Yesterday marked 5 whole years of being a museum educator! I was often miserable at my big art museum visitor services job, but I am constantly grateful for what that misery brought me: strong friendships, the realization that museum education was a career path, and an intimate knowledge of a collection that spurred one of my favorite professional projects. My first museum educator job was at the Museum of Chinese in America, and I remember being in that interview giving a fake tour of the galleries feeling like the biggest phony. That feeling continued for a long time – the team at MOCA constantly pushed me to try new things and coached me through projects I didn’t feel like I was ready for. I owe them so much!
With each new educator position I noticed how much I had grown at the last, became more confident, and over time was able to articulate my approach to teaching. When I moved to Seattle two years later and was interviewing I meant it when I said I wanted a job where I could really focus on teaching and work on my craft. I’m someone who feels most inspired to do good work when led by someone more talented and knowledgeable than myself, who I want to emulate, learn from, and impress. Though I was really proud of my curriculum work so far, I believed that even if I was able to secure coordinator-level work or wanted to be a manager one day I wouldn’t do well unless I really felt like an expert educator. But what does that even mean? Starting at MOHAI turned out to be just as filled with impostor syndrome and projects I felt unprepared for as MOCA was. Welcome! You have no manager. Surprise! The person training you is leaving in two weeks and you will have her job. Surprise! That means hiring and supervising interns. Surprise! Train your new co-worker. Surprise! You are now in charge of this teen advisory board. Surprise! The coordinator is now manager, please take on her responsibilities. Surprise! Your co-worker is going on maternity leave, please take on all her projects. And so on, until two years later I woke up with a new title, new responsibilities, and the oldest member of a team though I’d only clocked two years. Rarely did I feel ready for any of it.
Nowadays I find myself giving advice to interns, in exhibit planning meetings, and writing articles & book chapters like I know what I’m doing, and it freaks me out. I doubt I’m ever going to feel “done.” The more I grow as an educator the more I identify skills and knowledge I’d like to strengthen. Teaching can easily become a lifelong practice, and I’m so grateful to be in a position where I get to teach and develop programs. I wish it wasn’t so common in museum education for teaching to be something you gradually work your way out of the higher you move up the ranks. I believe deeply that the fact that I still teach on the floor every other day is what keeps my program development and supervisory skills moving forward regardless of whatever else is going on. All this is to say that although I still feel like goop with a lot to learn, when I look back at my first educator orientation and at my first tour it feels fifty light years away. I can’t believe what these first five years have taught me! Cheers to five more.