After my recent post regarding this year’s rigorous test scheduling in one friend’s 2nd grade class, I received an email from another good friend, also an elementary school teacher in another small to mid-sized urban center in another part of the country. Geography and demographic may vary but the fact that the school year has begun points to commonalities for our schools and the communities they represent. I wanted to share this side of the coin.
Teachers are fiercely dedicated to their work. They have to be to do it well. And they are best at it if they love children/young people. Teachers work in varied settings, schools made in the 1920s of brick, schools built in warm climates with lockers outside in open breezeways, schools in small rooms on native soil, and cinderblock walls of detention centers, or someone’s dining room. Teachers will teach wherever they must and with whatever they are afforded. They understand and respect the critical need as well as the miracle that is learning.
Teaching artists, those of us in the fine arts who choose to share our craft and our complusive drive to create in community settings where learning is happening, to help make learning happen, we harbor a dual passion: the need to express ourselves artistically and the desire to teach what we know about and how we experience the world. We know our art forms can communicate concepts, processes, knowledge of all themes and subjects, in ways that support the standard pedagogy of our nation’s classrooms. The holistic education that arts-based learning accents builds more than data regurgitators. The creative space to ponder and experiment in movement, form, color, language, and thought strengthens a different muscle mass.
We also know that our commitment to education does not diminish our identities as artists. In most cases, I argue that the sharing and the creative problem-solving, the critical thinking and asethetic approach to developing lessons and curriculum, the constant inquiry from students actually enhances our craft. The adage is true: teach what you want to learn.
Teachers greet their school year knowing that they have many odds to overcome but the success of their students is the primary objective and they will do whatever they must to support that success. They will advocate for the learners before them. They will withstand all of the obstacles, even if they can see a way that negates the need for the obstacle. They deserve their salaries, they deserve the resources it takes to teach our children well. But our political climate is fostering a tone that spins those expectations so that they seem to be asking for too much. The devaluation of the American citizenry is becoming more and more obvious in the Monopoly game strategy of our current legislators. Teachers are the front line of this battle and they fight for themselves and the right to a safe, productive workplace. They also fight for families. They fight to insure the future that, Monday through Friday, is walking off the bus, being dropped off by an SUV, or walking neighborhood streets to the front doors of America’s schools. It doesn’t matter public or private, charter or home school, rural or urban. School is often the place where our children discover and develop their own capacity for learning or it is squelched.
I teach in two school districts that employ many teachers who have returned to the schools they attended, a connection similar to the lineage detailed in the opening quote. I also teach periodically in the district from which I not only graduated after completing all 12 grades but the district that first fostered me as a young writer.
Teaching artists live day by day often, patching together a quilt of jobs to make it through, all in the hopes of creating more time for making art. It is still another chicken vs. the confusing egg koan of modern life. We are often vulnerable in this economy and current tone of politics. We understand why teachers need unions. We too stand as an element of society that is on the front line for funding, respect, and recognition of our value.
We also understand why a teacher is gleeful when a child is empowered by his own achievement. It is not about the product, but the wonder, as my dear friend and role model, Richard Lewis (Touchstone Center for Children), has shown in his many years of working with young people. The end product of the good grade or a piece of art, to take home is a wonderful affirmation. There is no denying that. But what first makes a person choose to teach, select a career in education in any form, and then to consider returning to the school they attended? It can only be that it was safe, it was nurturing, it created a space for wonder, achievement, community, a home.
Our educators create all that and more. My many teacher friends illustrate this all the time. Teachers protect, observe, and advocate for those in our society who have little choice in what direction their own lives may be driven yet must adapt, our youth. My teaching artist friends are driven by the same fuel. My friends who teach are passionately committed and that is why they speak what they witness. This is why I reflect what they speak to you. I share the passion. I recognize the joy.