How Much Should Teaching Artists in El Sistema-inspired Programs Be Paid?

By Eric Booth

Did you actually think I would give you a hard number in answer to that question?

There is no numerical absolute. Not even a reliable calculator to help you factor in local realities like comparable norms and cost of living increases, and come up with a definitive sum. It is a fool’s mission to come up with such a number, because there are too many variables and particularities to factor in. But I can bring some hard-number research to bear on the question.

I often say that El Sistema is in the intrinsic motivation business. Education research widely affirms that the learner’s motivation is the single most influential factor in learning outcomes. If we want life-transformative learning to happen in Sistema programs, we have to focus our teaching and community-building priorities on nurturing our learners’ hunger for ambitious musical accomplishment.

You can only create a hothouse that incubates the intrinsic motivation of young artists if the teachers are intrinsically motivated themselves to discover how to create such a motivating environment. If you don’t have intrinsically-motivated teachers, you don’t have intrinsically-motivated learners – which means you don’t achieve your Sistema-inspired goals. Yes, positive things may be happening around a program that doesn’t prioritize the complex work of motivation building, but they are selling short the Sistema ideal.

And here is where the research slams in. The inarguable answer from research about how much you have to pay a teacher in order to support his or her intrinsically-invested commitment is … enough. Enough so that the issue of money becomes irrelevant. Hundreds of studies have shown that pay is not the primary issue in fostering personal investment in the work of any profession. Indeed, there is a point at which increased pay makes no difference to motivation and thus level of performance, and may actually decrease both. There is an income level that subjects in research studies often describe as “enough,” at which point money ceases to be an issue. That’s how much teaching artists in Sistema programs should be paid.

What is that in actual dollars, in each local setting? That’s up to program leaders to determine. But I can truthfully say that in general, the teaching artists are not paid enough. I see evidence of this. I see too much turnover. I see teaching artists expending so much energy on getting other work that they can’t commit the full motivation a Sistema program requires. I recognize that other factors contribute to the remuneration package and can make up for less-than-enough money, and I have met individuals teaching artists who find their package deal to be “enough” to allow them to commit their whole hearts; but I have not seen a program in the U.S. where underpaid faculty are sustainably motivated by the ancillary perks.

Yes, this is easier said than done. I don’t know where you might get the extra funding needed to get compensation up to “enough.” I only know, from research and life, that if you stint the way you support faculty to achieve your program goals, you undercut the likelihood that you can achieve those goals. And Sistema-inspired programs have very high goals.

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When I taught and led the Art and Education program at Juilliard (graduate students of music in a two-year program to become teaching artists while they were getting their degrees), I included a small group challenge as part of the curriculum during their classroom year. In groups of four, they were to design an arts-centered 7th grade-to-12th grade school. They had a budget total to adhere to, but free rein to design the way the school functioned according to their own understandings of how the arts can boost learning. Invariably, groups started by designing the arts’ learning programs and who would teach them, and then had the other learning tracks spring from the arts. About halfway through the process, I gave them a list of legally mandated expenditures of all schools in New York State, including what full- time teachers had to be paid and the cost of their whole employment package, costs for maintenance and janitors, as well security, health, administrative personnel, and food service requirements, etc. There was a long quiet period of studying the numbers, grappling with their initial expenditures on ideal arts faculty and support for the arts programs, in light of the burdensome legal requirements imposed on the budget. Every year, I would hear, within ten minutes, each group speak the equivalent of, “Well, to save money, we don’t have to pay the arts faculty that much.” And every year, the financial support for arts faculty would drop below the level of remuneration of non-arts faculties. Once, a group paid them less than food service workers, which is not so far from reality.

Sistema programs face similar realities, and must make similar hard choices. (I must say, I was usually appalled at how blithely, without feeling particularly guilty, the Juilliard students cut pay for artists. The awkward moment was usually handled with a resigned dark-humor joke.) I have talked with a number of Sistema administrators about raising their faculty pay, and I see the difficulties. It doesn’t look good in a budget total to have so much money go to faculty; it doesn’t look good to pay significantly more than other programs in the area. Why pay more than you have to?

Because you have to, if you want to achieve extraordinary results. Which is what Sistema-inspired programs are in the business of accomplishing. How much? The answer is quite probably: more than you currently pay, to become “enough.”

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