Monday, March 31, 2014

Five Benefits of Teaching Like an Artist

“All things have been given to us for a purpose,
and an artist must feel this more intensely.” - J. L. Borges

I wrote a post at the end of summer about teaching like an artist. It is what I have learned after about seven years working in education at jobs that let me express creativity and passion in school. Contrasted with about 12 years of a largely dull approach to teaching high school math, it has been an invigorating experience. I’m still living and learning it daily, but I want to share what I’ve found so far.

I’m taking the broad perspective of what it means to be an artist and what counts as art. To me, the artist is someone who sees, works to make and then shares something that didn’t exist before. It might be physical or it might be an idea. But in any case, the artist is driven to bring the dream to reality.

And what drives the process? Certainly many things, but primarily it is because the artist is meant to create. I have to believe people are here to make a contribution, to make their piece of the world somehow different than when they first came. To do otherwise is to slowly squeeze the life out of their existence.

Instead of squeezing it out, artists are those who know how to let life shine through. Emotions, especially love for something, personality and talent, come through like light through a prism. What emerges, the art that didn’t exist before, grabs the attention of anyone who can see it.

Defined this way, we can all be artists to some extent. Any sphere of society where we might find ourselves will benefit when we become aware of ourselves in this way, but this is so true of schools. There adults impact the younger generation daily. There it feels like too often the goal is to just find some answer everyone else already knew. Schools desperately need more artists!

I’ve been trying to consciously live this out and here’s my current list of benefits of teaching like an artist:

Teaching like an artist has restored my sense of purpose on the job. I feel connected to why I am here. When I talk to a group of students about the projects I will be involved with, I am amazed at the memories across forty years that flood my mind and add up to what I need to say to inspire learning. I can share stories to encourage, model skills for their success and relate to their dreams and frustrations. It feels like the moment is a gift, not something that just happened.

It is refreshing to see the fruits of our contributions, whether large or small. In a largely consumer culture that requires a lot of input for fleeting moments of enjoyment (TGIF?), the artist can draw energy from regularly creating. When people and parts of the system in your school are different in real ways because of work you have done, you’ll experience something money can’t buy.

Artists enjoy sharing their work. This is related to the above point, but by this I mean sharing beyond the day to day job. Technology allows us to easily share our best work with other teachers around the world. Listen to artists talk about the reward. They often say it is in seeing others enjoy what they created. That’s the reward we can experience when we find other teachers used our lessons or got ideas from seeing what we did.

Students will be inspired when you create. They will thank you for what you taught them or, perhaps more accurately, what you awakened in them. They will begin to create and discover their own ideas and they’ll be excited to tell you about them.

There is excitement and anticipation when you live between your vision of what can be and what your vision becomes. This sure beats the boring approach I hear so often from tired colleagues (though I love them all) who already know the result of their hard work. Within minutes of seeing their class lists they can tell me how the grades will turn out, who the trouble students will be and which projects will fail.

Of course life reflects their low expectations and their reward for being right is as uninteresting as their classes. Isn’t it more exciting to dream and see if the dream could come true? What would school be like if everyone came in wondering how things might turn out?

Artists can live in the face of the negative emotions. Yes, ideas will fail, teaching will be exhausting and students will disappoint. I have struggled with deep frustration and depression throughout my career and many times I have seriously questioned if any of what I say here is worth it. It has helped greatly, however, to recognize all of that as part of living in the space between vision and reality and that I was made for that.

Rest assured that in doing it right we will at times appear crazy, to others and to ourselves, as we work toward our visions. It’s not about living a life void of the negative emotions and moments of insanity. It is living in spite of them. If we won’t push through, who will? And what are we really choosing if we choose to do otherwise?

In short, the teacher who lives like an artist is more alive. To be fully alive a person must recognize the blessings of life and fulfill his or her responsibilities. Artists train their eyes to see both parts. They possess the talent and have developed the skills necessary for the part they are meant to play.

Teachers living like artists get to do this surrounded by young people who are starving for such an example.

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