For TC trustee Leslie Nelson and her brothers Douglas and Andrew Morse, support of music education definitely runs in the family. Their parents, Dinny and Lester Morse, are longstanding and generous supporters of music and education at TC and at many major music performance organizations.

So a few years ago, when their parents had a significant birthday and anniversary, the Morse children honored them in the way they knew would be most meaningful: by making a three-year gift to develop a music curriculum at the then newly-opened Teachers College Community School (TCCS). That gift funded the start of the music program with TC students and teaching artists brought in from Young Audiences NY to assist with the program.  Subsequent gifts by Leslie and her brothers have supported a TCCS school orchestra and a violin program initiated by TC doctoral student Tammy Yi.

Now, along with Doug, Andrew, and TC alumna parent Kim Greenberg, Leslie – who serves as Vice Chair of TC’s Campaign, Where The Future Comes First -- is funding a project that is not only close to their hearts, but will add a whole new level of richness to music programs nationwide: a Teaching Artist professional development program. For Leslie, the “aha” moment came during a meeting with Associate Vice President Nancy Streim, who oversees TC’s Office of School and Community Partnerships, and TC Music Education Professor Lori Custodero to review the first year of the music program. What Dr. Custodero had observed throughout the year was that the teaching artists engaged by the school, whom they all agreed were musical masters, were eager to learn more about pedagogy and to feel more centrally engaged with the project’s aims. Quickly they saw the opportunity that was right in front of them: a professional development program for teaching artists that would draw on TC’s research-based understanding of how children learn.  They also knew that  Young Audiences of New York (YANY), the organization that had placed the teaching artists at TCCS and has 60 years of experience bringing artists into schools, could help them. Kim Greenberg is YANY’s board chair and Doug Morse is the organization’s former chair and a current trustee. With YANY’s involvement, TC could plan, design and bring to scale a program that offers children a richer arts education experience.  

“This is a wonderful collaboration between well-matched organizations with compatible goals,” Leslie says. “It’s a ‘win-win’ for a very exciting project that’s quickly taken on a life of its own.”

Dr. Custodero loved the idea of a teaching artist certificate program and quickly got the support of Hal Abeles, TC Professor of Music & Music Education. Through their work in schools, both faculty members understood that professional artists are playing a much more central role in arts education—and that, often working in isolation, they need professionalization and community building. With its ability to enrich pedagogical and practical skills, TC could help teaching artists use their experience more effectively to reach a diverse population of learners. The program would also work with artists in theatre, dance and visual arts in schools as well as in educational programs at arts and cultural institutions.   

Last fall, the team at TC began a needs assessment and an extensive literature review to learn the landscape of professional development programs. They interviewed teaching artists from YANY in classrooms around the city and other teaching artists in cultural institutions around the city. They have begun field-testing a curriculum and preparing a pilot cohort for this fall, selected from the YANY roster. Feedback will be gathered and used to create the full online program that will be launched in 2017.

The research has also identified a need for a coaching and mentoring component. Mentoring will be provided initially by the TC team. Selected teaching artists who have completed the program will then receive additional training to serve as mentors. Over time, this will create a collaborative community of practice and an online forum for people to share successes and challenges.

The project is grounded in an abiding respect for the artistry of the teaching artist. “We are not selling a specific approach or answer, but instead bringing awareness to Teaching Artists about the need to understand students as learners—to know their dispositional strengths and their culture,” Dr. Custodero explains.

The curriculum will focus on issues such as emotional development and culture; designing safe environments for learning; interdisciplinary connections; observation of artistic behaviors; and assessing artistic understanding rather than offering prescribed formulas. 

Leslie, who has been involved in a number of innovative projects at TC, is a big believer in “funding your passion”—one of the mantras of TC’s Campaign. One of her passions is to help other donors find theirs. “There is something for everyone at TC,” she says. “The College always has a match for what people love and feel strongest about,” she says.

She’s excited that the Teaching Artists program has received a very positive response from so many people, including potential funders. “It’s been so much fun to see the program develop and to have the pieces falling together so nicely.” Leslie sees many opportunities to scale the project up over time and branch out to other arts programs in the schools and cultural institutions, and to small arts organizations around the country. A launch event is planned for the fall. And music will definitely be in the mix.