Rethinking Teaching

by Lisa A. Miles © 2009

Some of the best teachers available to help young learners are now, during our country’s great Recession, even more available– unemployed, underemployed, and just plain affected factory workers, salesmen, waitresses, shop owners, and many more.

All (normally) employed professionals– craftspeople, accountants, stagehands, to name a few– make good teachers. Excellent ones are those who could talk honestly and openly of their work experiences in good days and bad, but mostly– of the reasons behind their chosen trade.

It is a perfect time to consider their classroom value, when employing them to engage young people could make economic (as well as philosophic) sense. With the right subsidy (though many fear that word) and acceptance from teachers’ unions and school district bureaucracies, those preparing to enter adulthood could learn firsthand of the triumphs and tribulations of the multitude of vocations, if not the involved skills themselves.

I happen to come from one vocation that is uniquely, though by no means singularly, qualified to work with children. I am a creative artist, in the main mediums of music and writing. My friends past and present, many who would call themselves the same– working in film and photography, visual art, dance or theatre– are underemployed examples of some of the best mentors a young person could have. They can joyfully show creative ways of looking at the world’s problems and patterns, despite usually living a minimal existence!
Being an artist, I am ‘scrappy,’ versatile. I learned a long time ago (college years) of the disappointments of our nation’s school systems, where curriculum was stodgy and and set and little room was left for creativity and idiosyncrasies to flourish. It is then, when first majoring in English education, that I also began to collect (probably like many young adults) all haphazard, meaningful bits of information to see me through my burgeoning young life.

I came across the words of humanist John Dewey: “We need a total transformation of education into a lifelong process combining experience and study, not a 12 or 16-year cram course in Memorization and Following Rules. Education should be a lifelong harmony of Books, Discussion, Free and Equal Relationships, Culture, Work….” The yellowed paper still sits glued atop my old bulletin board (along with colorful description of favorite dive-bar back then, of my creative scene, as place for “leftists, longhairs and tortured intellectuals.”)

Those words of Dewey, as well as the mantra “you can’t so much teach as only guide and help those who want to learn” rang so true for me that I soon couldn’t stomach the profession I was trying to find work in anymore. I graduated cum laude, but there were no jobs in education in the late ‘80s, and I was already beginning to feel like “been there, done that” after only an exhaustive attempt to become a teacher. (I also acquired amazing and daunting respect for anybody able to cultivate ‘those who wanted to learn’ from the rest of the crop.)

I soon moved onto the next thing which presented itself and that I became enamored with. Counseling– vocational, mental health psycho- social rehab, and anything in between not requiring an advanced degree (but all-too-willing, needy recipients.) Along the way, then, in ultimately claiming my professional creative identity– original music-making and self-publishing of two successful books, which was rooted in violin study since the age of ten and a B.A. in English– I variously worked as a tele-fundraiser for liberal causes, a woman’s rights activist, and a library clerk. (I never waitressed, despite a former Chef friend getting me thinking about its rigors.)

Ironically, teaching would present itself again to me– but at later time, with my creative work feeding the content and style. I hold music creativity workshops that meld music and all the various art-forms together, as well as having spoken on both my books– ranging from wee toddlers to professional development for high-school teachers. I finally found the key, it seemed, to awaken interest from others in learning more about a subject. (I think it has something to do with enthusiasm and the non-parsing of reality.)

I still deal with the arcane (rather than say similar descriptive word) bureaucracies of school districts that bestow accreditation on my history text, then never get around to purchasing it for their library, or administrators who want to have meeting upon meeting without any guarantee of contracted service. Yet this teaching has been worthy and enlightening (to me and ‘learners’).

It became not lost on me, from the onset of this (albeit minimal) work as a teaching artist, that young people could benefit from exposure to all means and manners of direct learning via all types of professionals.

Michelle Obama this Winter brought successful women professionals into the D.C. schools to celebrate Women’s History month. And filmmaker Spike Lee spoke in April, on a Pittsburgh campus, of the need to focus attention and grunt-work on the profession one feels passionate about. If young people could routinely experience in their classrooms a round of professionals who love what they are doing, and can share the downs as well as the ups, success will come greater than with book-learning alone.

Creative artists certainly can offer that experience. But then again, I know the authentic (and possibly out-of-work) mechanic, engineer and restauranteur could as well. Maybe this Recession could actually spur that consideration on, by all those who want to help both economic recovery and academic success in our country.

LISA A. MILES is the author of two books; More info: lisamilesviolin.com.

Artists as Workers · Rethinking Teaching · John Brashear · The North Side’s North Shore