The Demise of the Artist-Teacher

03/02/2015 06:34 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

An artist is someone who brings his or her own self-expression to an activity. An artist expresses personal, closely held views, thoughts, images and passions with such truth and clarity that others immediately connect with this revealed humanity. Thus the personal becomes the universal. Therein lies its power.

Free expression is an essential right of a democracy. It becomes subversive in a dictatorship. I fear education in America is becoming a dictatorship. My evidence is admittedly anecdotal; I've been asked not to reveal names and places of people who have spoken to me about it because they fear they will lose their jobs. But I can start with a news story from Hillsborough County, Florida where I was recently invited to speak at a children's literature conference. The Hillsborough Board of Education fired Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who had recently been named 2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year. She is also a candidate for National Superintendent of the Year. The vote to dismiss was 4-3. Why? Politics? Petty jealousy? She cared too much about children? Her selfless caring about quality education for teachers and students was subversive?

The business and government suits, who have hijacked educational policy in a top down approach, are not professional educators. Their knowledge of education comes primarily from what they themselves survived (endured?). Most do not know what good education looks like. Their idea of a well-ordered classroom is rows of desks with students quietly bent over a test. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost in the preparation of the next generation of Florida's classroom teachers. Their professors tell me that they call them the "FCAT babies." These young people are the pre-service teachers who have grown up in Florida's test-taking climate. They have a "mother, may I?" permission-seeking approach to their own classroom behavior as teachers. They think test-taking and test prep is normal. They have seen nothing else. They are afraid to think for themselves.

In my presentation, I worked with a group of children while the teachers-to-be observed. I asked these bright children the question: "What can we do to show that air is real stuff?" Hands went up. There were lots of one-word responses like, "Science!" and "Gravity" which were not responsive to the question. There were others like, "air is made of atoms and molecules" where they were showing me that they could repeat something they had learned. The number of hands going up with unformulated responses showed how dependent they were on adult attention (from me). They were also quick to give answers because giving answers is the culture that results from extensive test prep. No one spent any time thinking about the question, except for one child who said, "Air can't be real stuff because you can't see it." I instantly reinforced attention to this observation and I repeated the question in several different ways. Suddenly there was a transformation in their engagement; they became quiet and thoughtful and started listening to each other. In other words, they focused on thinking rather than on getting attention for themselves.

In Sunday's NY Times article "Make School a Democracy," by David L Kirp, a highly effective educational system in rural Columbia called the Escuela Nueva (New School) model is described. This is about as far from rows of kids bent over desks as you can get. Read the description of what learning looks like in these schools, in this poor country. Its outcomes are better than urban schools thus demonstrating "massive educational improvement in a democratic developing country." It is second only to what's happening in impoverished Cuba according to my last post here.

In Florida, I was told about the Springboard Education programs that are so scripted that all teachers must be on the same page doing the same thing at the same time. It is turning teachers into automatons, when American education is crying out for the return of the artist-teacher. This is the teacher who takes one look at the textbooks and goes to the library to find much more powerful reading on the same subjects. This is the teacher who knows each student intimately and can write a poem for each one. This is the teacher who figures that good teaching trumps test prep and is not afraid for her kids' test outcomes. This is the teacher who has the courage to justify what he's doing and why he's doing it to powers-that-be who are not fully equipped to evaluate creativity. It includes a lot of the "best teacher" awardees. This is the teacher who wants to spend more time creating powerful lessons and less time doing accountability paperwork. For the artist-teacher, teaching with autonomy, mastery and purpose is a subversive activity, much as art is subversive in a dictatorship.

It's time stop paying lip-service to "freedom" in schools. If we actually implement it, the artist-teacher will flourish and so will our kids.