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The Association of Teaching Artists (ATA) is a not for profit advocacy organization in New York State that brings together artists who teach in schools and in the community to: Educate, Collaborate, and Communicate.



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Elise May


Don’t Assume

Elise May

As a Teaching Artist focusing on vocal empowerment through theatre arts for over 30 years, I always marvel about how much has changed in education. The expectations placed on students by parents and teachers, as well as changes in curriculum, testing and technology have led to incredible levels of stress and burnout all around.  Throughout the years I have seen a marked increase in the numbers of students who are medicated and who have special needs. It has never felt more important to me to create a safe place for artistic exploration. It also has never been more important to not assume. Assumptions create limits.

I try to enter a classroom without any preconceived notions of whom I am going to teach. More often than not I’ve been given information by teachers or administrators to help prepare me for the group I am about to meet. While this is supposed to help me, I find that it doesn’t necessarily help the students. 

When I teach I have the same expectations for everyone. I expect curiosity, willingness to play, and a supportive, cooperative environment. I do not expect that everyone will get to the same place at the same time in the same way. 

Students make assumptions about themselves and each other all the time. “I can’t do that because it’s too hard” “I will look silly if I do that” “She won’t do that because she’s shy” “He can’t do that because he doesn’t speak English.” It is my job to put everyone at ease by clarifying my expectations and creating a safe environment for exploration and confidence building.

It is quite wonderful having students learn experientially through the theatre arts.  Most students start at the same level of inexperience and many with an innate assumption that they can or will fail.  Working with them to discover new definitions of failure/success, right/wrong, can/can’t taught me to develop freedom from assumption.  “I will never get this right” turned into “look at what I can do.”

Assumptions by teachers and administrators have challenged me. Obviously, they know their students better than I do – but in a different way. I have been told that students are either incapable or unwilling; that some should not be challenged or included due to what behavior may ensue. I have learned while trying to help these professionals haven’t asked of their students what I will be asking of them.

Teachers have shared revelations and reflections after seeing their students find multiple means of expression during a theatrical experience they didn’t believe possible. “I would never have picked him for that role. He’s so quiet.”  “I didn’t think she would participate.”  “How did you get her to do that?”  I didn’t assume.

Below is a starter list of what my experience has taught me not to assume as a Teaching Artist.

Don’t assume that teachers don’t want to participate. Sometimes, they want to observe. Teaching Artists have the ability to enable teachers to see their students through a different lens.

Don’t assume all students who look at you are listening and all who don’t look at you are not.

Don’t assume the most introverted student can’t/won’t be brilliant.

Don’t assume the extrovert doesn’t need you.

Don’t assume what works with one group will work with another.

Don’t assume you know what a student’s life is like because of where their school is or how they dress.

Don’t assume the teacher understands what you do. Create teacher guides.

Don’t assume knowledge of the difference between process and product.


Elise May is a Port Washington, New York independent Teaching Artist, educator, actor, singer, writer and storyteller who has performed and taught in the U.S. and internationally. Elise works with school districts, libraries and corporations on communications skills, community development, and developing educational programs using theater arts for vocal empowerment. Elise developed Storytime Theater, Expressive Elocution, Multicultural Voices, Creative Readers, an arts education inclusion program for students with disabilities. She is on the board of several arts organizations, a Teaching Artist for the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, Brookville, New York, and a Steering Committee member of the Arts in Special Education Consortium. She was a contributing writer for the Teaching Artist Journal and a contributor to “In It Together – How Student, Family, and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms,” Debbie Zacarin and Michael Silverstone, editors. She has presented at many conferences as well as to school administrators, teachers, and parents.