Have you ever done a Google search for “How to Advocate for the Arts?” It’s a little disappointing, to say the least. There are plenty of websites and articles that discuss why we should advocate for the arts, why the arts are important in our schools, statistics of children who score better on tests because of the arts, and on and on. Some of the articles are written by teachers, principals, nonprofit groups, and even brain scientists. All of these articles and websites tell us why we should advocate for the arts, but not how.
If you ask around, the majority of people will tell you they support the arts in schools. Plenty of people can even tell you why the arts are important in our schools. So I guess this means we have all done a great job at hanging our poster, “Top Ten Reasons the Arts are Important in our School.” However, the posters, articles, lists, and YouTube videos are just noise. It isn’t enough to regurgitate the information that has been created and produced by others. We need to take some serious action and commit to truly advocating for the arts.
The bottom line is that when a school district is dealing with budget cuts; the fine arts are a non-core subject and, therefore, get eliminated first. In other situations, the arts are pushed to the side in order to allow for more time on the core subjects. Many classroom teachers are now responsible for teaching the arts to their classes. This alone proves where the arts are listed in the priority of learning.
How about on parent teacher conference nights? The hallways are buzzing with parents and children rotating room to room. How many of them come into the art room? Or come into the music room? Do parents of our students truly see the value in the arts when it comes to learning? What about the SAT? Surely our colleges and universities want students with differentiated perspectives. The PPST? We definitely want our teachers to have good judgment and creative problem solving skills. Yet neither of these exams offers questions about the arts.
I read an article called, “The Forgotten Core Discipline” that summed it up perfectly, “To meet the needs of students in the 21st century, schools must upgrade the position of the arts and give students the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in college, in career, and in life.” How? How do we upgrade the position of arts in our schools? How do we truly get people to believe that the arts are invaluable in our schools? To start, we need to slowly chip away at the idea that the arts are an elective and not a necessity. We need to show value in our actions, and not just by hanging posters on our walls. We need to change our image.
Let’s start with our title. Many art teachers are referred to as “specialists.” The term “special” according to Merriam-Webster means “different from what is normal.” I don’t know about you, but I consider myself pretty normal. Yes, I specialize in teaching art, but the science teacher down the hall specializes in teaching science. How does that make me a “specialist” and the science teacher not a “specialist?” If we want the fine arts to be considered necessary and relevant we need to be referred to as what we are… teachers. Do your best to change that reference in your district.
Another important change we need to make are the conversations we have with parents. Many of us use the parent teacher conference night as a time to get work done. Instead, make some noise! Open your door, play some music, stand in the hall and motion the parents into your room if you have to. Have a conversation about the lessons you are teaching that are developing their children’s minds. Discuss how you are preparing their children for post secondary readiness by teaching them how to ask questions and make good judgments. Explain the new concepts their children are learning through creation and critique. Better yet, send a letter home with your students before conferences explaining the 21st century skills the children are learning and ask for parents to stop in or make an appointment for further discussion. Show your parents how relevant the fine arts programs are by providing examples of their children’s successes.
According to the late Elliott W. Eisner, Professor of Education at Stanford,
The problems of life are much more like the problems encountered in the arts. They are problems that seldom have a single correct solution; they are problems that are often subtle, occasionally ambiguous, and sometimes dilemma-like. One would think that schools that wanted to prepare students for life would employ tasks and problems similar to those found outside of schools. This is hardly the case. Life outside of school is seldom like school assignments—and hardly ever like a multiple-choice test.
If we truly want to advocate for the arts then we need to start by changing our behavior and our own conversations. You are a teacher just like all the other teachers in your district. Your behavior and conversations need to reflect that. Do not act as though you are special, different, or an exception to the rule. You are teaching skills that are critical to our children’s future and there is nothing “elective” about that.