Friday, October 21, 2011

The art of teaching, the gift and the passion

In my last 2 schools I've been a member of a book group.  This group met every month to discuss a novel that we had chosen as a group - certainly some of the books I read in these groups would not have been books I'd have chosen myself, and yet reading something new and different was interesting.  I enjoyed the social side of it too - having discussions with people in very different areas of the school (and some not even at school) often gave me a different perspective on things.  At my last school I was also a member of a group that read professional books.  When I moved to my current school such a group did not exist, but last year a colleague and I discussed setting one up and chose the first book for the group, The Element by Sir Ken Robinson.  We wanted this to be a very open group, not just for the teachers at our school but also one that would be open for other local teachers to join.

Recently I was recommended another book to read, Linchpin by Seth Godin.  This book, not really about education, has been a bit of a revelation to me about the value of work and the institutions and people we work for.  The last chapter I've read has been about artists.

Seth Godin doesn't define an artist in the traditional sense, but as someone "who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo."  He writes that art is "a personal gift that changes the recipient.  The medium doesn't matter.  The intent does.  Art is a personal act of courage."  This got me thinking about teachers as artists, learning as a gift to students, and the art of teaching in general.  Godin says  "An artist is an individual who creates art.  The more people you change, the more you change them, the more effective your art is."  When I think about teachers creating the conditions for learning and how powerful this is, it makes me realise what amazing artists teachers can be and how each day they can create the gift of learning and give it to their students.

Later on in the chapter Seth Godin asks:  "Would Shakespeare blog?  Does the technology used by the artist appear on the scene to match what the artist needs, or do artists do their work with the tools that are available?  Shakespeare didn't invent plays, he used them.  Salinger didn't invent the novel, he wrote a few."  Today there are lots of teachers, principals and students blogging, reflecting on their practice and their learning - hundreds of thousands of people are reading these posts, interacting with the writers and learning from them and maybe changing their ideas and therefore these writers are also artists.  How did these individuals reflect before they blogged?  How are teachers, principals and students who don't blog reflecting?  Reading back over the chapter it seems that the most important aspect of art is that is is often given to us freely.  We can all enjoy walking around an art gallery admiring the paintings, we can all enjoy listening to music on the radio. What about if an artist or a musician kept their art to themselves?  The world would be a poorer place.

Reading further, Godin writes about how art is a gift.  He says "the gift is as much for you as it is for the recipient" and because of this he says it's important to know who you are giving to as this allows feedback which helps you improve.  It also helps you to ignore those who don't want the gift.
It's impossible to make art for everyone.  There are too many conflicting goals and there's far too much noise.  Art for everyone is mediocre, bland and ineffective.  If you don't pinpoint your audience you end up making your art for the loudest, crankiest critics.  And that's a waste.  Instead, focus on the audience that you choose, and listen to them to the exclusion of all others.  Go ahead and make this sort of customer happy.
According to Godin, artists don't need someone telling them what to do.  He says:  "An artist's job is to change us.  When you have a boss, your job is to please the boss, not to change her .... the moment you treat that person like someone in charge of your movements and your output, you are a cog, not an artist."  I think this is why many teachers become disillusioned - they are teaching to the test rather than allowing students' own curiosity to drive the learning.  For me, a school where inquiry drives the curriculum seems one that is most likely to produce artists.

In our first reading group book, the Element, Sir Ken Robinson talks a lot about passion.  Seth Godin talks about it too.  He says that passion is caring so much about your art that you will do almost anything to give it away.  He talks about the passion for spreading your art, surrendering some of the elements that you love in order to help the other parts to thrive.  Passion is also about not surrendering the parts that are truly essential.

In my very first year of teaching I worked with teenagers who had learning and behaviour difficulties (in those days the schools were streamed and I taught the "bottom" class).  At the same time a colleague of mine, who worked with students who were excluded from these regular streamed classes, was in her last year of teaching.  She was quite an inspiration for me, as she was dealing with the students that were even more difficult to deal with than the ones in my class.  She retired at the end of the year and went to live on an island in the Indian Ocean where she worked for VSO teaching the local children.  I have no idea what the conditions were like for her, but I have often imagined her sitting under a palm tree with a blackboard surrounded by children who were eager to learn.  She was passionate about being a teacher and giving the gift of learning away.  I'm sure she didn't feel the need to teach to standardized tests.

Recently our daughter returned from Kenya where she had spent a week in a village school.  She also talked about how the girls there were passionate about staying on at school, about learning, about how they would do anything, including prostitution, to raise the money needed to pay the school fees.  It's a big contrast to the life she has led, in fairly privileged international schools.  While there she painted 2 big murals on the school walls, one of which was about the common values that are shared by the students there and at her own school.

All around the world I see there are wonderful teachers, passionate about what they do, giving the gift of education.  It makes me realise how proud I am to be part of such a idealistic and principled profession.  And this also reminded me of another blog post I read a couple of months ago by Zoe Weil who wrote:
Teachers are the agents of the future. Will our world be populated by people ready and able to meet that future as creative and critical thinkers; as wise, compassionate and knowledgeable citizens; as skilled and motivated solutionaries within their professions? The answer to this question lies with teachers. More than any other profession, teaching has the power to create a healthy, just, and peaceful world (or not). It has the ability to seed our society with informed, caring and engaged citizens (or not). It has the capacity to inspire lifelong learning and a passion for knowledge, understanding, and innovation (or not). Is there anything more important than this?

Photo Credit:  Yay! 999th! by Gabriela Camerotti  AttributionNoncommercial 

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