Monday, April 13, 2009

Teaching as a Life-Line

I have been an adjunct teacher since 2003. That was the year that Richard O'Connor recommended me to Parsons School of Design to temporarily take over a class he was teaching. I was deep in my "land of milk and honey" Blue's Clue's job, which turned out to be almost 8 years of end-to-end employment. Back then, I wasn't hurting for money, and it would have been very easy to turn the teaching down. Most of my colleagues weren't teaching on the side. A small handful were. Teaching is something that had always been on my personal fear list and therefore it was something I had to do. If something is a new experience, it's probably something useful. In fact, animation producer Tina Moglia just told my career class that her only factor to stay on a job is, "Am I learning anything?"

So, how do you get an opportunity to teach? First of all, work in the industry. Local schools such as Parsons, Pratt, SVA, and NYU don't require that an adjunct teacher have a Master's degree or even a Bachelor's degree. You only need to be a working professional and that includes most of us! The next thing to do is to be an active member of the animation community. Let others see you running events, making films, and volunteering for organization's like ASIFA-East. This will grow your profile and show that you are reliable and able to juggle multiple tasks. Thirdly, tell animation teachers you know that you're interested in teaching. Current teachers are often the first ones to hear about positions opening. Usually, current teachers get a crack at the first new opportunities, but not all of them are a good fit, and many times a teacher will be able to pass the lead on to their contacts. Lastly, you can also try to set up a meeting with the head of the school's animation department and present yourself as a potential teacher.

The interesting thing about teaching one class is that it tends to mushroom into several classes, perhaps even spread over different schools. Just six months after taking on my first class at Parsons, Machi Tantillo recommended that I take over her Animation Career class at SVA. It was the class that inadvertently launched me as an author when my class plan spun off for the book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive (Allworth Press). A couple of years later, John Canemaker brought me in as temporary teacher at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, at which I will return to teach a pair of classes this year. School's like to give multiple classes to teachers that are already proven commodities, which only makes sense. But, new teachers crack through every so often, so try to make yourself one of the success stories by following the plan above.

The income that my first class brought in (teaching one 15-week class pays about $3,000) wasn't something I needed in 2003. But, it sure helped me in 2004 when I returned to the freelance life for 10 months, and again in 2007 to the present day when I became a full-time at-home freelancer. Income-wise, teaching has become a life-line, a guaranteed check that I can count on. It represents the very least amount of money I can make in a tough year such as 2009. The other nice thing about teaching is how it flexible it can be. Many times, the teacher can suggest a day and time that works best for them. When possible, I try to do most of my teaching at 6 PM classes, and that way when I have a full time in-house job, the class won't interfere.

Most of all, I really appreciate the way teaching puts me into contact with the upcoming generations of animation artists. It's inspiring to see the work they do and then to see them achieving success in the industry upon graduation. Its nice to know that, as a teacher, you had some small part in that. Not all the work an animation artist takes on in a career is work we can feel proud of...but, I find teaching has always been a rewarding experience. It's become a vital part of my career cocktail. Its the lime in my gin and tonic. A small part, but one the makes a big contribution to the whole.


Chris said...

I've been finding the same thing, Dave.
I haven't actually taught a class yet, only spoken at one friend's class and taught a guest lesson for another, but I was surprised and inspired by the level of interest.
I guess I was expecting them to be uninterested and surly.
Instead, there are students that ask pretty insightful questions, forcing me to think about what Ive been taking for granted.
Speaking with people who are so excited about their projects is contagious.

David B. Levy said...


You bring up a good point that guest speaking and guest teaching/subbing are also good entry ways into teaching. Also appearing on panels, and doing on-stage interviews and Q and A's aren't bad.

Tom said...

Great post, I've found all of these things to be true! And it's a cliche, but true, that as a teacher you learn quite a bit yourself. Preparing lessons has given me a great reason to dig in to all kinds of online animation resources & books in a way I might not have otherwise.

stephen said...

i second chris on guest speaking. i was at a festival recently that brought filmmakers into the classroom of a local middle school. One class of 5th graders i spoke with possessed a level of energy rarely seen in my college courses.

i appreciated their honesty too. upon telling one youngster that I had animated on a well-known preschool show, he unashamedly admitted, "I used to like that show, but not anymore." The same kid said my short was "okay."

i'm sure teaching at any level offers similar humbling and enlightening experiences worth their weight in gold.

my favorite question was by far, "If you made a movie that made, say, 20 billion dollars around the world, how much would you make?"

this child has a brilliant future in entertainment law.

Elliot Cowan said...

I've been teaching illustration on and off for years back home.

I love it.

Uncle Phil said...

I've been thinking about teaching, but I always feel funny about what I have to offer. I know that I'm not necessarily the most qualified, but I really feel passionate about my own continuing education, and I think teaching would be a great way to mutually experience this with others and open up the conversation even more.

I see teaching as something that I'd like to be able to do for the rest of my life. I think that the idea that no matter where I am in my own career, I would be surrounded by people with fresh eagerness. And that could constantly remind me of why I love being an artist. Or... maybe I'll get stuck with a crappy bunch of students :)

Danny Hynes said...

great post once again dave...I second just about everything phil said (except the part about him being under qualified) teaching is something i've been wanting to do for a while, and speaking to your class only made me more excited about the prospect of doing it in the future. Thanks for the sound advice.

Dave Schlafman said...

Great Post Dave!

I couldn't agree more with all your points. Being an active member of the animation community is the most valuable asset new teachers can offer. Sharing experiences is what it's all about.

I love teaching (at MassArt) b/c it's great to see how the next crop of artists approach materials and the art of animation.

Keep up the interesting posts!