Dear Teachers: Welcome to the World of Art


“The Internet doesn’t have a firewall. We’re all able to connect. We each represent the ghost in the machine, the noise, the one who might change everything.
. . .
Can you imagine it getting less open? This is just the beginning.
Revolutions bring total chaos.
That’s what makes them revolutionary.”

–Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

In his book The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin explains that we’ve lost part of the Icarus myth. He reminds his readers that not only does Daedalus tell his son that he must not fly too close to the sun, he also tells the boy not to fly too close to the water.

In other words, Icarus is told also not to fly too low.

But we don’t remember that part.

Too many of us in education are fearful. Fearful of technology, fearful of breaking the rules, fearful of being rebels, fearful of ratings, fearful of politics, fearful of doing what is best for kids.

We just keep following practices that we suspect or know are less than best.

We don’t speak out.

We don’t do anything about our convictions.

We don’t invent or innovate or create.

Too many of us in education are in pain.  Every other day, it seems, I read another account, another memoir of a gifted teacher who just can’t handle the bureaucracy, the administration, the politics, the poor pay, the lack of recognition in education.  Every year another teacher throws up her hands or writes his broken-hearted resignation letter for the national media.

And my heart breaks for all those children who will never have this gifted person for a teacher.

There are all kinds of valid reasons to leave education. Trust me, I get that.  I’m not here to go over those reasons.

But for those of us who stay, hear me now: this year, fear and pain have to stop stifling our lives, our careers, and our mission.

We have to stop blindly following the hierarchy of education, the hierarchy that is getting us nowhere fast, the hierarchy that is stifling the artistic visions of both children and the adults who lead them every day.  We have to stop thinking that the system, which our society built on the principles of the industrial age, will change.

The system is broken.

The industrial economy is dying.  The factory model of education is obsolescent.  We cannot, in good conscience, continue to be compliant cogs in a machine training children to be compliant cogs in a machine. Those machines don’t even exist anymore.

Let’s stop being cogs in a machine: interchangeable, replaceable parts in a standardized, uniform system.

Let’s find a new way of being teachers.

Let’s be artists instead.

A caveat: being a teacher-artist won’t be easy. You may not want in on this movement.

Let me tell you what being a teacher-artist is not:

Being a teacher-artist is not doing whatever you want. It’s not bucking the system so that you can pop in a video and sit at your desk and check your personal social media. It’s not allowing children to do whatever they want.  It’s not throwing out all of the important principles in your content area and just teaching the few that you think are most interesting.  It’s not doing projects or language-arts-and-crafts with no clear educational objective.

Being a teacher-artist is not about discarding educational purpose, objectives, and standards.

Now let me explain what I think a teacher-artist does look like.  Feel free to add to my list in the comments.

  • If you are a teacher-artist, you will work harder than ever before. You will leave school exhausted.  You will retake control over your content, your curriculum. You will realize that you are the teacher in this classroom, not the textbook company, not the scope and sequence that has been handed to you, not the way we’ve always done it.
  • If you are a teacher-artist, you will try to get to know each and every student. You will learn what each student brings to the world as his or her own form of art. You will turn that group of adolescents or children into a community of people who value each other as artists. A group of students who will create their own sorts of revolutions.  You will focus on growing yourself and your classroom community into the artists that you already are and that you can be in the future.  You will activate the artistic power in each person in that classroom and give voice to each artist’s vision.
  • If you are a teacher-artist, while you won’t discard standards, you won’t unthinkingly cover them either. You will look at the curriculum, the scope and sequence, the textbook, and even the way we’ve always done it; and you will see all of these as your set of artist’s tools.  Some of the tools are past their prime; some are timeless; some are waiting to be rediscovered under the detritus. You will attend professional development, connect with other teachers online, collaborate with your colleagues, and put whatever you can in your toolbox, realizing that how you wield each tool is your artistic choice.
  •  If you are a teacher-artist, you will no longer simply “implement” anything in your classroom. When you fall back into the attitude that says, “Oh, we have to do this because it’s the district mandate, it’s on the curriculum, it’s in the textbook, etc,” you are stifling art and falling back into the old compliant patterns of the industrial age. As a teacher-artist, you will deeply examine, question, pry apart, autopsy everything that is given to you.

You will hack that curriculum.

  • If you are a teacher-artist, you will play hard.  Approach the curriculum, the mandates, the textbook, the standards with curiosity.  Play with them. Experiment. Wield them as your tools in your artistic vision. If they don’t make very good tools, use them as your medium instead.  How can you make something new out of these seemingly static principles?  How can and must we reinvent them for our lives today?
  • If you are a teacher-artist, you will be honest with your students about all your art. Your artistic integrity and your classroom community depend on this vulnerability. You will show your tools and take your creative work apart in front of them, modeling for them how to think about “mandates” and “standards.” You will teach them the significance and role of each component, like a mechanic taking apart an engine, like a coach dissecting the game tape.

Or like a teacher.

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year, friends.

Let’s go make some art.

P.S. This school year I want to reflect frequently on what it means to “teach like an artist” here on the blog. I’m not totally sure what it looks like or how to make it a movement, so I’m counting on you for ideas!

P.P.S. After I wrote this, I wanted to see if anyone else had the same thoughts. And yes! They do.  Here is a great post, also inspired by Seth Godin: “Teach Like an Artist” on the blog Be the Change. And here is an entire blog called Teaching Like an Artist! See, it’s already a movement!

P.P.P.S. In case you were wondering, Seth Godin has no idea I exist, but I highly recommend all of his books.


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