The journey to the artist-teacher in adult community learning conference by Abbie Cairns

In this blog Abbie Cairns shares her journey to becoming an artist-teacher in adult community learning, and reflects on why this year’s Adult Community Learning conference is an important day in the diaries of art educators.


This year the second artist-teacher in adult community learning (ACL) conference will take place on Saturday 23rd March. This conference follows on from the first which took place last March. These events, brought together by me and NSEAD, are a celebration of adult and community education in all its forms, including local authority delivered provisions, prison education, charity endeavours and more. That is where we are, but how did we get here?


How my career began.

I have worked in ACL since 2017 after completing my PGCE placement in a general further education college. I always had an interest in adult education and whenever I would run workshops as an artist this would be my target audience. While I enjoyed my time in general FE, the year I spent with thirty 16–19-year-olds only confirmed my inkling that adult education was for me. However, no one had mentioned to me that teaching adults was an option, beyond art workshops. 

Serendipitously, the two art teacher jobs I came across as I completed my PGCE were both in adult education; one in prison education and the other working for the local authority. I applied for the latter and landed the job. Hourly paid, my first course came months later, and I took over an art drawing course from a veteran tutor who had by all accounts been teaching this class at ACL since before I was born. No pressure then! 



The middle bit.

As my first year as a qualified, and employed(!), teacher rolled to an end, so had my MA in Fine Art. Juggling the two had been fine as teaching hours were at a minimum. As graduation neared, I considered my choices. It was unrealistic to survive off the teaching hours provided by ACL; however, I knew that I did not want to leave. I compromised with myself and started working in a HEI. This part time work was enough to support me, and fitted into some areas of interest, but adult education was always there, and I found myself constantly comparing the two sectors – and who I was in each of them. There was no doubt that my artist self was missing in my HEI identity. 

I spent a year reading journal articles in my lunch break on artist-teacher identity, and attempted writing a PhD proposal on post-it notes that filled my desk. Lockdown hit and without the commute to work, in 2020, I final found the time to write my PhD application. Shortly after I gained a place at Norwich University of the Arts, handed my notice in, and subsequently spent 4,755 hours over the next two and a half years completing my research into artist-teacher in adult community learning identity transformation. 


It all starts with an idea.

It was during my PhD that the idea for a conference came about. I had the privilege of interviewing seventeen artist-teachers working for local authorities across the UK. Other than art and teaching, the one theme that kept coming up was isolation. These artist-teachers worked in silos and were lonely. It felt unethical to do the research and leave things as they were. If these artist-teachers felt like this, it felt safe to assume that others did too. 

The conference was envisioned as an event that would bring geographically separated colleges together to network, share best practice, and celebrate the often-overlooked sector. The first conference brought together sixteen presenters, a keynote speaker, learner panel, and creative workshop. The next conference will buidbuild on this success, and looks to welcome back past attendees and presenters, and to welcome new ones too. I am looking forward to Lou Mycroft’s keynote on ‘Co-Creating Community’, Mags Ryders creative workshop around the theme of Art in the Everyday, and speaker Ben Bleasdale’s talk on research and development, as well as the presentations from our artist-teacher presenters. 


The end bit

If, like me, you find yourself filling post-it notes with ideas – I encourage you to let your imagination run wild! These ideas might just turn into your own PhD or conference series. 



Book your tickets

The Next Chapter is back! Join us for the second A-T in ACL conference, which will take place online on 23 March 2024. This conference brings together artist-teachers working in the sector to share good practices, research, ideas, and experiences. Find out more and book your place today.

About the writer

Abbie Cairns is an artist-teacher working in adult community learning (ACL). She has recently completed her PhD at Norwich University of the Arts, in which she explores the identity transformation of artist-teachers in ACL. Cairns identifies herself as an artist-teacher and is engaged in both art and teaching practices. Abbie is interested in how those that identify as artist-teachers in ACL came to develop their identity and is engaged in narrative research with self-selecting participants. Her research was motivated by her own lived experience of being an artist-teacher in ACL and wanting to connect with others living the same experience. Abbie is a text-based artist who makes, and exhibits work regularly. She sits on the board for Colchester Art Society and work with SPACE to facilitate the Creative Practitioner Support Programme, which supports emerging artists.

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