The Challenge of Teaching Art in the Public School System: Part Two

In July 2009, I posted what is now the first installment of a multi-part piece: POV: The Challenge of Teaching Art in the Public School System.

Essentially, I was sharing with the readers of Dewey21C, an article that had been published in the New York Teacher.

Today, I received a sad follow-up, directly from Linda Starkweather:


You were kind enough to share my POV article, The Challenge of Teaching
Art in the Public School System, with your readers last year. I am
now an Ex-teacher, in part I suspect, due to that article. I have just
submitted a follow up piece. I don’t know if they will publish it, but I
thought you might be interested in the rest of that story, so here it
is . . .

Our Stories Do Matter – by Linda Starkweather
Former teacher of theatre at Eastridge High School in Irondequoit, NY

In June of 2009 the New York Teacher published my Point of View essay The Challenge of Teaching Art in the Public School System. One year later, after 14
years of teaching, I was laid off. Actually they offered me part of a
job, a point six to be exact, which in real life, being a teacher of
theatre which includes afternoon rehearsals and having an hour commute
one way to school, was really a full time job for part time pay. I said
“no, thank you.” The unraveling of my relatively short teaching career
began just before I wrote that article in 2009, which was in response
to the following experience.

I was invited to serve on a year long committee to evaluate and
improve our district wide arts program. How exciting to be asked to
help shape the future of the arts in our schools! I would finally get
the opportunity to examine inequities like the $400 stipend for
producing the fall play vs. the $4,000 stipend for coaching a varsity
sport, or the minuscule budget, allocated district wide, for visual arts
materials. In order for our committee to improve the arts program, It
seemed logical to identify what wasn’t working – to share, for example
the frustration of being a performing arts teacher under five different
principles with five different agendas, in the same number of years.
The point, I thought, was to allow all of the district’s teaching
artists to tell their stories, good and bad, in order to better serve
the arts in our district.

Well, my bubble was burst pretty quickly when I was hauled into the
administrator’s office the Monday following an all day committee session
only to be chastised for telling my personal story as a struggling arts

Two years later, I am still haunted by three pronouncements
uttered by that administrator during that humiliating inquisition.
First she said: “Our personal stories don’t matter.”

Through my tears, I responded to this first decree in the most
enlightened way I could muster at the time. “Oh, but our stories do
matter. All we have are our stories. Art is uniquely about our
stories: Visual art is the personal depiction of how we see the world,
dance is a pure expression of our personal or collective stories, music
is the heightened expression of what it means to be human, and the
theatre – in it’s very essence – is about our stories and the naked
courage it takes to tell them.” I then asked her “if I am not allowed
to tell my story, how am I supposed to motivate my students to tell

How do I encourage the personal truth-telling that is at the
heart of all art forms and the beginning of healing for our world? ”

She responded:”Well, we are not responsible for each other.”

Oh! But we are responsible for each other, I softly remarked. We are
always talking about our ‘school family’ and the need to catch kids
before they fall through the cracks. We have a dysfunctional world, in
part, because we think we are not responsible for each other. I was
still crying at this point, and I felt it was important to explain that
my tears were not a sign of weakness, but an honest reaction to the
disrespect I felt was being awarded to something I was passionate about
and something I know is worth fighting for. I think my vulnerability
threw her a bit because at that point all she could manage to say was: “Well, you chose this profession.”

There was no need to respond to that statement. The message was loud
and clear. The Arts, and artists in particular are not respected nor
valued in a system that measures success only by numbers.

The remainder of the year included admonishments for posters I put up
that read “How about No Child Left Unkind”, and another that read
“Shakespeare – providing continuous employment for over 400 years!” I
was also that I had better get my class numbers up – even though it
meant recruiting students away from other teachers which may have put
them at risk of loosing their job due to under enrollment.

I had a
proposal for an original, well planned, production of Shakespeare
rejected in lieu of yet another mounting of the popular high school
musical Annie. I began day one of my second semester facing eight,
volatile, at-risk, freshman boys who were surreptitiously enrolled in my
third year Acting Shakespeare class without any warning. I came to
love them, but it pretty much sabotaged the class for the other eight
students who really were serious about tackling the Bard. Whether
consciously orchestrated or not, my superiors were clearly showing me
the door. I’m sure my bumper sticker didn’t help my cause either. It
reads, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

So, why tell my story today? Selfishly, I’m hoping that, just like
in the theatre, sharing my tale will be cathartic – for myself and
perhaps others who have had similar experiences. I am so weary of
replaying that unsettling day in my administrator’s office over and over
in my head. It’s time for me to let go and to move on. But, this is
also a cautionary tale for those passionate, idealistic spirits that
want to change the world through teaching. It is a reminder that
sometimes the only thing more difficult than speaking the truth is
hearing the truth spoken. And we have no control over the reaction of
those who don’t necessarily want to hear from us.

I miss my kids and I miss my dedicated colleagues, but leaving the
system has freed me to teach in the way I am convinced is of value –
from a passionate, truthful, uncompromising platform that supports the
belief that . . . “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic
self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to
be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being
seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” –
Parker J. Palmer


One response to “The Challenge of Teaching Art in the Public School System: Part Two”

  1. Just read your essay, Linda. What you’ve expressed is the Truth. Unfortunately, so many who “run” the system choose to preserve the status quo. “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know; it might cause me the inconvenience of having to grow.” (Rhyme not intended.)
    Marj Chapin