But is it art? The art of teaching

No. 5 – Jackson Pollock

I’m a big fan of art. I wouldn’t claim to know a lot about it, but it speaks to me. Whether it’s standing, enraptured in front of The Ambassadors, climbing Louise Bourgeois’ towers, peering into Tracey Emin’s tent, or trying to mentally piece together Cornelia Parker’s exploded garden shed it grabs something inside me and compels me to be present. To pay attention. To be interested. I get heartily sick when yet another curmudgeonly professional complainer comes along, takes a cursory glance at (for instance) Jackson Pollock’s No. 5 and scoffs, “That’s not art! I could do that.” Yeah, maybe you could. But you didn’t. He did. That’s why he’s an artist and you’re not.

I’m currently reading Seth Godin’s book Linchpin, Are You Indispensable? On one level it’s about business and careers and marketing and stuff which generally turns me off. Stuff which doesn’t speak to me. But what he’s really writing about is art. He says,

“Charlie Chaplin was an artist, beyond a doubt. So is Jonathan Ive , who designed the iPod. You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substance.”

And maybe there are artists who teach. I’ve definitely met some. And they’re not all art teachers. I mean teachers who put so much more into their lessons than they need to, who care more about their students than anyone expects. Teachers who are passionate about their subjects and about engaging children. Know anyone who fits that description? Maybe on a good day it’s even you.

Godin asks if we are selling ourselves short. He says that the idea of a day’s work for a day’s pay is abhorrent. “The moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you are capable of being.” We’ve all made this trade if only for a day and it’s toxic; it eats away at everything we believe to be valuable.

The alternative is to love what you do. To treasure it. Over the summer I read a blog post on Life Hacker with the provocative title If You Wouldn’t Do Your Job For Free, Then Quit. Life’s too short to not do something you really want to do. We teachers are pretty damn lucky because society has made sure that we haven’t gone into teaching for the huge financial rewards. Would I do my job for free? Well, obviously I can’t afford to, what with mortgages, mouths to feed and what not. But would I? To be frank, there are some parts of it would happily do without, but the actual teaching, the interacting with kids in a classroom bit is fantastic. I can’t imagine not doing it. The fact I’m paid a salary makes it possible for me to do it full time.

So does that make me an artist? On a good day, yes, it does. Godin says, “A day’s work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters.” He goes on, “Being open is art. Making a connection when it’s not part of your job is a gift. You can say your lines and get away with it, or you can touch someone and make a difference in their lives forever.” He’s not talking about teaching here (not specifically anyway) but he could be. That last sentence sends shivers down my spine. Everyday we have the choice to make a difference to someone’s life forever. Or not bother. Seems a pretty straightforward choice when laid out in those terms, doesn’t it?

So, this got me thinking about the kids. Since reading (and writing about) Carol Dweck I’ve become very aware of trying to intrinsically motivate my students and today watching Dan Pink’s TED talk reminded me of all the reasons this is so vital:

What happens if we tie all these ideas together? It seems fairly obvious to me that I should be trying to encourage my students to create art. To do something meaningful, that they can be proud of, that could make a difference. What is it? I’m not sure yet, but I know absolutely, deep in my soul, that it’s got nothing to do with wordsearches!

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6 Responses to But is it art? The art of teaching

  1. Lisa Ashes says:

    I was having this very conversation with my husband two days ago but I couldn’t describe what I was thinking. Your post just did that!! If I ever find a spare moment I paint. My home is filled with my ‘attempts’ at art. However, what I do at work has, for me, far more potential to be artistic.

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