You coulda been a ____. Why choosing to teach is choosing to be an artist.

This week’s blog post is from one of our resident teachers, a current grad student in Early Childhood Education. Read on to hear her thoughts on how teaching and art intersect.

Brenda Putnam, American sculptor, 1890-1975


The other day a dear old friend, in the kindest, most genuinely loving way, asked me (in so many words) if I felt like I wasn’t living up to my potential to be an actor/comedian/writer/creative. His question gave me pause, and to be honest, it’s one I have posed to myself on more than one occasion. The responsive teacher’s life can be a grueling one, sometimes thankless and undervalued in our society, and in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind and increasing de-professionalization of the field, even considered a talentless job that “anyone” could do. I’m glad he asked it, because hearing this question from someone else forced me to confront these truths and consider my stance.

Do I feel like I shortchanged my chance to be an actor or a writer? No, not really. In fact by choosing to teach, I have done just the opposite. Getting to the raw essence of what it takes to be an artist, I assert that in order to truly act or write, one must commit to living in the nitty gritty thick of human experience. There’s no greater character study, no probing of the secret depths of the human spirit, than teaching.

I act every single day. I’m a celebrated comedian as I crack jokes with my kids (which never fail to hit their mark). My facility and joy in words is validated each day; a knock knock joke isn’t just a knock knock joke. I’m teaching wordplay, idioms, and the craft of language through laughter. I must convincingly perform the roles of “curious thinker”, “problem solver”, and “good citizen” to model friendship skills, kindness, patience, the drive to learn and creatively face problems. Even when I don’t want to, the show must go on. I must submerge myself in my assumed character. I must fluidly shift between characters in response to the unfolding scene, the ultimate improv arena. To be the teacher-artist is to take on the most demanding performing arts role out there. It’s to see through the eyes of the most gifted satirists, combining humor and a sharp vision of the world to assist others in critically seeing it.

I use my talents as a writer and an actor by compassionately unpacking the actions and motivations of the characters that surround me and assuming their points of view. It is a wonderful gift to give your fellow human, to get to say every day, “I see you. You’re welcome here, every part of you, flaws and quirks and all.” This next part is top secret, but behind closed doors, I do lovingly spot-on impressions of my students. My performer’s heart swells when my audience laughs, requests old favorites or demands an encore. Like a true artist, my greatest joy is to see that I have brought joy. Perhaps impressions can be perceived as “making fun” but I focus on the “fun” and the intrinsic love and enjoyment this word implies. I assure you the skill of impersonation is rooted in my responsive teaching values: careful kid-watching, talking less and listening more, and truly striving to see students as the distinctive and wonderful individuals they are. How can you recreate peoples’ defining mannerisms and imitate the cadence of their voices without having SEEN and HEARD them thoroughly?

Face it, fellow wordsmiths, who ache to tell the stories of our humanity without ever having spent time alongside 8 year olds. You should envy me. I am positioned at the well of human creativity, ankle deep in the overflow whether I like it or not. Kids are the brightest shining, unabashed thinkers and poets this world has to offer. An artist’s craft depends on the company she keeps, the depth of her collaboration with the greatest minds. I keep the company of the most unselfconsciously original people alive today. And the feelings! Who else gets to bear witness to the glorious spectrum of human emotion, to watch epic dramas unfold every hour? In the life of a child, elation is followed by utter devastation and despair, which can quickly be replaced by a moment of slapstick comedy, and perhaps a bit of toilet humor depending on your inner circle, and I am RIGHT THERE in the thick of it all, drinking it all in.

Of all of these glorious examples of human feelings, my very favorite has to be the child’s capacity for genuine and open awe. That’s where my artist self meets my teacher self, as this latter persona quietly enters stage left. It’s her job to set the scene, prepare the props, and yell “cut” and “action” when the actors need. That’s how we provide experiences of authentic discovery that can spark such curiosity and wonder. Is there a nobler definition of art?

Reflective and socially conscious teachers, the next time someone asks you how you feel about not becoming the famous artist you dreamed of in your youth, your answer should be obvious.

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

(Arthur O’Shaughnessy, Ode, 1874)

Every day I strive to be a mover and a shaker, to encourage my kids to take less-trod paths and wander “lone sea-breakers” and pursue their own hearts’ callings. I propose there is no purer way to answer the wild call of the artist’s life, the call to see ourselves and each other with clarity, and to create. My friend, I am proud to be walking the only path that ever really existed for me. My friend, I assure you I am already an artist. I am an artist because I teach.

By Katie Robertson (originally published May 2014 here)

Category: Blog · Tags:

Leave A Comment