“What if a math teacher had to advocate as much, or as hard, for the math program as we have to for the arts?” I looked around the table, and made eye contact with a few of the other teachers in the room. “What sort of magic would happen in math?”
I nervously asked this question in a breakout session this morning. My heart had sunk a few minutes earlier, when the session’s participants introduced themselves and their credentials. An overwhelming array of education, expertise, and mover-and-shaker-ness was in this room. Harvard grad students, teaching artists, mid-career professionals, people responsible for causes I follow and believe in. I felt humbled. When it was my turn, I mumbled something about teaching at a private school, and turned to the next person to deflect the focus.
But I couldn’t help but ask the question, when later we were discussing the relationship between teaching and advocacy. I’m a passionate arts advocate – but also a weary one. I’ve lost a few battles, and I’ve made mistakes when I’ve rallied. I’ve ranted and raved to rolling eyes. In my current role, teaching at a private school, we don’t face the threats of dwindling support or programs being erased. It would be easier to get comfortable, to slide smoothly into a career path where the support is solid and the threats absent.
Yet, I seem to still hunt down opportunities to advocate for the arts. Maybe, in part, it’s empathy for colleagueswhose struggles with arts education are more pressing. More likely, advocacy has just gotten into my blood. I imagine that in the future, the students I teach are more likely to be making the decisions about support and funding for arts education than affected by those decisions. And so, in no more than two semesters – and sometimes less – I charge myself with convincing them that the arts are an essential part of their learning, so that they will carry this certainty into their future decisions. I also try to teach them some clay, or graphic design, or both. And to collaborate with colleagues, produce play programs, moderate a student newspaper, tackle social justice themes, occasionally practice as an artist, write recommendation letters… actually, that’s just my to-do list from taking the last couple of days off to come to this conference.
Hence the weariness.
And also, hence one of the reasons why this weekend has been so tremendous. I can’t say for certain – this is for them to reflect and respond – but I believe this conference was a game-changer for my students. Their work was positively acknowledged by a smart, worldly audience of professionals. They had meaningful conversations with interested adults, and with each other. I think they realized how unusual their opportunities are, and it may no longer just be my whisper that reminds them of their responsibility to do good work with what they have been given. And all of this was centered around their studio practice.
Will this studio practice be an essential element of my students’ futures? Maybe not. But will they see it as an essential element of education? Will they envision opportunities like they one they embraced for this project as important enough to advocate for, or fund? Damn, a girl can hope.
Back to that original question, about math. To my surprise, and I’ll admit a bit of pride, it sparked a lively discussion in the room. A major takeaway from that conversation was the idea that our necessary advocacy in arts education is a mixed blessing – but heavy on the blessing part. We have to learn how to do it from the start. We have no choice but to articulate the importance of our work, and to advocate for our students and for ourselves – otherwise, it may disappear. The math teacher’s program is never in question – so s/he may never take the extra big steps to connect classroom work to the working world, or develop strong professional partnerships, or to pave the way for students to present at a national conference. (Or s/he may do all of these things; high-five to all those who do. It just doesn’t come out of threat or urgency.)
We arts educators have no choice but to seek these opportunities out, or to say ‘yes’ to them when they arise, no matter the weariness. I can’t help but believe that our teaching is richer for our essential advocacy work. And every time we practice advocacy, we are role modeling, which is its own form of teaching. This weekend, I think my students got to learn from a diverse and passionate audience of advocates. Their stories are now interconnected – braided together, to borrow a presenter’s analogy. And I can’t help but believe that their learning is so much richer for the stories they heard.
Speaking about his ceramic work at a panel on Friday night, Drew told the audience, “It’s evolved into something much deeper, and it’s really changed me a lot.” I can say the same for this project, which, frankly, had its roots in advocacy for my students, our studio, and the work that happens there. (I think I realized that advocacy may be a flow experience for me, but that’s another post for another time, after a lot of sleep.)
The advocacy is still very much on the agenda – but the process of creating and sharing this work evolved that agenda, and went a lot deeper.
We are coming home weary, but energized to continue a conversation.