Protecting our artistic license

Even though there is an obvious logic to it, I’ve been trying to work out for myself exactly why I think teachers need to be involved in education policy. I am moved by the Open Letter to NBCT’s (even though I’m not one) in the recent Teacher Solutions report, because of its call by teachers/for teachers to question the direction our profession is taking us, and “to find our voices and hone our core messages.” (p.9 of Executive Summary) Teachers have historically been denied a voice in policy matters, expected to passively accept and transmit whatever directives come our way. But teaching is anything but a passive act. The traditional means of enacting education policy—standardized and hierarchical–contradicts the very nature of real teaching.

Much as we want to simplify it and mold it into something else, teaching is at least 50% art. The other 50% is probably science, and somewhere in there we need to add psychology/counseling…(This breakdown is certainly up for debate.) But I want to take some time to look at teaching as a creative act. That is what drew me into the profession and what keeps me here—the essential process into which I pour my heart and soul as I design learning experiences in response to the gifts and needs of my students.

Yes, teaching involves skills, conceptual understandings, and bases of knowledge, too. These are like the canvas, brush techniques, different qualities of paint, and technical exercises in perspective and scale, light and shadow (the things we seemingly can control). But the colors and shapes themselves would have to be the students, their variety and subtlety immeasurable, the way they interact, blend and contrast, never twice the same. The experience of the whole class—learning in concert, reaching new levels of understanding, balancing differences, highs and lows, within the confines of time and space—is the artistic work that teachers create over and over, differently each time, in their own unique ways.

Policy makers will probably never understand this and prefer to avoid thinking about it because recognizing the art of teaching would make their jobs much more complicated. Imagine writing “policy” for every professional sculptor in New York, for example. (Good luck!)

What makes policy for art difficult? Compare it with science: the validity of a scientific model depends on whether or not it can be replicated elsewhere. Good art, however, can never be replicated. The outcome depends on the particular interaction of the artist, his or her experiences, vision, materials, the time, and the place. Teaching is much the same way.

In our quest to accurately measure student learning, there is pressure within the teaching profession and outside it to view our work as purely scientific, where there are certain truths, patterns and rules (or characteristics of effective teaching) that do not depend on the specific individuals involved. But these patterns reflect only half of the reality of teaching; the other half is saying, “Every moment is different and holds infinite possibilities. Go ahead, break the pattern, and set something new in motion.” This spontaneous, intuitive, risk-taking side of teaching can be genius at times, and other times messy. But kids need to be exposed to artful, experimental teaching, so that they might develop their own unique visions and learn to risk messiness to make them reality.

Teachers need lots of support to be able to do our work well. Sound policies can help provide this; just as easily, they can stifle us. For example, like artists, teachers need to be exposed as much as possible to other great teachers. Policies that promote collaboration and mentoring will help to meet this need. Policies that promote isolation and competition lessen our potential.

Teachers have to get involved in writing good policies, because who else fully understands the dynamic, complex nature of our work? Who will advocate for the space and support to practice our particular art, if not us?

[image of Paul Klee’s “Shapes Colors” painting fouund at www.superstock.co.uk]

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