courtesy Built By Kids

courtesy Built By Kids

A wild, crazy year is finally wrapping up in the NYC museum education scene. Post conference, post rush for field trips, post bus strike and post Sandy – we are all looking forward to a summer, even with the financial stretch the season brings for teachers and museum educators alike. This was my first official full year freelancing, and there is one giant misconception I have to address: Museum Education is a field, and I do get paid for this.

Sounds like a strange misconception, doesn’t it?  A lot of people don’t necessarily understand what a museum educator DOES much less how different we are from docents. So with this post I offer a bit of clarity for my fellow educators and non-educators.

Museum educators are teachers in the museum. Our collections are the textbooks. Teachers plan for lessons – museum educators plan for lessons. A big difference – we do not have desks. You might see us with tour bags, creating art, inspiring conversation or even doing acting and movement activities in front of paintings.

We are trained to teach in a museum. Whether a museum uses inquiry or visual thinking strategy, we have spent time on pedagogy, professional development, conferences, meetings and training. Many educators have advanced degrees in History, Art History, Art Education, Studio Art, Science or Education. Some of us have gotten our Masters in Museum Education or Museum Studies. We have long conversations about multimodal learning, brainstorming activities that will both encourage critical thinking and keep students interested in what we are saying.

A lot of us (at least in NYC) are part-time or freelance.  While in Chicago leading an improv class, a fellow educator told me that ‘freelance’ sounds like ‘unemployed’ – and after my immediate annoyance, I realized we are one degree from unemployed – but isn’t everyone right now? As we all learned the hard way, if students can’t come to a museum (hurricane, strike) we don’t work. And if we don’t work we don’t get paid. Now with that anxiety, a gift – if we are sick, mentally exhausted, want vacation – we can create our own hours.

When we ‘book’ a tour, we are given the information provided by the teacher. That can be as detailed as a focus for the trip or as simple as just the grade level. Educators then work to plan the tour, researching works, creating activities and always having a backup plan. The day of the tour, we come in and meet students for the first (and often last) time. In the short time a class is with an educator, classroom management has to be established – and the lesson has to be taught. The visit might be an hour to three, and may involve a studio component. The class departs and this all starts over.

There is an entire argument revolving around docents and museum educators that I won’t even touch, but the largest difference between the two is pay. Generally speaking, docents work on a volunteer basis. They may receive perks to the museum, but not a paycheck.

Hopefully, museum education is a little clearer – both for educators AND other people – including my parents. Feel free to comment or ask questions about the field, happy to help!

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