Teaching is a beautiful, but undervalued, work of art.
What teachers produce, and where our value lies, among other things, is in the collection, analysis, transmission of information and the perspectives that we offer.
Teachers have a tough job but we are much more valuable than society gives us credit for. In trying to discuss and describe teaching and all that it entails, it occurred to me that, like many others, we are artists. Information artists. In essence, the technique and methodology could be described as similar to the elements needed to produce a work of art, such as a blank canvas, a demand for our skills, a “particular” or “innate” way of getting the job done (whether or not this innateness comes naturally or is developed by experience) and very importantly, much imagination. Supporting these elements are a commitment to helping others, a duty to explore, to understand, and to help others “to learn to know.” It would help teachers a great deal for the art-form that is teaching to be valued more by society, and for its artists to be better understood.
The collection of information is no easy task, because the ability to find and curate it is not enough. Its selection and use is subject to a mammoth amount of bureaucracy (especially in public school systems) and constrained by the requirements of curriculum, and the inevitable political choices behind programmes of education developed by the state. In the most centralised systems, there can be a total constraint of choice in that information is provided, and there is little incentive (if not severe consequences) for teachers to move beyond the prescribed.
The art lies in choosing well, balancing the external requirements of the system with the internal needs of the classroom, because subsequent teaching and evaluation depends on it. How teachers would love to be understood better through an appreciation of how hard this balance is, yet, this is before we’ve even discussed the vast internal environment of the classroom. Like a portrait artist starting the first few brushstrokes, the teacher needs to keep in mind from the outset the ways in which they want the final result to develop, and what success means. Thankfully, I’ve worked in environments that, while promoting a strong centralised curriculum, have offered much autonomy to the teacher to decide how those objectives are realised. Thus, I’ve been able to collect relevant information that meets the needs of my students and their learning priorities first, while aligning the strong learning outcomes in the classroom to the external curriculum requirements.
The second undervalued attribute of teachers is analysis. The private sector pays well in this regard, and there now exists a whole army of “business analysts” and a range of other job titles that have analytical skills at their cores, but teaching is one area where the amount of high-level analytical thinking remains underappreciated. Not only does analysis form a central part of lesson preparation, the constant need for it is a thread that weaves its way through planning, the classroom environment, assessment and feedback.
It would be most useful for the following to be understood: Analysis is a skill that isn’t only projected outward, but also inward, with teachers constantly needing to analyse themselves to improve their practice. In many cases this need is imposed by institutions, but this doesn’t undermine a strong truth that the majority of teachers are happy to do so, despite dealing with simultaneous demands from all sides. When it seems like any lack of educational progress is ascribed by society to a lack of teacher development and competence, I would counter that those making such assertions do not understand the sheer effort that goes into analysis, whether this be:
- The analysis of material;
- Its medium(s) of presentation;
- Keeping pace with the dynamics of the classroom;
- Appreciating how each group of students is unique;
- Successfully adapting pedagogy to meet the needs of students, the institution, local and national authorities;
- Dealing with discipline;
- Understanding the various pressures students face, for example, pressures from their peers;
- How to change course at a moment’s notice and capitalise upon “teachable moments;”
- How to answer questions;
- Which tasks to assign for outside of the classroom.
The list is in no particular logical order, and it goes on, but all teachers will recognise it, and that every activity in it requires much thinking and split-second decision making. An understanding of how much analysis is involved in teaching, that it is the metaphorical glue that makes a real difference to the quality of teaching and learning, along with an appreciation of the demands teachers face to consistently improve their practice, will all go a great distance towards recognising the value of teachers again.
Linked to analysis is transmission, the art-form of how knowledge and learning reaches and is processed by each student so that they can fully meet their potential. This is the real work, and the hardest part to capture, but the list above also serves as a list of challenges that stand between the teacher and the learned student. Transmission depends on an interdependent set of decisions that the teacher constantly has to make, just as the portrait artist focuses on each stroke, returning often to refine and improve each detail. There is a tight course to follow that requires gentle steering throughout, using techniques developed through talent, time and experience, but the methodology isn’t always the same with each portrait, just as it isn’t in each classroom, even when the subject taught is the same. The variables are immense, but the skills to adapt are also immense, and transmission is most successful when this is recognised, because this part of a teacher’s repertoire (pallette) is where learning is generated and refined, and subsequent activities are designed to cement it for the longer-term.
The perspective that a teacher offers is the last characteristic that I stipulate here to be of value. One of the most enlightening aspects of being a teacher is that even when students graduate, you are often still asked for your opinions and perspectives. Students inherently trust your judgement and insight on various matters. As wonderful as I find this, I also consider it an extension of the great responsibility placed on the shoulders of every teacher to not only guide, inform and help students grow, but to be good role models that students look up to. Society is short of good role models, and they are perhaps needed more than ever before, but teachers understand that their role comes wrapped in responsibility, trust and good character, and whether or not we like or want it, many students simply look up to their teachers anyway. I believe that the value of a good role model is crucial, and that our perspectives both during a student’s education, and beyond their education if our perspectives be sought, are the final touches of the artistic masterpiece and includes the frame that surrounds our work.
In conclusion, teaching is a beautiful work of art, but if its artists can be better understood, then their work will be much more valued in the future.
(Final thought: Sir Ken Robinson’s view is also clear! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd9zlxuNDFg)