Is Teaching a Creative Profession?

Painting 1
Image by Euromagic used under creative commons licence

A few weeks ago, I was at meeting where the presenter remarked to the largely teacher audience that we would have to excuse her creative right-brain tendencies during her presentation.

I’ve been ruminating about this off-hand remark for weeks, the idea that teaching isn’t a particularly creative profession. Certainly when we think of creative fields, design, art, music, film, writing and even science probably figure a lot more prominently in people’s minds than education.

Yet when we think of great teachers, and more importantly see representations of great teachers in the media, creativity is a common trait along with a commitment to education that goes beyond thinking of teaching as a job.

And I think there’s something in the idea that when we invest our creativity into an activity, our feelings about it change.

Is that why schools and by extension teachers are often viewed so negatively by society? Because they are seen as being places that kill creativity.

In one of TED’s most popular talks, Sir Ken Robinson argued that our educational systems have perpetuated a crisis of creative thought as students get their creativity taught out of them, time and again, in a systematic fashion.

So in many ways I don’t think the presenter of my workshop was entirely off-base when she assumed that teachers are detail-orientated types who love nothing more than flicking our red pens over spelling mistakes and making sure that our students pull their socks up. After all, I doubt many people would list a teacher among the creative people they’ve met. Maybe an art or music teacher might make the grade; maybe that one special teacher who marched to his or her own tune. But in general teachers are viewed as a uncreative bunch.

Certainly Sir Ken is right that part of the problem is undoubtedly inherent in our educational system. Schools are institutions which come with regulations and organisational hierarchies that often don’t sit well with creative-types. Because another central theme in the superhero teacher narrative is that this subset of teachers are frequently disruptive to school culture and often find themselves on the losing side of clashes with school authorities.

John Keating got pushed out in the Dead Poets Society as did Katherine Watson in Mona Lisa Smile. Real-life teachers Erin Gruwell and Jamie Escalante clashed with administrators over pedagogy in their films and in a nod to my friend @apathyjack, Dr Cox would have lasted all of five minutes in a school setting.

Perhaps it is this conflict between creative individuals and existing systems which is the reason that creativity isn’t something that is valued in the selection of would-be teachers nor much in teacher education programmes. Yet we can’t expect our educational systems to produce creative concept-driven thinkers if we don’t also have creative teachers in the classroom. However in my experience there is far more emphasis put on developing teachers as managers of classroom learning rather than as creative professionals.

One of the scary implications of the rise of Kahn Academy is that teachers don’t have the inclination nor interest to become competent producers of content – digital or otherwise – in their own right. I’ve had a couple of people remark to me that they can’t understand why I’m not in the film industry because of the video content that my class and I produce. Yet I don’t consider myself in away a proficient digital story teller. In fact most of my ideas are frequently stolen from others.

And I think that’s part of the problem. Teachers themselves often don’t view themselves as being creative, they think they merely reuse and adapt the ideas of others. What we often forget is that creativity isn’t a lone flash of insight but actually the adaptation of existing ideas to new contexts. It’s taking a reading programme and changing it to fit the needs of your learners. It’s turning a bucket into a place to store student gear.

Would schools function well if they were full of creative-types? I know I am a terrible when it comes to anything remotely admin-related. Collecting forms, organizing learning portfolios, policing uniform, even remembering to take the roll are tasks that are forever tripping me up and I hate doing them. What’s more standards and exams can also be rightly pointed to as constraints on teacher creativity.

But the thing is that creative professionals are always working within constraints. In fact creativity is often defined by the constraints in which it transpires. But even if you hypothetically swept away National Standards, NCEA and other traditional boogeymen of classroom creativity what would teachers do? Are teachers on the whole prepared to move forward as creative professionals?

If teaching is a creative profession how do we develop the creativity of our future teachers? How do we attract creative people to enter teaching? When and where, if ever, do teachers come to recognize themselves as creative professionals? How do we develop creativity in the teaching profession?

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13 thoughts on “Is Teaching a Creative Profession?

