A Teaching Interview: THE Audition for Museum Educators

Stricken with those awful nerves that overcome your system while you try to remember those lines you were up past midnight cramming into your head, you cling to your crumpled, dingy papers for dear life – the papers that contain the information you were trying so hard to memorize, the statements you need to naturally and conversationally say. You know you know it, but every time you try to say something without glancing at your papers that are quickly becoming damp from your sweaty palms, your brain freezes. Your name is about to be called as you sit in the uncomfortable chair, fidgeting with the sticker that betrays your best outfit. Doors swing open, and a smiling voice says, “We are ready for you.”

This scenario easily depicts almost every audition I’ve ever had. It also depicts the ‘teaching interviews’ or ‘sample tours’ or even ‘classroom simulation’ I and many other museum educators have had to do as part of interview processes. As a still-sometimes actress, if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, call it a duck – museum educators audition for their jobs. A lot. Good monologues do not get actors cast – and good information doesn’t always get museum educators hired. Technique plays a large part in both careers, posing the question: Isn’t it about time we start paying more attention to how we are saying things, and not just what we are saying?

Teaching AuditionIn an audition, the actor is usually provided with an opportunity to bring in a prepared monologue. The actor will perform said monologue and the director makes a decision if the actor is getting called back or sent on their way. Generally speaking, the actor will spend hours, days, even weeks finding that perfect monologue that not only showcases their skill set as a performer, but also connects with the particular role they are auditioning for. If an actor is auditioning for Cosette in Les Mis, their first choice wouldn’t be a piece that brings people to gut-busting laughter. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

For the teaching interviews I’ve had the pleasure and anxiety of experiencing, it all starts with successfully completing the in-person/phone interview. Then there is the nerve-racking moment of reading the invitation to do a teaching interview. While each institution is different, usually the main idea is to assemble a sample tour (or tour stop) and, with a nod to multimodal learning, an activity for that stop. Usually the prospective educator has about a week to put together this stop and spends countless hours researching the collection, choosing objects, picking that ONE object that will showcase knowledge, teaching skill and personality. Just like an actor auditioning for a role.

actors warming up prior to auditions

actors warming up prior to auditions

But actors will warm up before auditions – take 10 minutes and walk into Ripley-Grier and see dozens of actors at all times doing tongue twisters, stretching, working on breath support and even adjusting their posture. They’ve realized that it’s not just about what you are saying – while the selection is important, it’s equally about how they are saying those words. There is the old adage that you can make people interested in a banana bread recipe if you are interesting enough. In museum education, you might know every fact about Rembrandt and his Self Portrait that hangs exquisitely in the West Gallery at The Frick Collection – but, if you can’t capture your audience and if you can’t be heard, then what?

Some museums are picking up on this idea and calling it what it is.  I had the pleasure of being at the Denver Nature and Science Museum at the end of January to lead professional development workshops and found they audition their education staff. There is an educator position entitled “Performer – Facilitator” and part of the interview is a legitimate audition. According to David Allison, Visitor Programs Manager, and Samantha Richards, Educator/Coordinator for Earth Gallery Programs, after the telephone interview, “they [the candidates] are asked to prepare a monologue and a science facilitation…we also have them do a ‘cold read’ of a script.” When asked why, David replied, “The cold reads show us the comfort level they have with improvisation and the ability to ‘ramp up’ their performance on the spot…the prepared pieces both shows us how well they prepare and also what their instincts are around performing and presenting dynamic shows to our guests.” Samantha added, “The cold read also shows us their performance skills…it is as much about how they wear the cape and how engaging they are as how comfortable they feel.”

For the educators who are uncomfortable with the performance aspect, DMNS has an alternative. According to Samantha, “We do also offer the option of reading two contrasting stories instead of monologues.” The audition section of the job description itself is very clear:

Two contrasting monologues (e.g. comedic and dramatic, 3-5 min each) with some movement;

OR

Choose two children’s stories to read. For one, pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading one on one with a child. For the other pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading to a large group, where you would need to use dramatic voices and movement to tell the story.

David added, “Some educators take to it quickly and can easily adapt. Others struggle. We can generally tell very quickly if someone is a good fit or not for our team.”

