How different are arts educators from any other educator—say English or science teachers? Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with arts educators about statewide and national initiatives that are impacting all teachers. I’ve been told time and time again by many arts teachers that they, and what they teach, are different. “You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole,” I hear repeated. On the one hand, as a former arts teacher, I really do understand the sentiments behind this comment. When I’m talking about the arts with non-arts educators I often feel like they don’t “get it.” They sometimes don’t understand the relationship between process and product, or the shift from teaching individuals to teaching an ensemble. But I struggle with the idea that the arts have lost (or never had) fundamental commonality with other content areas. I believe the questions we must ask ourselves as teachers should be the same: what are the most critical content, skills, or experiences I want students to leave my class with; what goals do I have for the interval of time we’ll spend together; and how will I know what they have learned? These are essential questions around curriculum, instruction, and assessment that I hope every teacher is constantly asking.
As teachers we want to help our students question, reflect, think, act, and communicate and while I see the arts as central to those foci, I also see the role other disciplines contribute to those shared habits of mind. I do not believe that most of the educators I know argue for a hierarchy of worth in which the arts supersede all other disciplines; in essence, I do not believe they see their “otherness” as equating to “betterness” but the strength of their conviction in feeling singular causes me to pause. Do the arts provide something qualitatively different than other disciplines? If so, are arts teachers thus required to teach differently? Do all teachers see their subject, and thus practice, as unique and different? Consequently, does the role of teacher in each context inherently shift to where the concept of “teacher” is no longer applicable, to be replaced with the disparate roles of “arts teacher,” “Spanish teacher,” and “math teacher?” While effective educators have strong pedagogical content knowledge, which surely must differ, isn’t good teaching just good teaching?
Perhaps arts teachers have been and continue to be marginalized because in so many other ways they struggle to see themselves as similar out of habit from being told they are not the same (and not as valued). Rather than clinging to any intrinsic differences between disciplines and wearing it like a badge of honor in the face of those who do not wholly value the arts, I wish arts teachers would take up a leadership role, pulling content areas together around shared, core practices. Arts educators have much to teach all educators, but if we continue to declare how different we are from all others, I wonder if we lose an opportunity to help reframe what it means to teach and learn well in the 21st century.