Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Why teachers need the arts (and the arts need them): Part I

To Practice Creativity Within Constraint


The educational system is filled with constraints from how many photocopies one is allowed to make per week or year, to what page one is supposed to be on in the textbook, what curriculum standard is to be addressed, or which assessment will determine the students’ (and their teachers’) success or failure. 

      Teachers know these constraints exist, and are often baffled and exhausted by them (as am I as a professor friend and now public school parent).  When we university educators train teachers it is our responsibilty, too often overlooked, not to dwell in ideals, but address the realities of school and classroom management, providing theories behind dynamic content instruction as well as strategies for how to take attendance and manage 100s of pages of grading while enduring endless faculty meetings regarding the educational crisis of the day—a crisis which is often defined by someone outside the classroom and school building!

      But the function of a culture of constraint can also have unintended effects.  The effect of such a culture can constrain even when restrictions are not there.  Much like Foulcault’s panopticon or Boal’s “cops in the head”—such a culture constrains actions and possibility in absentia when an invidividual absorbs the regularly enforced rules and makes them a permanent ways of life.  This is one of many reasons why teachers need the arts and why we need more explicit attention to training teachers much like we train artists.

      Artists are explicitly mentored to see limitations as opportunities—for example, a playwrite knows her play must be over within approximately two hours or she’ll lose her audience’s attention just as a kindergarten teacher knows her lesson must be over within 10-20 minutes. But how one fills the minutes or hours, the canvas, the stage or the restrictions placed on the classroom is also filled with possibility—every teacher must be awakened to the infinite space for wiggle room (this is a technical term, really.  I learned it from the great Fred Erickson!). But grown ups didn’t invent wiggle room.  Teachers and artists learn this from children, getting in touch with the childlike instinct to wiggle every unconstrained moment of the day—learning what space we can own as ours in order to feel childlike and free. 

      Training teachers as artists also means a training in vision—to see what may not be visible or possible.  To think creatively and strategically; to see opportunity when others might see limitation or impossibility.  Creativity is a skill that is necessary on the stage of a teacher’s life, to imagine new ways of working within the limitations set by our time.  While teachers cannot usually control the standards and curricula chosen by administrators, districts, states, and publishers, they do determine to varying degrees what gets absorbed into their classrooms and what it gets used for.  This process of selection and creativity requires rehearsal; training in the arts can provide just that.

One response to “Why teachers need the arts (and the arts need them): Part I

  1. http://yahoo.com February 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    The following article, “Why teachers need the arts
    (and the arts need them): Part I Teachers Act Up!” reveals the
    fact that u actually understand what u r communicating about!
    I 100 % am in agreement. Thank you -Latisha


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