written by Kern Wadkins
Isiah Harper has been a much-loved fine arts educator at Northside High School for nearly twenty years. In that time, he’s shared his love for music, dance, and performance with thousands of students, in addition to teaching them some life lessons along the way.
We sat down with him to talk about his personal creative journey, his philosophies on fine arts education, and his hopes for more arts equity both in education and in the community.
* This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you get involved with the arts and discover your own creativity?
A: My mother was a voice major before she switched to education, so music was always in my house. I also grew up in a black church, which is very musical, so my gateway into theatre was music. I started taking piano in Korea, while my dad was stationed there. I was definitely a kid who was born with a creative spark, but my love of art started with piano and voice. And then around middle and high school, I saw Alvin Ailey, which evolved into a love of dance. Theatre was the third artform I explored. I discovered musical theatre was the intersection of music, dance, and performance. That love really kicked off when I moved to Columbus in 1996.
Q: When you graduated high school what were your creative ambitions? Did you know you wanted to teach, or were you set on becoming a performer?
A: Well, I always wanted to teach. This is a little-known secret, but I actually wanted to be a band director. I couldn’t imagine that now. I also thought about becoming a chorus teacher. My father is a pharmacist, and in the black community of affluence, the arts felt like something you were allowed to have as a hobby. It wasn’t something that you should aspire to do as a career. It’s like, “I did not spend this much money on your education…THAT is a hobby.” When I went to Flordia State, I went in as a biology/chemistry major. The plan was for me to do the pharmaceutical thing with dad, but I was never science-minded. I ended up taking a bunch of dance classes, and voice lessons, and just fell even more deeply in love with the arts. I became an English Education major as a way to balance all of these courses that I loved and still graduate on time. English Education allowed me to write, sing, dance, and teach — and I had a plan to go to law school afterward. I took the LSATs, and my current job was just supposed to be a bridge between undergraduate and law school.
I was recruited to Northside while I was student teaching in England at Hampstead Academy. That year one of my professors, Dr. Carroll, was doing a sabbatical and she picked a group of students to come with her. Picked up in like three weeks, and I ended up spending six months teaching there. It was wonderful. I student taught English, dance, theatre. They asked me what I could teach, and I told them. Their high school musical was Dido and Aeneas, with a live orchestra. It’s still the best production of Dido and Aeneas that I’ve ever seen. So I started teaching theatre and voice there, and I felt that was really good. I got a job offer to stay there, but Dr. Mallory from Northside called and said, “Come home.” I’ll never forget that.
When I got back to the states, I had my keys and was ready to start at Northside. Right out of college, I walked into my first English classroom there, which was basically the gym at the time. I was ready to start.
Q: So when you came to Northside, were you only teaching English, or did they recruit you to help take on some Fine Arts courses, too?
A: I have this running joke with Melaine Davis, who is a theatre teacher in Warner Robins, but at the time she was a theatre major at Columbus State. She came to my classroom on my first day, my first year of teaching to observe me as a student. I had two English classes and a Drama class. First day. First class. And I’ll never forget, she says “I’m your student observer, and I’m like, ‘Well, what are you here to observe?’” Twenty years later we still laugh about it.
But I don’t feel like any theatre teacher in this district was as lucky as I was when it came to who I got to pick for mentors. On one hand, I had Lisa Brinker (former drama teacher at Hardaway and Northside high schools), who was a genius in the classroom. I probably wouldn’t be a teacher if it weren’t for Lisa Brinker.
On the other hand, I had Ron Anderson (founder of the Springer Theatre Academy), who adopted me even though I was never a Springer kid, and he would call me in and talk to me about how to interact with kids and how to blend a school curriculum into what we do outside of school, into what we do for the community. He encouraged me to open our program to kids who are home-schooled because if they’re in our district, we can give them that opportunity. And that’s really Ron’s legacy.
And somewhere in the middle, as I got more involved with Georgia Thespians, I have Paul Hampton (Director of Fine Arts at Brookstone School). He walked me through Georgia Theatre Conference and Georgia Thespians and helped me understand how to make those opportunities accessible for my students.
I’m so lucky to have had those three juggernauts. I mean, they are a blessing. People always ask me, “How do you do what you do?” And I often think, “Well, you don’t know who my teachers were.” I got to learn from Paul Hampton, Lisa Brinker, and Ron Anderson.
When I got to Northside though, I was working alongside Lisa Brinker, who was the director of our program. It was incredible because my mentor teacher was literally across the hall during my first ten years as a teacher.
I often feel like theatre education is the stepchild of the fine arts world, which I am trying to change. We don’t get paid for spring musicals, but choir and band directors get stipends for their fall and spring performances. There is nothing allotted for theatre. My big thing right now is equity. I get asked, “Why doesn’t Kendrick have drama? Why doesn’t Eddy have drama?” Well, they’re not allotting the money. Especially with copyright laws. It can get so expensive just for the rights to do a show. Forget about sets, costumes, lights. It’s expensive just for the rights. So if there’s no money, what can you do?
Q: Has your philosophy on arts education changed over the twenty years you’ve been teaching?
A: Yes. When I first started teaching, theatre, music, dance, and the creative and performing arts were safe places, but I was so young when I started, and when you’re so young, you don’t understand how important those safe spaces are. And you also don’t understand how frequently arts access is only granted to the privileged.
