Taking the Leap- A Teaching Artist’s Journey from Corporate to Classrooms

AnJu Hyppolite

Reading Time:   5 Mins

Published:   January 23, 2019

When people think about professional success, they usually imagine working for a prestigious employer that pays handsomely and provides excellent benefits. In 2010, I began working for said employer: A reputable, boutique investment consultant that not only offered health insurance benefits but also paid 100% of those benefits for each employee. Employees were also able to get their copayments reimbursed and could allocate their wages toward their 401K plan, which the company matched at 6%. I was thriving—professionally and financially. I had great rapport with my colleagues and clients. My salary enabled me to save, invest, and have discretionary income that I did not have just a few years prior. I was happy until the stress of the job started to wear on me. I began questioning how this job fit into my overall life’s purpose.

After a few years of feeling unfulfilled in an industry I once loved, I found myself at a crossroad. How did I end up here…again? I thought finance was it, but now I was questioning my purpose, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. By this time, in 2015, I had doubled as an analyst and actor for two and ½ years. Acting was a childhood dream once deferred. Now that I was doing it, I wanted to do more of it. While I was grateful for all of the professional, corporate opportunities I had, I could not ignore the fact that something was missing. I could not ignore the void I felt, and the dying my soul experienced each time I had to go into work. I felt my creativity stifling as I continued the cubicle-life day after the day. I was searching for something and my desire to “not retire from this job” or “die in this cubicle” led me on a walk down the aisle.

“How can I marry my passions?” The resounding reverberation against the backdrop of my life rang loud and clear on a September day in 2015. A Google search of theater arts, literacy advocacy, and social justice led me to NYU’s Educational Theatre program. A few emails and a phone call later, I planned my trip to NYU’s (April) 2016 Educational Theatre Forum. It was there, on the last day of the forum, that I learned about Community-Word Project (CWP), a New York City-based arts-in-education organization that facilitates collaborative arts residencies and a teaching artist training program. “It’s not NYU, and it’s not a Masters program, but we train teaching artists too.” These words echoed in my mind as I traveled back to the Bay Area where I lived at the time. Given that teaching artistry would be my third career venture, I decided that racking up another student loan would not be financially sound. I decided not to apply to NYU and applied to CWP instead. In August 2017 I left my well-paying, benefit-endowing finance job to embark on a new career. In October, I moved back to my “native” New York, and three days later, I began training with CWP. I received a letter of completion eight months later. I began applying for teaching artist work, and landed gigs with organizations that do work I respect

Fast forward to the start of the 2018 school year: It was time to share the organizations’ curricula and what I learned from CWP, my years of acting, and my life experiences with the students in my residencies. I was beyond stoked! While I am so thankful for all of my training and experiences, nothing could have prepared me fully for what happens in the moment. I knew that there was no set approach when interacting with a diverse group of students. What I did not know is what I would do on the days when things went awry. For the first month and a half, most of the students participated fully, devised beautifully, and created above and beyond what I had expected. I was joyous and excited. So much so, that on the other days—the days they did not want to circle up or devise, I felt defeated. I felt as though I had failed them and myself. I began to question whether I had made the right decision to leave my cushy, finance job for a less prestigious role that now appeared to be the wrong trajectory. I could not believe I was at the crossroad again trying to figure out what I should be doing with my life. A migraine ensued for a week. In the midst of the frenzy, I reached out to my peers: my teaching partner from CWP, a current teaching partner, and an acting friend. The consensus: Middle school is a tough age, social justice work is not easy, and teaching is hard. Even the most tenured teachers experience rough days.

I listened.

How do you stay committed to the marriage and continue to find the passion when the exchange no longer presents itself as you had envisioned?
How do you turn what may appear as a chaotic, “this is going to sh%8” moment into an experience where both you and the students can benefit? How do you get them to stay engaged? I began to ask myself questions. I began to exhibit self-compassion. In doing so, I realized a few things:

  1. I am a new artist and a new teaching artist.
  2. Though I was now at the two-month mark, my students see me for less than an hour, once a week (a total of eight sessions thus far); and while they like me and respect me, there will be days when they are just not in the mood. It isn’t personal!

I was doing myself a huge disservice by weighing myself down with, “Perhaps I’m not cut out for this work.” Self-compassion enabled me to recall all of the times I redirected and re-engaged the students. How did I do this you may ask? I’ll tell you, but remember, there is no one formula. One particular incident stands out. I instructed the students to walk around the room and stop at various stations that had photos of people from around the world. After looking at the photos, the students would devise based on what they saw. Instead of the gallery walk, I had imagined, the classroom became grounds for roughhousing. I collected the photos, asked the students to join me in a circle, and sat down with them. I did not chew them out. I was frustrated, but I was patient and remained calm. I ditched the curriculum in the way that it was structured. Rather than have them devise, I asked them what they saw and how the images made them feel. I knew this group liked to talk and rationalize and thought this may be a way to get them to refocus. We had a riveting discussion!

There is no exact science to teaching artistry and anything involving the arts. In my previous world, there were plenty of exacts. When dealing with people’s money, there was no room for error or flexibility. I still carry that world with me, because I lived it for so long. I am now learning how to unlearn that science for the moments where it does not serve me (there are times when it is useful). In the teaching artist realm, I know that the plan does not work every time, and as such, the alternative I employed will not always work either. Being present, being invested in adaptability, and self-inquiry will serve you each time. The acting friend I reached out to reminded me that questioning my art is what a true artist does, and that the questioning is artistic. I will continue to explore self-inquiry and inquiry of all of the moments that I experience. It is this questioning that will allow me to grow. It is this questioning that will continue to spark the passion that lit my soul ablaze that September day in 2015 when I first learned what a teaching artist is. I thought, “Wow! I don’t have to choose among all of the things that I enjoy doing. I can bring all of me to my work!” Marriage is about bringing your full self to the union while leaving room to be present and adaptable, and for inquiry, hence growth. I now rest assured that teaching artistry was the best career choice I have made since graduating high school. It is a walk down the aisle and an “I do” that allows me to show up fully as AnJu.

What exchanges will you commit to during this new year that will allow you to show up fully as yourself?

AnJu Hyppolite is a Brooklyn-born, Queens-bred Haitian poet, actor, author, advocate, and arts collaborator. She works at the intersection of theater arts, literacy advocacy, and social equity. AnJu is a member of the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable’s Teaching Artist Affairs Committee.