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The Teaching Profession as an Art Form

Jordan Catapano

“Teaching is an art form, it’s not a delivery system. I don’t know when we started confusing teaching with FedEx.” Thinking of the teaching profession as a form of art has been one of many of Sir Ken Robinson’s mantras regarding education. Teachers themselves are prone to concur, recognizing that there is more to guiding the development of youths’ minds than just a rote, robotic method. If the teaching profession is an art form … then does that make teachers artists? Do teachers think of themselves as artists in the same way other artists – in music, in poetry, in theater – see themselves? Probably not. Unfortunately, teachers are unlikely to equate themselves to these more culturally traditional ways of identifying artists. Teachers’ tools are not paintbrushes, instruments, or stages, but rather human minds and souls. It’s harder to see education as an art form because standards, research, and laws tend to take center stage. These scientific, concrete elements are all essential to the teaching profession as well, but at some point we also must begin seeing ourselves as creators who transcend the mechanics of curriculum and who produce authentic art.

The Teaching Profession: Questions for Teachers to See Themselves As Artists

So you want to see yourself and your education peers more as artists? You can begin by asking yourself the types of questions often posed to others who produce art.

Who inspires you? Ask any musician, and they’ll rattle of the names of bands and composers who had an influence on them. Teachers, too, should have a list of local, national, and historical educators whose craft they’ve studied and felt inspired by.

What are the human elements expressed through your art? Art’s goal, according to many, is to express some element of the human condition. It’s not the brushstrokes or song chords that do this, but the work as a whole. What does your work as a whole expose to others about the universal human experience?

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Where does imagination intersect with reality? Art is a representation of the real, not the real thing itself. What non-real, imagination-based components do you draw from to represent reality? Teachers should be able to ignite the imaginations of their students so they can collectively envision a future for themselves and for the world different from their present circumstances.

What do you hope to inspire in others? Artists consider the impact they desire to have on others. Consider what you want your students to leave your classroom thinking and feeling. Consider what you want outsiders to see when they examine your artwork.

How do you expect others to interact with your art? Art is not a one-way communication stream, but rather a collusion between artist and recipient. Teachers should consider how they have interplay between themselves, their students, and their colleagues, and what expectations they have for how others are responding to what is produced.

Are you the hermit artist or part of an artistic community? Some artists prefer to work alone; others thrive in artistic communities and circles. What sort of artist are you? The trick here is that you don’t have to choose – often the best artists are ones who spend patient time in their own company, and who also feed off the creative aspirations of their fellow artists.

What is your most important artistic tool? It takes physical materials to produce art, whether a canvas, a set of strings, or a script. What are the tools a teacher has at his or her disposal, and how adept are they at wielding those tools?

What piece of work are you most proud of? Artists often have pieces that they don’t care for too much, and others that they consider to be their own magnum opus. Think about what you have produced that you consider to be genuine art you’re proud of. Also consider this: many artists have at least one piece of work they didn’t think much of at the time but turned out to be a huge hit with the public: like Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet or Virgil’s “The Aeneid.”

At what point did you realize you were creating art? Teachers begin with the mechanics of their profession: Making lesson plans and assessing student progress. But at some point the work shifts from the raw scientific process of education to something that is heartfelt and beautiful.

What is your process for creating your art? Artists each have their own method, their own process, for crafting their masterworks. Consider what steps you take, or would like to take, to produce the masterpieces you want in your classroom. What tools, what steps, what factors play into your method for constructing beauty and expression?

Where does the science end and the art begin? We all benefit from incorporating research, following clear standards and protocols, and maintaining professional decorum in our settings. Consider the role the science plays in your production of art. Do you need more “Science” to understand the art within your craft even better?

What is your definition of beauty? “Students should be able to …” is an excellent phrase for nailing down what educational outcomes we’re striving for in our work. But what non-academic outcomes do we also want? What is the purpose for our efforts and our art, and how do we know if we’ve achieved that purpose?

Is your art produced on the spot or is it an ongoing work in progress? Malcolm Gladwell in one episode of his podcast series "Revisionist History" examines how geniuses either produce their work in one splurge of exuberant creation, or craft it slowly, over and over again, in one unfinished draft after another. What kind of genius are you? What kind of genius are your students?

Uncommon Questions

The list of questions above are uncommon questions for teachers to ask themselves. But why are they uncommon? For teachers to see themselves as artists, it is important that they consider the same sorts of questions that other acknowledged artists might. While other questions related to education might have concrete answers based on education, neuroscience, or some other field that gives us hard numbers and specific protocols, the list of artist questions above yields vague and debatable answers.

When it comes to art, the answers often don’t matter as much as the questions anyhow. I’d argue that it’s more important for teachers to raise these questions to one another, and then to engage in an authentic process of conversation that helps them continue to see that there is more to what they do than follow research recommendations, make lesson plans, and give tests. Teachers are artists. And their masterwork takes place every day with the hearts and minds of the students they are privileged to work with.

American author John Steinbeck once said, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” I am prone to concur.

Do you consider teachers to be artists? Tell us your thoughts about those in the teaching profession as artists and the questions above in a comment!

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website