So when I first started teaching, Northside was very affluent. Over the years, I’ve done partnerships with different schools in different neighborhoods with different arts access. I started to notice that when you think about secondary arts education in Muscogee County, you think about Northside and Columbus. Well, what do they have in common? It’s affluence. You think about the Springer Theatre Academy, and there’s affluence there. And it became clear to me over time that the people who need the art the most, don’t get to it. Carver does not have a Chorus teacher. You would never not have that program at Northside or Columbus.
There are lots of different things to think about when you start thinking about arts for marginalized populations, and I’m talking about marginalized populations outside of queer. Queer culture is going to be seen, but some of that also comes from white privilege. Having grown up with almost all of my friends being white, I was blind to a lot of the issues.
When Tamara Curry (former drama teacher at Carver High School) would talk to me about challenges she was facing with her students at school, I would think, “Well, these are problems I don’t have,” but now those same challenges she faced are problems that I’m seeing. The student population of Northside now is very different than the student population when I started. Now I have to say things like, “I can’t have you in this gang, and be in the musical. You can’t be dealing drugs, and be in my program.” There’s a big difference between talking to a kid about not doing drugs and talking to them about not being a dealer.
That has opened me up to understanding how art has saved people, and you don’t see that when you’re surrounded by affluence. For a lot of these kids, art keeps them alive. There is a vast difference between art making someone feel good, and art keeping them alive. It’s that recognition of if that kid is not here, a drug dealer is gonna pick them up. It is a different reality. It’s the understanding that if I’m not there to do my job, some of my kids are left to the streets.
As an educator who’s been at this a long time, you move from big brother for the first ten years, then to the crazy uncle for the next five or six years, and now as I’m coming up on year twenty, I’m dad. I got ten to fifteen messages yesterday (on Father’s Day) saying, “Hey Dad. Happy Father’s Day!” When you shift from big brother to dad, your philosophy has to change.
Over the years, as I’ve built a safe space around these kids using the arts, it’s allowed me to protect these kids. And sometimes that means picking them up from unsafe situations and giving a stern talking to. I’m always like, “I’ll come get you. And I’m gonna call your parents and let them know because they need to know what’s going on, but I’ll come in guns a’blazin’.”
My philosophy in education is about the freedom of art, and that changes as your role changes. It is privileged to be able to look at art for art’s sake. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it’s not art for art’s sake, it’s art for survival. Especially as your demographics change. I mean, look at who the creators are on Tik Tok. A lot of them are creating for survival. It’s their moment of being seen, it’s their moment of surviving. That understanding has changed over the last twenty years.
Q: What advice do you give to your students that want to become artists in their careers?
A: I will tell you as I tell all of my kids because it’s a series — my job as a theatre educator is not to create artists. I’m a firm believer that artists are born. My job is to create patrons. The second thing I tell them is that you have to be discerning and decide whether this is a calling or something that you just like. Theatre is hard. Music is hard. It’s insanely competitive. More competitive than athletics. People don’t think about that. Everyone thinks, “Well, it makes me feel good.” That’s wonderful. You should go and support. Get involved in your community theatre.
If the thought of not making your art makes you stop breathing, then that is your calling. If it does not make you stop breathing, you should find something else. At the end of the day, what you don’t want, from a practical standpoint, is to spend $30,000 on a degree and at the end of that say, “This isn’t going to work for me.”
I hear this from students a lot — “I just want to make people feel good.” There are a lot of things that can make people feel good. What is it about this particular craft that drives you? Is it a hobby or is it a lifestyle? That is the hardest thing. We always want to encourage everyone, and I will encourage you to pursue your dreams. But look at how many theatre companies there are in the world, compared to sports teams. I want my students to look at these careers with realism.
I literally sit down with my kids and we write down everything that sparks joy for them. Sometimes we figure out that they can take their love for theatre in a different direction, like theatre therapy.
I also tell them that Broadway is not the end goal. If performing is your goal, the endpoint is not Broadway or Hollywood. The end goal is to be a working actor, and that can have many different iterations. If I hear from them, “It’s Broadway or bust,” I’m over here like, “This is not your career.”
Q: What changes are you hoping to see in arts education over the next ten years?
A: Keep in mind, when I started teaching, getting a certification in theatre education was just getting started. There were a lot of chorus teachers, or English teachers, adding drama to their curriculum. Now, we’re seeing a lot more certified theatre educators, and because of that, you’re starting to see the changes in the quality of productions and abilities.
My hopes are that as we start seeing more legitimate theatre educators, districts will start putting money behind them. Up north, they put money behind it. Down south, not so much. And I want theatre to get to the point where it receives funding equal to the other fine arts programs. Theatre educators are not paid for by the state, so the district has to come up with the money to pay their theatre educators. I hope that as we become more vocal and advocate for arts education, we will start to see more equity across the board.
I also hope that on top of paying teachers what they’re worth, I hope we see a shift in who we grant access to. I’d like to think that we all see the importance of STEAM. STEAM builds Batmans. STEM builds super-villains. We’ve been pushing math and science for so long in the classroom now, that we’ve lost some humanity there. I hope as we reflect on the last twenty years, I hope we are able to see that we’ve built super-villains, and I hope we can ask ourselves, “How can we counteract that for the next generation?” Fine arts is a big part of that answer. ◾️