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Blog 1 – Vera McGrath, Visual Artist, Researcher & Former Primary Teacher

Image: An artist evaluating a problem-solving task with the teacher and students. St Killian’s in Mullagh Cavan. Photographer Vera McEvoy

Image: An artist evaluating a problem-solving task with the teacher and students. St Killian’s in Mullagh Cavan. Photographer Vera McEvoy

Vera McGrath

Vera McGrath is a visual artist, freelance researcher and former primary teacher.  Living in Co Monaghan, she has been involved with Teacher Artist Partnership (TAP) since its inception in 2014. She is also a member of the Irish I-TAP, (International Teacher Artist Partnership) lead team, an Erasmus+ funded TAP initiative currently being developed by Ireland and 3 other jurisdictions.  She holds a MAVA degree (Masters in Visual Arts Education) from NCAD.  She has just finished a BLAST programme as the artist in residence in a school in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan.

In the forthcoming blogs, she elucidates on some of the many insights she has gleaned in her time as a TAP team member, how she found the courage to voice her desire to transition from teacher to artist within its framework and what she’s learned from holding firmly to her many identities and persevering. Vera owes a debt of gratitude to the TAP initiative for facilitating her transition.

This blog series is dedicated to two inspirational figures in the field of Arts in Education in Ireland: Caitríona Ní Chullota for her example, her support and for recognising that Vera had a valid voice in TAP and Gary Granville for quietly endorsing Vera’s right to write on Arts in Education matters.  Míle Buíochas.

A Question of Identity

September 2006: Circumstances forced me to abandon full-time art practice and accept a job-share teaching post.  My ambiguous attitude to this turnabout and maverick methodologies prompted one of my charges to ask if I was a ‘real teacher’?  Parents made more subtle enquiries.  The school caretaker presumed I was an SNA.

Back practicing art full-time, I entered a school as the BLAST-assigned artist. The principal showed me around.  Once our presence on the corridor was detected, a rumour raced from classroom to classroom; ‘There’s an inspector in the school!’

These narratives are anecdotal evidence of a professional identity dilemma I’ve wrestled with for decades.  Artist or educator?  Inhabiting this professional twilight zone had altered the lens through which I perceive labels like ‘teacher’ and ‘artist’; what it means to be either, both or to be more than the sum of these two entities.

Professional identity matters but it’s contextual.  A singular definition casts us in two-dimensional stereotype, ignoring the richness of our many and evolving roles, cumulative experiences, skills and knowledge.  I faced this dilemma on entering the Teacher-Artist Partnership programme in 2014. With an Education Centre network nomination, I was obliged to enlist as a teacher but yearned to sign the artist’s register. On introducing myself to the group, I claimed my artist identity, the only teacher to do so.  After all, my teacher-self existed so my artist-self could be; the teacher supporting the artist, the artist sustaining the teacher.

Owning my dual identity felt bold but until did, I would never walk into a school as an artist.  I’ve learned much on this journey, not least that there are many teachers in and beyond TAP who feel similarly.  Some TAP-trained teachers are graduates of art/arts colleges.  Others are skilled arts practitioners. Moreover, several TAP artists are former teachers and more possess intuitive teaching abilities, relishing engagement with children. August’s blog will further explore concepts of ‘teacher’ and ‘artist’, and the guiding and creative impulses we all possess.  Meantime, for those reading, conscious of echoes of ‘the other drum’ in the recesses of their hearts, take comfort.  There’s a teacher and an artist in all of us!