But if all the educators are gone?

If we’re lucky, we all have particular moments in our career that we can point to and say “I’m really proud of this. If this is my legacy, it’s enough.” Earlier this week, Facebook reminded me that it had been 10 years since one of those moments–the founding of the Informal Educators of Dallas County. In a cruel twist of irony, that same day, a dear friend found out that the entire education department of her museum was being laid off in the first round of cuts. Though she wasn’t at the founding meeting, she has been involved with IEDC since the early years. She’s someone I never would have formed a friendship with if it hadn’t been for that group. We’ve traveled together, drunk countless beers together, and she’s been a special pandemic buddy as we’ve shared a produce box. IEDC began as a response by educators to the 2009 recession. As we move through this pandemic, I’m seeing many opportunities for museums to begin again and build something better. But if all the educators are gone, what hope do we have for a better, more equitable museum field?

IEDC began because I got annoyed at a meeting. In a room full of struggling nonprofits, a leader in the arts community asked us to create a huge, new program, outside of most of our wheelhouses. She told us to “not think about budgets, just think about the children.” I had just been asked by my boss to figure out how small our staff could be–and still provide quality field trips. After the meeting was over, I stood in the parking lot with a friend, and we ranted together. And that’s when we realized something important: informal educators get together regularly at various meetings, but there’s never any time to network or get to know each other, especially across disciplines. We kept being asked by various funders to collaborate, but there was never any opportunity to brainstorm or just get to know each other.

The two of us reached out to a few other educator colleagues. On a rainy night in June, we met at a local bar. We all realized we needed dedicated time to network, brainstorm, and see each other’s institutions. So, we formed the Informal Educators of Dallas County–a group for anyone that taught outside of the classroom. We decided to meet every other month–6 institutions were represented at that first meeting, so we walked out with the plan for the year. Because we’re educators, and that’s what we do. Our meeting format has remained essentially unchanged: meet at 3 p.m. at the host institution (which rotates) for a tour, 4 p.m. discussion on various burning issues, 5 p.m. adjourn to a nearby watering hole. The tour and happy hour are optional, and there are plenty of people that just come for that meeting’s topical discussion.

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A tour of the Bush Library back in 2013.

Ten years later, the group is still going strong. At one point, I think representatives from 40 different institutions were involved. I’m not sure what the number is now. Though I crossed over to the dark side of being an executive director in 2014, I still occasionally join them for drinks. I have made so many good friends through this network. When I became an ED, I realized very quickly that there wasn’t a local group for EDs that I could seamlessly enter. Recently, I’ve started to build that local ED network, but it has taken years.

And what has IEDC meant for Dallas? There have been some great cross-institutional partnerships. One of my favorites was between the Dallas Theater Center and the Holocaust Museum during a production of Cabaret. When a short-sighted decision by Dallas ISD threatened field trip funding for all non-arts institutions, we were able to mobilize in days. Our programs are better–none of us are operating in isolation. And when the pandemic began–something none of us could have imagined–we had friends to turn to and commiserate with and try to adapt.

As I watch the layoffs throughout the country, it appears that education departments are taking a disproportionate amount of the cuts. Others have noticed too–there’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter. Here in Dallas, the frustrations of the last recession helped us build a much stronger community for informal education. It’s too soon to know how the pandemic will shape the future of museum education, but I wonder if too many cuts have already been made. If no educators are left at the end of this, what will the future of informal education be?

At DHV, we’ve been able to avoid major layoffs. It helps when you’re already a tiny, bare bones organization. As I talk to the board about options, I often ask the question: If we gut the organization, how do we recover from that? How do we re-emerge and rebuild if no one is left? What’s more important–cutting short term financial losses or the long-term health of the institution? If there are options to keep people employed, we do that to save the museum.

I will never understand why educators are often the last hires at a new institution, and the first to be laid off when cuts are necessary. We’re all having to ask ourselves very tough questions right now. Will anyone notice if my museum just disappears? What is the point of a museum if we don’t have any visitors? How do we continue to fulfill our mission while we’re closed?

In my mind, there’s only one answer to these questions–and one answer for museums to survive the pandemic. Educators.

 

The Long Game: Early Childhood Learning at Museums

Sometimes, we forget that museum education is a long game. Next month, I’ll celebrate my 13th anniversary at DHV–and I’m still working on something that I first thought about on Day 2.

