Last night, after a day of eating leftovers, watching TV, playing board games and reading, I told my son we should turn the screens off and find something quiet to do before we dove in for a slice of pie and ice cream. Usually this means me reading in my chair and him going downstairs to the playroom and kicking a mini-soccer ball around.
I pulled out my book as usual, but he unexpectedly opened up a notebook and started writing/drawing, I wasn’t sure which. As I read, I noticed him looking up at me, like an artist might as they sketched someone posing for them. I pretended not to notice and kept reading. At some point I got out of my chair and walked toward the kitchen and he pulled the notebook close to his chest so I couldn’t see. I looked away and kept walking.
After he had gone to sleep, I noticed that he left his notebook on the chair, so of course I opened it up and looked. I expected to look and put it back without saying anything, but the writing next to his pictures made me sad. The first one I saw was a stick figure version of our family, with descriptions next to each – Vice Princeble Dad, Mask-Making Mom, and me. I am a Vice Principal. Mom is a full-time teacher, but she has also become a mask-making seamstress in the past six months and was upstairs sewing while he was drawing. I was a bit disappointed that his only said me, but it didn’t worry me much.
The second picture was a drawing of me. It is what typical ten year-olds draw when they try to draw people. Side perspective, a bit picasso-esque. I’d share it but I’m pretty sure he would hate that and he probably won’t like me writing about him at all. The heart-breaker though was the note he wrote beside it. “Dad, I am a tirible artist. Love, C.” Clearly we need to work on our spelling skills, but his lack of confidence and belief sunk a rock into my stomach.
First, he’s not a terrible artist. He’s actually really good in many ways. Sometimes he recognizes this. I don’t know where this idea comes from, but the thought is there, and it’s my job to help turn that around. So I did what I didn’t plan to – I wrote in the notebook. (This no sacred diary, for anyone who is wondering. It is the first time he has picked it up in weeks to do anything in it and usually he only uses it for short-term projects, like naming our future restaurants, or keeping track of card game scores.) Here is what I wrote:
There is no such thing as a terrible artist. Great artists believe that what they create can change the world. That is true of chefs, painters, sculptors, teachers, mathematicians, soccer players and coaches. All jobs and careers combine science and art.
You may not feel like a great artist yet, but you can be. You have to believe you can be great and work really hard. Great artists make their art look easy – like Messi on the soccer field or Teal (his art teacher) in the art room – but they all worked incredibly hard to learn their art.
You are working hard to be a great soccer player, or a great chef, and you might choose another passion to explore in the future. From bruised knees to sliced thumbnails, (our most recent kitchen injury) the bumps are part of the adventure. Keep your dreams – playing for Chelsea, opening a restaurant, traveling the world – but enjoy the path, including the bumps. Mom and I will be there to help when we can, until you’re ready to venture on your own.
I know you can be a great artist. I think you do, too. If you don’t, I’ll keep reminding you.
I left it in his chair. He is always the first one up in our house, so we’ll see how he responds in the morning. If he doesn’t say anything, I won’t either, but I hope he reads it and it reminds him how special he is.
As I wrote the letter, I was reminded of the fact that teaching is a combination of art and science. I truly believe that great artists believe they can change the world and that teachers are artists. I became a teacher because I felt like I could make a change, even if it was just in my classroom. I love to geek out on the science of teaching, from articles to webinars. The science is in the preparation and reflection. But in your classroom every day, teaching is an art. It is the art of connecting to a child, the art of changing a lesson when a student shares a unique idea, the art of reading a student’s body language when their words say something completely different.
When I ran into a former student on a walk around my neighborhood yesterday, he asked about the difficulties of teaching in a pandemic. I told him our school was lucky enough to have most of our students in the building, and I could barely imagine the task that some teachers are taking on right now. All of the artistic elements of teaching I mentioned above are significantly more difficult when teaching remotely. Many teachers are finding new ways to be artistic this year. I hope that school leaders are not badgering their teachers about lesson design and test results, and encouraging teachers to be the artists they wanted to be when they chose this profession.
Tonight I found a teachable moment for my son. A moment that was uniquely created by a pandemic. On Monday, I hope I can find new ways to help teachers find teachable moments for their students. 2020 has made it extremely obvious how important it is for us to create positive change in the world. Our teachers are at the center of that work and encouraging their artistry is essential.