The audition aside, DMNS also does ask for a science facilitation – the information and research is still there. They are also focusing just as much on the presentational aspect of the positions. Samantha added to this idea: “It is very important that our staff is comfortable doing everything from talking to one child about a rock to wearing an astronaut suit and ‘being’ an astronaut in front of a hundred visitors.”

Teaching interviews are not much different than auditions. As educators, it’s time to start focusing on how we are saying the things we are saying. Take an improv class. Do deep breathing before a tour. Pull out some tongue-twisters to get the muscles in your mouth ready to say those artist names and movements without tripping over syllables. We are not actors – but – we have an audience. And taking advantage of every trick of the trade will only make us more engaging and our passions more interesting. In the words of Kid President during his pep talk, “Boring is easy, everybody can be boring. But you are gooder than that.”

Have you had a teaching interview/audition? Does your institution conduct them? How did/do you prepare? Should more museums have auditions and practice-based interviews for education positions?

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Jen! During the summer I gave a teaching interview and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between that experience and what I assumed actors do for auditions. That was when I was applying for a job at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. They gave me some main points to teach (including the four forces of flight) and some basic tips. I came in a week before and thought about the path I would take, jotting down notes about the airplanes, their history, and possible alternate routes just in case. I realized that they were testing to see whether or not I would notice which parts of the museum would get crowded or if I had thought about the issue of inclement weather (since part of the museum is on the ship’s hangar deck). In addition to logistics they were trying to see how I would teach a group of 4th graders (played by the Education staff) about the science of flight using the artifacts on display and the museum’s interactives.

    Overall it was an extremely valuable experience, and I felt like I was given just enough work and freedom to demonstrate my strengths, and enough time with the education staff to understand how I would fit in with their team (had I been hired). It also gave me the opportunity to see if I’d even want to teach in that space (I would, it’s an amazing place!). I’d say the strangest part was that some of the staff kept breaking character during the teaching interview – I suppose doing these auditions can be odd for non-acting staff involved, too – but I did my best to keep pretending as though they were still 4th graders.

    As for your final question, “Should more museums have auditions and practice-based interviews for education positions?” I’d say an emphatic “YES!” On the side of the museum, why hire someone who can’t speak in front of a group of strangers? On the side of the educator, why join a team whose dynamics you don’t know and why work in a museum that has a set up or content that you don’t care for? The teaching interview helps both the hiring team and the educator figure out what works best for them in the long run.

    But in order to embrace that idea, people have to start thinking of education positions as more longterm commitments. Why spend so much time interviewing (on either side) if you’re only going to be working 20 hours a week at the museum for 6 months to a year? I’d think it’d be better all around to start shifting toward building a quality and long-lasting team of core educators…

    • Thanks Rebecca! And agreed! While a lot of freelance positions continue with no questions asked, the idea of stability would be…well ideal in this industry. I think many museums have a core group of educators – and that core group travels. I can’t tell you how much overlap I have with my co-educators with other institutions. It’s great for us, but makes me wonder how others get involved.

      Regardless, we should bring our game-faces always – whether we have the job or not.

  2. I loved this post. Interviewing for a museum teaching position is most definitely like an audition. From the first phone call, to the next phone call, then on to (in my case) teaching a work of art to my perspective boss via Skype, to the actual in person auditions (that’s right not just one audition, but many) where they get to see what you’ve really got is something more akin to auditioning for the circus (with all the hoops and jumping through them).

    I have always said that being a teacher is just like performing. When “teaching” docents I often use words such as rehearse, instead of practice. As a way to keep the idea of performance in their minds, when training to become docents they lead “duet” tours with an experienced docent before moving on to “solo” tours on their own.

    I think that if we think like performers we are more likely to engage our audiences. Anyone who has ever had to stand in front of a group and act normal will tell you that “acting” normal is extremely difficult. You take a perfectly normal human and put them in front of a group and all of a sudden they have no clue how to stand, or where to put their hands. It’s the same when you try to have a conversation that doesn’t feel scripted with a group in the museum. We have conversations everyday with our friends, coworkers, and family, but for a conversation in the gallery to feel unscripted there is a lot of work on the front end that has to be done. Just as in a great stage play, the magic occurs when it seems natural and easy, which results in engagement and meaning making for our guests.

  3. Pingback: ArtMuseumTeaching.com Post! | The Engaging Educator

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