creating learning experiences with empty classrooms and studios. There was no policy. Guidelines were late in coming. But the change happened. Teachers at the Community Music Center of Boston moved most of their lessons online, teachers at the Community Music School of Springfield began making YouTube videos of lessons for students to access asynchronously, and education staff at Barrington Stage Company facilitated four hours of youth-developed theater on Zoom.
Other teachers recognized that their role might be different as youth were inside of homes that may have contributed to trauma in their lives. So they started connecting with young people as exactly that – young people. To ask how someone is, rather than ask them to create art or music, was needed and teachers were quick to recognize this. From simple questions to directing youth to food shelters, teachers were – and continue to be – that essential connection between cultural organization and youth.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists we have seen cultural organizations go to great lengths to retain their teachers for many reasons. Chief among them is the fact that these people cannot be replaced. There is a significant and systemic gap between higher education and the realities of community-based work, particularly in creative youth development. There are great musicians, artists, and poets in the world but few have experience and a deep understanding of youth development. There are tremendously talented youth workers in the world, but few have the skills to create high-quality cultural experiences.
As we emerge from the current environment and reconstruct our communities and institutions, it is essential that we include and value the voices of these educators. They are the people who connect institutions to communities and to people. They are finding ways to sustain programs, young people, and themselves during the pandemic. They are the people at institutions everywhere who have a unique experience of this work at a community level. Historically, these are the people who are cut first and the people who are not always represented at decision-making levels of organizations. They are the keepers of institutional knowledge. Their voice in planning, sustaining, and leading organizations out of this crisis is imperative. Just as we found ourselves in a reality we could never have expected just two months ago, as we collectively rebuild, educators should find themselves at tables they never expected as key voices for connectivity and change.