Last week I shared a moment that highlighted superb classroom teacher engagement and participation. This week I want to create some context for why that moment means so much.
I believe in the power of theatre and the arts to build community and help cultivate responsible individuals whose skills include empathy, critical thinking, problem solving and communication. If I didn’t believe in the work that I do, I wouldn’t be doing it. Simple as that. I know that I am capable of making a difference in the lives of young people when I go into their classroom to lead a residency or workshop or an after-school program. While it’s a great place to start, bringing teaching artists in to classrooms to teach for a couple days out of the school year is not going to create radical change in American education.
I think we can all agree that generally speaking, schooling in the United States needs some overhauling. Integrating the arts should be a huge part of improving our schools. We’ve got the research. We’ve got the proof. We have full-time arts advocacy organizations to fight the good fight for policy that includes the arts in schools. But we need the teachers.
We need their support and engagement of the classroom teacher. It’s all well and good to bring a teaching artist into your classroom, but some of the most meaningful learning happens by the adults in the room, if they are receptive to it. In the five week residency I just wrapped up, I had teachers on both ends of the spectrum: some were totally engaged and invested in the work, and others saw our time with their students as a break in the week to catch up on paperwork and completely check out of the class. There is a palpable shift in the energy and meaning of a residency when the classroom teacher joins you with the students in the circle on the floor and participates in the lesson. It adds positive energy to the residency, and it strengthens the teacher-student relationships in the room.
Just like we need them to model positive participation in the lesson, we need teachers to model an appreciation and respect for the arts. The only way to increase the value of the arts in our country is to teach it to young people at an early age and consistently throughout their lives. Without that, the arts will continue to be regarded as an extra, expensive, “wouldn’t that be nice” commodity in our schools instead of the integral, important component that artists believe they have the power to be.