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Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. ~Pablo Picasso

Thoughts for the Teaching Artist is devoted to an ongoing exploration of the role of the arts in education. I believe that the arts are an integral, essential part of every person's education. Arts education develops 21st Century Learning Skills, supports all core subjects, creates empathy & builds bridges, and helps develop voice & vision.

The views expressed in Thoughts for the Teaching Artist are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer or any other persons or organization.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Perils of Familiarity

As Teaching Artists, our primary desire should be to see our students develop, grow and change as artists. On the surface, that seems such a basic premise that it should not need to be stated. We want our students to learn, don't we? Why else are we here?

Most Teaching Artists need never give this a second thought. The great majority of us live for the "aha!" moment when a student makes the leap of understanding, or displays a new level of expertise after working hard to master a skill. We love to be amazed at how far a student has come, how much she has learned, how quickly he advances to another level.

Sadly, however, there are a few exceptions. Some teachers are quick to slot students, to think--wrongly-- that they already know what this student can do, where that one fits. Such teachers have stopped listening. They have stopped seeing. Why does this happen?  Often it is the result of familiarity.  A teacher who has worked with a student over a period of time may believe there are no surprises left.  Familiarity can lead to pre-judgement, which will be positive toward some students, less so toward the rest.  Some students may never be allowed to break out of the role that a certain teacher cast them in long ago.  Ironically, the only student that such a teacher sees with true clarity is the stranger, who has not yet been labeled.

What contributes to this artistic myopia toward certain students?  One major factor is a controlling personality.  Teachers with unresolved control issues must always have the last word, must be the final arbiter.  Such teachers have shut off the possibility that students can, and indeed should, always be shaking things up, challenging our beliefs about them and the art form. These teachers are only comfortable being the "smartest one in the room."

Another possibility is the teacher's  inability to separate liking from judging.  Are you more drawn toward students whose artistic tastes echo (and perhaps even flatter) your own?  Are you put off by students who produce socially or politically charged work that offends your personal sensibilities?  Are you kinder to students who somehow remind you of your own youthful struggles?

Another contributing factor is immaturity and jealousy in the teacher.  As Leonardo da Vinci said "Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master."  Although those who work with very young students may not face this issue, certainly those who work in the post-secondary (and even secondary) world may very well come face-to-face with emerging artists whose passion and vision, if not yet skill, equals and may eventually surpass their own.  If you envy your students their moments in the spotlight, it is time for you to consider a new career.

In her book Mindset, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck discusses the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.  Persons with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talents are simply fixed traits.  Persons with a growth mindset believe most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.  As Teaching Artists, we owe it to our students to maintain a growth mindset toward them. Teaching Artists must not let familiarity and favoritism blind us to the students' ongoing development. Teaching Artists must give up the need for control, and actively fight the need to always be right.  Teaching Artists must actively make the distinction between liking and judging. Teaching Artists must reject jealousy. 

Ultimately, Teaching Artists must regard our students as ever-evolving works in progress.  And if we are really wise, we will remember to think of ourselves in the same way as well.


  1. I think all "managers," perhaps Teaching Artists as well, are a little risk-averse, especially when their work product is displayed in public or has a chance to be rewarded for excellence. It makes "business" sense to rely on the dependable and predictable rather than risk the unknown.

  2. Good point! I think this situation presents a bit of a balancing act for the Teaching Artist (manager.) For more on this subject, see my post on "The Artist and His Ego." Thanks for reading and commenting!