When I started in March 2004, I was able to shadow my predecessor for a few days. I remember asking her “Have you ever tried a preschool storytime?” Her response: “Oh no! My mom is a preschool teacher, and I really don’t like working with kids that age.” About a year later, I launched Barnyard Buddies, a program still going strong. It wasn’t an unusual concept–a book, a spot at DHV that connects to the book, an activity, maybe a song, and a craft.We had a blast, and the program grew, and it caused me to think a little bit differently about how to use DHV to teach.

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From a 2006 Barnyard Buddies program

But I also remember the reaction of some of my colleagues at other museums. I vividly remember a late night at the state museum conference, where we were having some tasty beverages in someone’s hotel room. Somehow, Barnyard Buddies came up and one man said “Why on earth would you let anyone younger than 4th grade into your museum? Young kids can’t understand HISTORY.” I was dumbfounded. Yes, these kids didn’t understand the origins of the Civil War, but they sure understand that life was very different a long time ago. And that’s enough to start.

Over the years, I started collecting examples of great programs and great spaces for young children. And I started collecting examples for my Hall of Shame as well. Too often, I was seeing the “children’s area” tucked into a corner, separate from the other exhibits. Too often, I was seeing very little thought put into these spaces. If we’re to stop the decline of museum attendance, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to attract young children and their families?

In 2010, we developed a new strategic plan for DHV that included setting aside one building for a preschool play space. The building, formerly a Law Office exhibit, needed some serious repair work. A leaking roof had to be fixed first, before we ever explored other repairs and our ideas for the space. We also began to integrate more hands-on areas in other buildings, most dramatically in our General Store.

In Summer 2013, we learned that Vogel Alcove (a non-profit providing childcare for homeless children up to age 5) was moving into the recently vacated City Park Elementary School–located directly across the street. I reached out to Karen, their ED, and we began to work together. They moved to their renovated building in March 2014, and by that summer, their kids had started visiting us regularly. And we realized that the Law Office project needed to head to the top of our priority list because we had kids itching to have a space just for them.

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Vogel Alcove uses our museum in so many different ways!

In 2015, we managed to get the roof fixed. We started talking to the donors who funded the initial Law Office exhibit project. And we submitted a Community Anchors grant to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We wanted assistance to complete the playspace, but most importantly, we wanted the money to do a long-term evaluation of early childhood learning at DHV. Because my list of shining examples of early childhood spaces and programs at museums hadn’t grown much. And there definitely weren’t too many history museums on that list.

In September 2016, we got word that we had gotten the grant. I was in the middle of a luncheon at the AASLH conference, and all I wanted to do was dance and shout with joy. I restrained myself. Barely. I definitely can’t tell you what the speaker said that afternoon. And now the real fun has begun.

Last week, my educator, Mandy, and I did a two-hour “baseline” interview with our evaluators. We were forced to really think deeply about our educational philosophy, how we approach early childhood learning, and what our goals are for the 3 year grant period. In a way, I was also reflecting on my career at DHV.

When the succession plan was first announced, I had colleagues tell me that I needed to think twice about becoming director at DHV: “You don’t want to wake up one day and realize you’ve spent your entire career there.” I nodded and smiled, but inside I thought to myself “If I spend another 5 years at DHV as director, I’ll only be 40.” But today I started thinking about the value of that continuity–though my job has changed dramatically over the years, we’ve been able to strengthen and grow our programs in a profound way. We now have kids that were first Barnyard Buddies and are now Junior Historians. Through this program, we’ve gotten to know families. We know that our museum is an important part of their lives. How much harder is that to do at other museums where the average tenure of an educator is 2 years?

The kids that joined me at Barnyard Buddies in 2005 are now in junior high or high school. With this grant, sometimes I feel like our work is just getting started. And sometimes I feel that it’s the logical climax to the work that I began all those years ago. I truly believe that this grant will be transformative, and one result of this IMLS grant will be a new chapter in DHV’s history. We’re finally putting into words and collecting the data on all of our ideas about ways to teach history, and we plan to share it with the wider museum community.

There are so many things that energize me at work right now–whether it’s neighborhood development, fundraising, or this project. Every now and then, I get the question: so, where will you head to next? And when are you going to start thinking about that? And the simple answer is: I have no idea. I’m having too much fun right now. It’s a long game, but it’s a game that’s worth playing.