This past weekend, I had the opportunity to fulfill a wish of mine I have had for several years. I got to be a bell ringer for the salvation army. It was amazing! The temperature was dropping to single digit wind chills, The first snowflakes of the year fell and I got to see people's generosity and kindness up close and personal.
The day raised money for the Salvation Army's benevolent services but it also brought out a few unexpected observations. It all began with a phone call I had with an old and dear friend. He sardonically quipped "Prepare to be disappointed in humanity" at my revealing of my new adventure. It made me sad, because not only was I NOT disappointed (people were awesome, generous and funny) but his reaction to volunteering was to assume the worst. To be fair, he has had some tough times as of late. Those times can challenge even the brightest of spirits not to give in to cynicism. The second reaction came from a man I do not know on Facebook. He commented on my post about how fun it was to be able to do this, that the Salvation Army was homophobic and I was supporting hate. Seriously, hate by raising money for the poor? I asked him to find me a perfect company that offended noone so that I could volunter for them. No reply as of yet but I'm sure he is working hard to find one for me. (wink)
As I was standing and ringing the bell, I had two hours to think. Being a teacher, husband, father and artist doesn't always give me lots of time to do this so I was loving it. I was looking at the Salvation Army motto "Doing the Most Good" and it got me thinking about the work we do in the classroom. Some of my ancestors were in the Knights Templar, protecting pilgrims from harm on their travels to the Holy Land. I have always looked at the roll of teaching in a similar light. I am trying to inspire kids to fight for their own futures. To have a chance to succeed and perhaps to rise above their childhood circumstances. We were told when I was first hired, 12 years ago, that you can't save them all. True. But unfortunately many people have become like my real and Facebook friend, cynical or overly critical of the problems in education.
It's true, there are lots of problems. A lack of funding, a lack of respect or understanding of what art teachers do, poverty and entitlement mindset in out kiddos, all making the job even harder. But NONE of that matters. In the end, I think the Salvation Army has it right. DO THE MOST GOOD! This is what we can do. It is what motivates us to smile at that disrespectful student who yelled at you the day before. It is this goal that makes us not give up when fellow teachers or administrators seem to have no concern or support for our programs. The arts have the potential to open minds and change a kid's life. Not just the artistic student but every student has the opportunity to understand that their ideas matter. What they love, are interested in, and care about is IMPORTANT! That is a powerful message for any child. But think about it in the minds of our underpriveledged or oppressed kids.
This is why, after 12 years of teaching I decided to switch to the TAB based classroom. It allows me to do more good by empowering KIDS to see the wonder in themselves. It lets them have truly meaningful and authentic art experiences in the classroom. It teaches tham that they can accomplish anything if they put in the effort, even something difficult like making art. It validates the meaning in their ideas and in their own culture (whether ethnic or pop in nature). They are amazing, with brilliant ideas and strong opinions but they need guidance. That is what we do. We help them to channel that energy in meaningful ways to produce awesome works of art. If we are lucky, they may even learn a thing or two about themselves and their place in the world.
You may not be able to save them all. But don't for a minute allow yourself to slip into cynicism or criticalness because of it. You the art teacher (heck, any teacher for that matter) have the opportunity to save a life. That is pretty cool in my book. Just keep your eyes on the big picture and realize that doing the most good is way better than doing no good at all.
Ever since I was a little kid I have been surrounded by mysteries. We lived in a small ranch house that was owned by a man whose wifeswapped in the 60s.She had committed suicide in our basement and he was moving to Florida. He gave us the house if we took over the payments and he left a lot of old things in the basement. Old photos, 1930s pinball games, a microscope, super 8 films, old electronics and more. Oh, yeah, and a terrible vibe that things were not right down there. I was told not to mess with his stuff because my dad was afraid that he would come back some day to reclaim his treasures. He never did. I spent countless hours exploring these items and wondering in secret what they were and what they were used for.. It was a secret world that only I and my friends knew about.
Teaching has been a lot like that basement. I got hired on a provisional certificate. This means, I did not have my teaching license but had significant life experience in my field. As such, I started teaching without TRULY knowing what I was doing. I was in someone else's used art room filled with years of accumulated junk. I was in heaven, but this did cause me certain issues as one might imagine. I didn't know the tricks of the trade for classroom and project management but I loved kids, art and I worked hard at making connections and sharing my love of the arts with my students. Love and passion trumps books smarts most of the time.
This became a real asset however once I had a few years under my belt as I was not tied down to many of the conventions that I see teachers struggle with. I was not a slave to schools of thought about teaching nor was I afraid to try out new or experimental projects and approaches. Instead, I developed my philosophy of teaching by trial and error and what I felt I needed to become the artist I had become. In those early years, I had been paralyzed with fear in my art making due to long standing insecurities developed in childhood and further ingrained in grad school. The fearlessness I felt in teaching would eventually close into a feedback loop and help my art making. A truly symiotic relationship. Now, 12 years into my carreer, I am continuing my exploration of the mysteries of classrooms and life as I spend time developing a TAB (Teaching for artistic behavior) classroom.
The "EAT PASTE" page on this site is dedicated to my research on this topic, and on teaching in general. I am wrestling with these issues as I have always done, through images. I want to record for myself the ups and downs that I face as I teach and see how artmaking can now feed my teaching by giving me a refective mirror to think about the things that take place, or that need to change. I will be posting weekly a variety of pages from my EAT PASTE JOURNAL. I hope it helps me answer some questions but I suspect it will produce more questions.