Teacher as Artist

I have been a teacher for fourteen years; it never ceases to amaze me that I continue to learn more about the job all the time. Tonight, for example, I found myself seeing my work in a whole new perspective: teacher as artist.

In the fifth grade I had two teachers: Mrs. Sherman and Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Sherman was a short woman with pale skin and severe black hair, somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years old. If we were upset no hug was better than hers; she was the soft and cushy sort who made the best kind of hugger. That said, to mess with this woman was to flash the red curtain in front of the bull; she was strict as strict could be, quick to raise her voice and put us in our places. While she was overtly intense, Mrs. Williams was quietly so. A young, tall, lanky woman with mocha colored skin and soft hair kept short and natural, she spoke calmly and quietly and instructed us with great patience. Her kind brown eyes made two things very clear without her having to say a word: one, you are loved; two, cut the crap.

We were a class of sixty kids, switching in groups of about thirty back and forth between our seats on Mrs. Williams side of the room to our seats on Mrs. Sherman’s side. Looking back I don’t remember who taught science and who taught language arts; like much of childhood, the specifics escape me. In this case, however, there are two exceptions that I remember in great detail.

First, with Mrs. Sherman all the girls in the class learned about “that time of the month” while the boys got to go out with Mrs. Williams for an extra hour of kickball. Every day that week Mrs. Sherman showed us film strips (yes, clickety-clackety, reel to reel film strips) about our bodies. I remember the clicking sound of that film seeming to provide sound effects for the little egg moving down the fallopian tube as I thought, holy Lord, is that what I eat when I have eggs for breakfast?

The other piece of fifth grade academia that stands out clearly in my mind is my proudest artistic moment. One day that spring Mrs. Williams led our half of the class in making what was quite possibly the most beautiful daffodil ever created. It was remarkable, I remember thinking, that out of paper, glue, paint, and one segment of an egg carton, we could create this three-dimensional version of one of my favorite flowers. I was struck by my beautiful flower and believed in that moment I was to be a great artist. If I could create something as beautiful as that, what else could I do?

Unfortunately, I was one of those kids who knew if I couldn’t do it well, it wasn’t going to get done by me. It didn’t take many failed attempts at drawing, painting, and constructing art to lead me to believe my self proclaimed days of “artist” were numbered. Fifth grade was the last time I tried my hand at art, or so I thought.

As I walked my dog through the bitter cold tonight (as bitter cold as Bay Area winters get, that is) and I was struck by the daffidols beginning to sprout. How could something so reminiscent of spring emerge in such a time of gray cold? Every year I am taken back by the simple beauty of the daffodil, just as I was in fifth grade by my egg carton version of the same flower. It struck me tonight that the flower itself is a work of great art, a gift given to us and tended by us. Anyone who has ever worked in a garden knows that to tend to soil, whether the intent is to grow flowers or vegetables, you have to be thoughtful, educated, and a touch inspired by the divine. This, in its very essence, is to be an artist.

Tonight, I realized art isn’t just about drawing or painting; art is anything created. Anything that once was nothing and then something, made possible by the mind and heart of any human being or even the simple, profound grace of God, that’s art. In that moment I realized that that flower I created in fifth grade wasn’t the first and last creation of me as artist; that flower was the first step in the evolution of me as artist.

I create art everyday. I cook. I garden. I write; but perhaps my most important art is what I am lucky enough to call my profession: teaching. If teaching isn’t art I don’t know what is. Where once there were words on a page, with teaching the information comes to life and sparks students’ minds. Just like a great painting, my lessons provide opportunity for new ideas and concepts and wonderings; they engage conversations and even debate; and on days my lessons are really great, they go even further to enlighten and empower young minds with strength and hope and give my students a better sense of themselves and their place in the world.

We are all born artists of some kind; it is a part of our nature as human beings, this desire and ability to create. If we are lucky, our work is our art. Some of us are born artists and some of us have to work exceptionally hard to grow into them. Regardless, teaching is an art to be valued perhaps more than many others.

Like with any art, in teaching natural gifts and ongoing learning combine to make great work. A rapport with students, an ability to break down concepts, a diligent work ethic—all of it is necessary and much of it innate. This must work in conjunction with things like the ongoing learning of curriculum, refinement of classroom management, and the trial and error of different philosophies and pedagogy. Without both the innate and the learned, both respected as ongoing evolutions, the struggle to create the art of teaching is immense and often drives people out of the profession entirely. Worse, it allows others to grow weary and choose the version of teaching that is not art at all; instead of teachers, they become place holders.

Like a painter, we must work hard to develop our craft. It takes effort and time and relentless commitment. The first years are almost unbearable. We want to quit and cry and throw our hands in the air, and yet we don’t. We don’t because we have been born to teach. To do anything less would be unworthy of our art.

And art, it most definitely is.

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