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How to Work with Artists in Schools

By The Arty Teacher - August 21, 2023

Many schools invite artists to talk about their work and working life and deliver workshops to their students.  It can be a large chunk of an art department budget, so it’s important to get the most out of the experience, both for your department’s professional development as well as the experience the students have.

With the launch of my new ‘Artists in Schools’ database, I wanted to speak to some experts to get advice about how to make this work for the artist and the school.  Who better to speak to than veteran artist-work-shoppers Darrell Wakelam and Sarah Graham?

Darrell Wakelam is the ‘cardboard king’ and has been delivering 3D workshops to mainly primary schools for over 30 years.  Darrell fell into teaching after completing a degree as an illustrator.  Realising a solitary life wasn’t for him, he jumped at the chance to help out at a residential art centre where he had previously volunteered when they were suddenly left short-handed.  He worked there for 13 years, working with schools from across the country.  He is now in demand across the Southwest of the UK and has even published a successful book, ‘Art Shaped’ #Ad

Darrell Wakelam with students.

Artist Sarah Graham works with a school every month and offers Zoom meetings too.  She has also delivered professional development for art teachers.  She juggles this with her thriving art career and is usually booked six months in advance.  Her often-large canvases of brightly coloured Chupa Chups, Sindy’s and iconic plastic toys are hugely popular with teachers and students alike.  No wonder she’s in demand.

Here is the sage advice they offered me.

Advice for Teachers

Book Well in Advance.

Popular artists like Darrell and Sarah are taking bookings 6 months to a year in advance.  Sarah Graham only offers one day a month to schools and soon gets snaffled!  You may find artists in my database that are newer to offering workshops or not as well-known who may be able to come in sooner.  Either way, plan.

Sarah Graham with students at Barnwell school in Stevenage

How many students?

Many artists will have a cap on how many students they are willing to work with.

“Be clear on how many students it is.  You have to cap it, [too many] can be a limiting factor.” Said Graham.

Proximity

Don’t assume the artist works in your area.  Darrell Wakelam works in the Southwest of England and Sarah Graham works in an hour’s radius of her home.  Check the artist you like is willing to come to your school.

Structure of the Day

“It’s good to know the break times so you can figure out how the day is going to work.” Suggested Graham.

Consider it Art Teacher Professional Development.

Art teachers are often crying out for relevant professional development.  Inviting an artist to work with students can help fill this need.

“If I was a primary school teacher, I would be in there as I would think, this person has different skills that I’ve got so I’m going to sponge as many ideas as I can. I’d be taking photographs and taking notes.” Said Wakelam.

Sarah Graham agreed. “Be present and be involved as well.  I have had some teachers disappear.”

Enthusiasm

Both Graham and Wakelam had huge amounts of enthusiasm for what they do with schools.  I would be excited if they were coming into my school.

Graham said “Highlight to the kids what a great opportunity this is.  I didn’t meet a practising artist until I graduated.  Let them know it’s a big deal to meet someone who is a professional artist.  Highlight that, maybe?”

Admin

Wakelam mentioned having his DBS ready.  (In the UK, artists need to have a ‘Disclosing and Barring Service’ certificate, which is essentially a way for employers to check if they have a criminal record.)  Below are other points of admin:

  • Where is the artists going to work? (Especially relevant for primary schools)
  • Who is going to cover your other lessons whilst you are with the artist?
  • Do you need room changes?
  • Where will the artist park?
  • They may need help bringing in their materials and equipment.

Advice for Artists

Be Professional

Darrell Wakelam had lots to say about professionalism.

“Only 50% of the reason you get employed or re-employed by the same people is actually down to the work you do.  The other 50% is how professional you are.  You get some artists who go and work in a school, no one can connect with them, they don’t answer their emails, they don’t pick up the phone, they turn up without the materials, they haven’t got DBS, they haven’t got insurance.  If you are a professional, you make sure all of those boxes are ticked…I try and contact them before they contact me.”

Darrell Wakelam with students.

Other great advice that Wakelam gave was:

  • “Do the chasing.  Teachers are not able to find the hours to be chasing up someone else’s job.
  • Be prepared to write a risk assessment. Once you have done this once, it’s just a question of doing a lot of cutting and pasting.
  • You’ve got to have your own public liability insurance as you are bringing in equipment and tools into schools.
  • Photograph everything and if people say nice things, jot it down and ask if you can use it as a quote.
  • Arrange for someone to help you carry stuff if needed.
  • Make sure you have the correct support.  Check that younger children or those with special educational needs have the correct support.  Make it clear that you don’t expect to be left alone with them.  There may be an age group that you do feel comfortable being left with, especially if you have specified a group size and may be working with half a class whilst the teacher is with the other half.  Every school is different.”

Time Management

“If I could travel back and watch me in my twenties, I’d be shaking my head and going ‘Oh no, don’t do that! I hadn’t yet learnt those ways of making the process shorter or making it longer to fit into the timescale.” Said Wakelam.

Darrell is now expert at planning a task that fills the time but mentioned the following strategies as useful for artists who are new to working with children.

  • With younger students, you could ask them what they would like to see you draw.  Children often enjoy watching someone who can really draw.
  • Introduce some planning by stopping students working and ask them what they need to do next. This way they can share good ideas.
  • Plan something extra that students can do should you need them to.  It might be something that they use the next day with you, or something they add to what they are making or drawing. Having something pre-planned, takes the stress out of it.

The Fee

If you are an artist who is planning on working in schools for the first time, it’s difficult to know what to charge.

Graham said “Bear in mind school budgets.  I work it out based on what I would earn on a day in the studio when I’m painting.  Don’t expect too much as most schools are limited with their budgets.  This is a big chunk of their annual budget going on this.”

Sarah Graham with students at Barnwell school in Stevenage

Creating Memories

“I just want the kids to have a day they will remember.  Just be mindful; you could create a really big impact on the students.  Give as much as you can to them.” Said Graham.

“Even after doing this for a very long time, when I go into a new class, in a new school, and I walk into that room, I always feel nervous…If you’re nervous about something, it’s because you care.” concluded Wakelam.

Finding Artists Who Work in Schools

If you are looking for artists who work in schools in your country and area, look no further than my ‘Artists in Schools’ database.

Checklist for Organising an Artist Working in Your School

Click on the image below to find a checklist for organsing an artist to work in your school.

Artists in Schools Checklist

If you have enjoyed this article ‘How to Work with Artists in Schools’ why not subscribe to my weekly newsletter by clicking the image below.  If you’re an art teacher, you’ll be able to download 3 of my free resources every month too.

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The Arty Teacher

Sarah Crowther is The Arty Teacher. She is a high school art teacher in the North West of England. She strives to share her enthusiasm for art by providing art teachers around the globe with high-quality resources and by sharing her expertise through this blog.

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