Just an Art Teacher

by beccaborrelli

Untitled. Kerry James Marshall. 2008.

My first year teaching, two of my students were children of an Art Ed professor from my undergrad. A loved, and highly esteemed professor. Talk about pressure.

Her son was on an IEP, and after second grading period report cards, she requested a meeting. In attendance: the classroom teacher, the resource room teacher, the psychologist, and… all the specialists? You don’t need to work in public education to know that specialists aren’t asked to meetings like this. Put simply, creative thinking skills, innovative problem solving, and visual literacy aren’t among the list of goals on a child’s IEP.  Some ask me if I’m bitter, which leads to an awkward explanation I like to call: “The Divine Art Education Dichotomy.”

On one hand: “The day they care about Art as much as Math is the day they standardize the shit out of my subject and pour bureaucratic nonsense up to my ears.” On the other hand: “But why don’t they love me??”

So how do I feel about being asked to important meetings? The jury’s still out on that one. At the time, I was excited/terrified. She asked if I would bring samples of her son’s Art. When I arrived, Art in hand, the psychologist began small talk, while we waited for others to show up. Their voices droned Charlie Brown teacher style as thoughts shot between my earlobes. “What will I say to her? How will I avoid sounding like a dolt? Think of some education terminology from Methods and Materials, Brazen… THINK!  CRAP, I should have brought my rubrics…”

Suddenly both faces were looking at me-

“What do you think about this Brazen?”

What do I think? I think I’m way too unsure of all this. I think it’s likely whatever I say right now will make me sound 12. I think classroom talents which got me hired do not extend to parent/teacher conferences. But what I said instead was:

“Oh I don’t know, I’m just the Art Teacher.”

I imagined a hand slapping me in the forehead.

My professor’s eyes momentarily exited her skull.

“JUST the Art Teacher?”

She smiled warmly and squeezed my arm.

“Well it’s good you got that out of the way now so you can never say it again.”

Even I couldn’t believe I said it. In spite of passion up to my eyeballs for Visual Art, I was programmed at a deep level to consider the position less worthy of respect.

All of us in the field are like this. Programmed. Even if only in deep, subconscious recesses of our minds. Not just Visual Art Teachers… Music, Theater, Physical Education… And teachers/parents/admin who say Art is under-appreciated and so important… yayaya… Would still be hard pressed to provide additional Art learning time in an already packed academic schedule filled with lots of evaluations, interventions, data, and important sounding reports.

This is what I learned in college:

“Art in under-appreciated because for 20 years it was taught in a ‘mamby pamby anything goes, glitter, macaroni, color in the lines’ way.”

So bring on the standards. Bring on some Art History. Make them think critically. Set a bar and make them strive for it. Evaluate. Show them Art matters gawddamnit,  infuse those lil’ boogers with RESPECT for the meaningful role Art plays in their lives.

And I agree.

In part.

What they didn’t say in college is harder to confront. The hierarchy of school subjects isn’t just about respect. It’s more than that. It’s directly tied to the economy. To getting a job. To making money. To having insurance, a mortgage, and a car payment. Johnny decides to be a lawyer and sips dirty martinis in an Italian suit. Jane becomes an artist, and eats Ramen noodles in a studio apartment. At least those are the images drawn up. Put a stick in my eye and twist it.

One of my students… the quirky shy type who just steals a teachers heart, sat behind me on a field trip bus ride. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to fingers curled around the green leather bus seat, coke bottle glasses peering over the edge expectantly.

“Miss B, how did you know you wanted to be an Art Teacher?”

I began the long story about starting as a Graphic Design major, my grandiose plans to move to NYC and make lots of money- but realized halfway into it, she hadn’t asked me because she wanted an answer. Rather, she had wanted a segway. I paused mid-sentence,

“What do you want to be when you grow up Hayley?”

“I told my mom I want to be an Art Teacher when I grow up, but I know she really wants me to be a Doctor.”

“I’m sure your mom wants you to do what you want to do, sweetie.”

“Yeah… I know… but Doctors would make  a lot more money.”


I wish Hayley didn’t live in a society where contributing to  Gross National Product was the primary measuring stick. I wish she didn’t live in a culture that was already constructing a checklist of things she should buy and consume in order to be socially accepted.

I dream that she could instead live in a world where the measure of a human was peace of mind, happiness, knowledge of oneself, and an ability to address inner and outer conflicts with strength… regardless of salary. My mind meanders to a world where the primary goal is a deep understanding of one’s inner being, to manifest in harmony with the environment, and actualize the highest parts of oneself.

Then I ask: Should we educate kiddos to reside in the world they should live in, or for the world they do live in? Am I doing them a disservice if I don’t help them adjust to it? After all, maybe children should have specific knowledge of pay scale before puberty.

Next, I remember I am sitting on a red suede couch 30 miles outside of Rubber City, Ohio on a Friday night. The home I rent out of, was built two years ago on a meadow which was plowed over, so dreams of happiness for dozens of young Ohio homeowners, and a few wealthy developers could be momentarily assuaged. I am just listening to my furnace burn fuel to keep me warm from frigid January nights. I am just writing a blog. I am just like everyone else. And I am just an Art Teacher.