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Vicki Cobb: The Demise of the Artist-Teacher

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Vicki Cobb, author of many children’s books about hands-on science, recently spoke at a children’s literature conference in Florida. She was disturbed to meet a new breed of teacher: teachers who had grown up in the era of high-stakes testing and scripted lessons. Too many thought that this is the way school was supposed to be, because it was all they had experienced.

 

She attributes the change to the takeover of education policy by non educators:

 

The business and government suits, who have hijacked educational policy in a top down approach, are not professional educators. Their knowledge of education comes primarily from what they themselves survived (endured?). Most do not know what good education looks like. Their idea of a well-ordered classroom is rows of desks with students quietly bent over a test. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost in the preparation of the next generation of Florida’s classroom teachers. Their professors tell me that they call them the “FCAT babies.” These young people are the pre-service teachers who have grown up in Florida’s test-taking climate. They have a “mother, may I?” permission-seeking approach to their own classroom behavior as teachers. They think test-taking and test prep is normal. They have seen nothing else. They are afraid to think for themselves.

 

As she posed questions to a group of students, she noticed that they answered quickly to her questions, not pausing to think. She sensed the test-prep culture, the reflexive search for the right answer. And that was not what she wanted to see.

 

She missed what she calls “the artist-teacher.” What is the “artist=teacher”? “An artist is someone who brings his or her own self-expression to an activity. An artist expresses personal, closely held views, thoughts, images and passions with such truth and clarity that others immediately connect with this revealed humanity. Thus the personal becomes the universal. Therein lies its power.”

 

Instead, teachers in Florida told her about scripted programs whose goal was to make sure that every teacher was on the same page at the same time teaching the same things. Scripted lessons are “turning teachers into automatons, when American education is crying out for the return of the artist-teacher. This is the teacher who takes one look at the textbooks and goes to the library to find much more powerful reading on the same subjects. This is the teacher who knows each student intimately and can write a poem for each one. This is the teacher who figures that good teaching trumps test prep and is not afraid for her kids’ test outcomes. This is the teacher who has the courage to justify what he’s doing and why he’s doing it to powers-that-be who are not fully equipped to evaluate creativity. It includes a lot of the “best teacher” awardees. This is the teacher who wants to spend more time creating powerful lessons and less time doing accountability paperwork. For the artist-teacher, teaching with autonomy, mastery and purpose is a subversive activity, much as art is subversive in a dictatorship.”

 

Our current educational culture, driven by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core standards, is rewarding robotic behavior and punishing artist-teachers. In the current climate, good teaching is a subversive activity.

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