A different degree of learning


Recently, I had my graduation photo taken – velcroed into a stuffy, white collar and given a heavy, beat-up book to hold, I looked into the camera like an actor on set. This role was nothing new to me. I’ve played a convincing – in fact, award-winning – role for the last five years.

My five years spent in the arts education program at the University of Regina tested my integrity, intelligence, and patience. I did not serve as education’s ideal student and I never intended to. I completed the program even though it clashed with my beliefs and inner desires. This is a confession, reflection, and personal declaration of a disengaged arts education student.  

Today, I am a very different person since high school. I used to be the type who was at school from  7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. I was involved in everything – basketball, vocal jazz, the newspaper, musicals, volleyball, dance, you name it. High school was very stressful, but I engaged in it anyway; what else was I going to do with my seemingly bottomless energy? Art class quickly became my favourite subject; I was intrigued by the level of observation, spatial intelligence, and creativity that it demanded. I experienced a type of freedom in art class that I did not feel anywhere else. By the end of Grade 12, I was certain I had to make a career in the visual arts.

High school graduation arrived and, with it, decisions to be made about my future. Naturally, I went to my parents for advice. I am blessed to have a loving family that is always supportive of me. However, they didn’t know how to accept my desire to be an artist right out of high school. Coming from a small farming community with conservative views and practical ways of thinking – the type of community that raises children together – the arts are not typically promoted as a career or even as something remotely valuable. My parents, and indeed the entire community, hoped I would want to pursue a safe, stable career such as a pharmacist, lawyer, or teacher. Everyone had set high expectations for me and there was pressure to make them all proud.

The farm girl in me knew that they made a reasonable point, but the creative dreamer in me wanted nothing more than to paint for a living. I felt criticised by my family for being unrealistic and selfish. Perhaps I am unrealistic at times; I generate creative and sometimes preposterous ideas – or at least I am told they are preposterous. My family did not understand my level of self-assurance and often mistook it as selfishness. At the time, I did not acknowledge my wants as self-assurance either. I started to believe that I was selfish, but a more fair assessment is that I am simply a competitive person who strives to excel in the arts. The question became what does a selfish, overachieving dreamer decide to do after high school?

I tried to set my creative needs aside and entered the supposedly more practical arts education program at the University of Regina. The program gave my parents the stability and comfort they needed and me a chance to study the arts and education too. The program is special, because it allows a student to complete a bachelor degree in education as well as a bachelor degree of arts in a six-year span. But it was the arts portion of the program that really appealed to me. I quickly learned that I was not setting my “selfish” wants aside, rather, I was trading my intuition and pushing my greatest passion aside for something that seemed reasonable to others. In reality, my preposterous ideas were just my hopes and aspirations that clashed with society’s accepted ways of thinking.

As the years dragged on within the arts education program, it was obvious that I did not belong. If I wasn’t so stubborn and committed to finishing the tasks I start, I would have quit the program in the first year. Education classes quickly took a back seat to my studio class. It was clear that I was in “artist” mode, not “artist teacher” mode. When I took children to the art gallery for a field trip and we were given clay to work with, I was more interested in what I could do with the clay instead of what the students could. During my internship I engaged in extracurricular activities – such as pottery club or creating set designs for the school musical – because they allowed me to work as an artist. I was not interested in harnessing a child’s artistic ability or in spreading my passion for the arts to others. I wanted to be focusing my artistic ability and learning everything I could to further my own art career.

Over time I have become disillusioned with the arts education program. Teachers are public servants. I was sceptical about life as a “public servant.” Personally, I think a public servant is someone who willingly gives away their energy, time, and talents and receives little to no appreciation. They are never acknowledged and rewarded in the ways they deserve. The public servant revolves around doing work for others, never for themselves. I have an issue with being subservient to anything, so the notion of becoming a teacher was against my very nature. I refused to work a job where I would give and give but never receive.

This idea of giving without receiving is most clear in extracurricular activities. Teachers are expected to give huge amounts of their personal time to extracurricular activities that they are not paid for. What other occupation does not hope, but expect, their staff to put in countless hours of unpaid work? Of course, there are those teachers who say that the extracurricular activities they are involved in are their passion. If that is true than those people should be teachers. But what will happen over time if teachers continue to give away their personal time? Ontario’s Bill 74 declares that volunteerism is to be compulsory.  In her article, “The teacher indentured servitude act,” Heather Robertson states, “Teachers would have no role other than implementing the activities assigned to them by their principals, who would be free to demand as much “compulsory, unpaid overtime” from teachers as they please.” Is this the future if teachers allow others to determine the value of their time?

‘Life-long learning’ is something else I have heard quite often in my education classes. The Saskatchewan Teacher Federation stresses how important it is for teachers to continuously be learning and growing within their profession. With that message echoing in our mind, our class was told it was easier for a student coming directly out of the education program to find a job compared to a student who completed another degree in order to further their knowledge. Does this mean that going on to finish my fine arts degree (which I am doing) will be a detriment to finding a teaching career after I graduate?  Should I not have the upper hand if “life-long learning” is one of education’s mottos? It’s complete hypocrisy that they are less likely to hire someone who has taken the time to further their knowledge in their area of expertise – yet another reason education was not a fit for me.

I’ve barely begun to touch on some of the ideas that clash with my personal beliefs as an artist and educator. We are moulding teachers into a system – a system that tolerates only certain ways of thinking and disregards the individual. I do not see myself fitting into the system, nor do I have the willpower to change it. I acknowledge this paper is self-centered; why do people look down upon that? Why does society make us feel guilty about writing or talking about the one thing we can actually be sure of – ourselves? I am simply stating my experiences which have taught me the value of my personal aspirations because they are the only experiences and aspirations I know.

Do I regret my time in the arts education program? No. I believe these were crucial years in my development. In retrospect, five years ago I was not technically or emotionally ready to become an artist. The arts education program eased me gently into the philosophies and techniques of the art world. As a fifth-year student in undergraduate studies, I am now more confident in my abilities and ideas as an artist. My training in education has also strengthened my ability to communicate through the arts.

It is said the best way to learn is through experience. So, if that idea is taken a step further and you teach your experiences to others, it allows for an even more mindful and critical practice. I have also developed valuable methods of analysis and assessment. My levels of observation and adaptation have been heightened thanks to the arts education program.

Graduation day is fast approaching. I can image the bittersweet moment of receiving my degree. My arts education degree is a professional building block in my art career, but it is not the entire structure. The irony is that the degree that should have taught me how to teach is now teaching me how to learn. I am truly excited to embark on the second part of my educational journey that meets my personal desires.
We are all told from a young age to be passionate individuals, but when it comes to down to real-life decisions, how many of us actually follow through with our innermost desires? I buried my dream to become an artist and took what society deems to be the safe and reasonable route. But at the end of this path who am I really pleasing?

Brianne A. Pister

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