Why the Arts are Needed in Public Education

It's Not What You Think

Image from the British Museum of Natural History By Sarah Bartholomew

When I was in first or second grade (around the age of eight or nine), our teacher had an in class activity that had a bunch of steps where you completed one and then moved on. The whole class had to move on together. One of the steps was being able to draw a five pointed star without lifting your pencil from the paper. 

This is the only step I remember because I couldn't do it. 

I remember it felt like hours even though I know logically it was only about five minutes. I remember the frustration when I saw my classmates drawing star after star. The thing I remember most was when our teacher assigned another student to stay behind with me and teach me how to do it while everyone else went on ahead with the next step. I remember not having anyone to play with at the next recess.

Now, I was an average student with above average reading skills, so I was considered to be smart. I was reading the books reserved for the seventh graders and I had to have special permission to go to the Big Kid Library next door. When I couldn't do something as simple as draw a star, I was no longer smart. I was stupid.

I continued to struggle through the years. I did poorly in math and science, I struggled to make even the most simple connections, and even though I was the second best reader in the school, I couldn't get into any college prep classes. It even went so far as I was placed in a remedial English course where I was publicly shamed and ridiculed not only by my classmates, but by the teacher. 

I seriously considered suicide, but thankfully I had an amazing teacher who taught me that I was intelligent, even if I no longer thought that of myself. 

When I got to college and I had the same issues that I had in public school I finally got some help and saw a professional. It took months but I was finally diagnosed with a math based learning disability. The diagnosis came on the heels of me getting kicked out because of "grades unbecoming."

I took a year and a half off, but in that time I learned all I could about my disability and when I got back I did my best. I am going to graduate this December with my Bachelor's in Arts Management. 

This story is important to me. It shaped me. But I also learned something that I could have never learned if it had not been for this setback. That is that if I had an art teacher in public school, I would have never had to go through any of this.

In my Art Education and Museum Education classes at University, we learned about the stages of drawing that children go through. I talked with my friend who is now a Middle School teacher and asked her if any of her classes covered this information, and she said that it was not. After consulting with more education, art history, and children's psychology professors around campus, I learned a lot.

First, I learned that visual art is one of the strongest diagnostic tools for children's psychology. Everything from the colors, lines, and shading can help an adult understand what is going on with a child's mind. It can also be an early indicator to detection of learning disabilities and other mental illnesses and disabilities. 

I also learned that the average elementary school teacher is trained to notice when a student cannot read or write or speak well, but things such as spacial reasoning, mental math, and the ability to mentally follow a long list of directions are only just barely coming into play. 

The most important thing I learned in this process was that only an art teacher would have had the training to notice that my inability to draw stars at the age of eight might have meant more than my need for more time on an assignment. 

Art teachers are more than crazy ladies with glue sticks and glitter. They are mathematicians, scientists, historians, software engineers, mediators, writers, educators, and yes, even psychologists. 

Students need them. The active learners who have trouble sitting still, the intrapersonal learners who can't stay quiet and the interpersonal learners who need their space. The students who do well in lecture classes who need creative outlets. 

Those who need art teachers the most?

The little boy whose older brother locked him in the shed for over an hour.

The little girl who was told that all daddies do this. 

The child who doesn't know if they are a boy or a girl. 

The child who couldn't draw a star. 

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Why the Arts are Needed in Public Education
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