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  1. @ Stephanie,

    This was really fascinating to read. I consider myself to be very creative (and I’ll often refer to myself in the same manner as the presenter you mentioned above), and I’m quite often disillusioned by the current focus on results-driven teaching – because I do think we’re sucking the creativity out of kids (sometimes). It makes me quite sad. I’ve always believed that teachers can make activities fun and enjoyable and creative for their students if they wish – and I try to do that. I want learning to be fun and special for my students and I truly believe that they will remember the content (not just that they were able to do something creative).

    I wish I had some answers to your questions – or even a place to start. I think a big part is the culture in schools, which is something I’ve struggled with this year.

    You’ve certainly given me some things to ponder!

    Stef

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  2. 1) Just becaise I always address my students as ‘Mary’ doesn’t mean I’m like Dr Cox – I work at a Catholic school – they’re all actually called Mary!

    2) It’s not hard to see why mamy people don’t see teaching as creative: Most people (rightly) remember school as that place where their creativity was squashed. The place where they were yelled at to stop drawing, daydreaming and making up stories and to get in line and do things The Right Way. Uncle Ken (as we call him at my school) is right about schools killing creativity. It’s not (all) the fault of teachers, but of the system which doesn’t allow for creativiety or outside the box anything.

    3) In order to attract creative types to teaching we have to do two things. Firstly make the school envirnment more conducive to creativeity. Most really creative people probably hated school and wouldn;t want to go back, especially if told they’d have to cram themselves into a box once they got there. Secondly, make the job more appealing overall, which would involve more money, smaller classes and a bunch of other science-fiction tropes.

    4) Of interest to this discussion: http://korewanekodesu.com/2012/06/28/shaping-the-minds-of-tomorrow-all-i-think-about-lately/

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    1. Thanks for your points.

      I think the ongoing claw back of professional autonomy might also be a problem. I remember one of my teachers from Canada was incredulous at the amount of moderation in the New Zealand system. Her school of thought is that if she gives an A, her judgement should be respected.

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  3. So much of my creativity in the classroom went on things nobody sees–building good relationships with students, fostering relationships between learners, being flexible in the moment when a plan needed to be changed, solving problems as they came up. All these things require creativity, take creative energy, but don’t result in any “product.”

    When I stopped teaching daily, I slept for six weeks, then found I had 20-30 creative ideas a day for projects and things to write about, e.g., my blog at http://www.katenonesuch.com. That’s when I realized how much creative energy it takes to keep a class running smoothly and productively.

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  4. Great post Stephanie,

    Teaching is creative but it is not seen as such. As 21st century learners we need to be creative with and for our students. We need to model creativity and provide loads of opportunities for it to grow in our students. I think we get hung up on the little things that are required of us instead of celebrating all the wonderful big things which are happening daily. This gives the wrong impression.

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  5. I think as teachers you have to be creative. The non-creative teachers are the ones, in my opinion, who will struggle to inspire learning. Every time I begin planning a unit of work, I’m trying to come up with a new activity or twist to keep it fresh for my learners. Sometimes I use what I’ve seen in other classrooms… but you still have to make it your own. See http://melulater.blogspot.co.nz/ for my take on trying to be creative, even if you have a model to start with.

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  6. What a wonderful post!

    Stephanie,

    Your question becomes easier to answer if we separate the two different phenomena here: teaching and learning.

    Learning certainly IS creative by it’s nature – it is about creating your worldview and building your understanding about life, universe and everything.

    Teaching – well, if approached in the traditional sense, not so creative. It only implies imparting your knowledge to students, who are to absorb it as is. Scary.

    Understanding what 21st century learning *really* means: Teacher is the facilitator of students’ learning. This simple shift changes the whole view of teaching. Suddenly the most important thing in my teaching job becomes to empower my students to learn. Even differentiating is a piece of cake after that, because my students are individually interested in different things and intrinsically motivated to learn more about them (oh, and of course exceed the standards as a byproduct :D).

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