Teach Like an Artist: Heretics May Be True Believers

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Religion and faith are often confused. Someone who opposes faith is called an atheist and widely reviled. But we don’t have a common word for someone who opposes a particular religion.

Heretic will have to do.

If faith is the foundation of a belief system, then religion is the facade and the landscaping. It’s easy to get caught up in the foibles of a corporate culture and the systems that have been built over time, but they have nothing at all to do with the faith that built the system in the first place.

–Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, p. 84

Show me an important historical movement, and I’ll show you a heretic who started it all.  Martin Luther, Galileo, Descartes, Thomas More:  just a few examples of men who were labeled as heretics for challenging the status quo.

But all of these historical figures believed in something important that the status quo had all but forgotten.

We start our endeavors with the greatest of intentions and dreams.  Over time, however, our commitment to these dreams is vulnerable to attack from our own egos and desire for security.  The desire to protect the organization (and each person’s particular identity within the organization) overtakes the desire to see the vision through.

When institutions or long-established systems are in danger of forgetting their original visions, they need a few good heretics to shake them up a bit.

And here we are today with education in America.  We have committed ourselves to the epic vision that all children in this nation deserve the opportunity that education can give them, that our future generations are our greatest resource.

And every single day, we forget this epic vision.

We need a few good heretics. A few good teacher-artists who believe in the vision and purpose of education more than anyone else.  Heretics challenge institutions and ingrained institutional mindsets. They challenge “the way we’ve always done it here.” They are also not swayed by educational cliches.

Sometimes, these heretics will hear a well-meaning person promote a new measure with this ostensibly inspiring phrase: “It’s for the kids.”  Sometimes the idea is great for kids. Sometimes, though, the idea has nothing at all to do with what might be good for kids and is, instead, something that is good for the protection of the institution or someone else’s career.

The teacher-artist-heretic knows the difference.

What is the faith that the teacher-artist-heretic follows?

  1. The belief that our children are both inherently valuable as human beings and our most valuable asset as a society.
  2. Our children are worthy of our love, respect, nurturing, and discipline.
  3. Education brings opportunities to children that they might not otherwise have.
  4. All children should have these opportunities, both because we need to acknowledge their humanity and because we depend on the next generation’s growth for our own future.

What is the religion that the teacher-artist-heretic challenges?

  1. A system that focuses on the careers and egos of adults over the needs of children.
  2. A system that masquerades as accountability while making actual accountability difficult because school leadership is too buried in paperwork to have difficult conversations.
  3. A system that ultimately does not recognize teachers for the leaders that they are or could be if they would recognize their own power.

Teacher-artists will at times need to be heretics.

Because we support education more than anyone else.


To read more about this idea of heretical thinking in other professions and areas of life, see

Godin, Seth. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. New York: Portfolio, 2008. Print.


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