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Do arts teachers have to be artists?

Many artists become teachers because they struggle to sustain a profession as an artist. from www.shutterstock.com

Do arts teachers have to be artists?

In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.


Do arts teachers have to be artists? It’s a question that is often raised when talking about our chosen profession across the dinner table. There is an expectation that if we teach the arts then we must be practising artists.

It is a presumption that doesn’t seem to exist in other teaching paths. We do not assume that the English teacher is writing the next great novel. Nor do we envisage that the science teacher is a consultant for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Still, an assumption exists that arts teachers exhibit or perform their art. Where does this expectation come from?

Hierarchy of subjects

According to the foremost advocate of creativity and the arts, Sir Ken Robinson, there was – and still is – a hierarchy of subjects that exist in all Western schools. At the top are mathematics and languages, followed by the humanities and, at the bottom, the arts.

This is somewhat unusual given that arts teachers are required to complete the same years of training as non-arts teachers. Some come to teaching after finishing their fine arts degree, while others complete an education degree with one of the arts as their teaching method.

We could ask if this presumption of the arts teacher as artist is an attempt to raise the status of teaching the arts in our schools. Do these subjects require professionals to be taught effectively?

The low status of the arts in schools has resulted in myriad challenges.

Artistic subjects are often seen as frivolous extras in an already overcrowded curriculum. And as “elective” subjects they are not always prioritised, especially in a high-stakes testing regime which emphasises literacy and numeracy as core components of our educational system.

For example, in NSW alone almost 9,000 students are enrolled in visual arts in year 12, close to 5,000 in both drama and music, and only 900 in dance.

While low compared to compulsory subjects such as English, for which approximately 60,000 students sit their Higher School Certificate, these numbers continue to grow due in part to dedicated arts teachers in our secondary schools.

There is little doubt that the arts require specialised facilities and resources, so funding becomes yet another challenge. And, of course, there is the issue of the well-trained arts teacher who must possess certain artistic skills in order to help their students acquire a higher level of proficiency in their chosen art form.

We should consider teaching as an art form in and of itself. from www.shutterstock.com

Early career teachers face a plethora of challenges, but for arts teachers they face the added expectation that they are maintaining a personal arts practice – the music teacher is in a band, the drama teacher directs plays, and the art teacher is working on their next Archibald entry.

However, little research exists detailing exactly how many teachers practise their chosen art form outside of the school.

The University of Melbourne is undertaking a research project exploring the common myths surrounding artists who become teachers. Starting in 2013, the researchers have been following 100 Victorian graduate art teachers to explore whether new arts teachers make art and, if they do, what impact it has on their teaching.

Anecdotally we know that many artists become teachers because they struggle to sustain a profession as an artist. But do making and teaching art require the same set of skills?

A teacher has to have a certain mastery of an art to teach it. A dance teacher needs to know about the choreography of dance. A music teacher needs to know how to make music.

The arts are not core units; they are electives. They need to be taught by someone with a passion for their chosen field. Yes, artists have this passion. But to argue that a person has to be an artist to teach the arts implies that mastery of artistic skills and techniques equates to an understanding of current pedagogy when, in reality, they can be mutually exclusive.

Just because a person is an artist doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, or will be, a good teacher.

Teaching as an art form

Perhaps we need to move this conversation in another direction. Let’s consider teaching as an art form in and of itself.

Effective teaching has been described as “scripted improvisation”. Good teachers require passion, creativity and imagination.

Arts teachers, whether artists or not, have made a decision to be arts educators. They do not wish to live the life of an artist, to feel pressured to produce, to pursue galleries and theatres, to live off commissions and sales. They want to be a teacher, to inspire an appreciation for the arts, to encourage their students to reach a higher level of proficiency, and to give confidence and life skills to their students.

International arts education advocate Eric Booth said it succinctly when he wrote:

A teaching artist is a practising professional artist with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator, who engages people in learning experiences in, through and about the arts.

Read more articles in the series