Be an artist.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin asks us to consider the task of emotional labor: doing important work, even when it isn’t easy. It’s the type of labor we often avoid, due to its difficulty and the fact that to some people, emotional labor is a gift given without reward. In reality, emotional labor perhaps yields the greatest benefits, to both the giver and the recipient of those efforts.

The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show- these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.

Godin’s message is to bring your gifts to work. Your initial reaction to this idea may be, “Why should I? I just want to leave work each day and go home and do things I enjoy and be around people I actually like.”

What gifts do you bring to your school? Clearly you seek to display your strongest leadership qualities on a daily basis, in the hopes of modeling and shaping learning for your staff and students. What art do you create on a daily basis, at work, that allows your organization to flourish?

If you believe that your role as administrator or teacher or parent does not fit the definition of “artist,” I ask you to consider the following:

  • Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
  • Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
  • Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
  • Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.
  • Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk-free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

I didn’t want this to post to be filled with feel-good fluff and void of actual instances of how I know emotional labor is being expended each day in schools, and how this work benefits our kids. In our elementary school, there are artists creating at every turn.

  • My guidance counselor recently designed a “break the mid-winter-blahs” picnic lunch day for the entire school using her gifts of compassion and her awareness of our school climate.
  • For a few weeks of the year physical education teacher transforms our gymnasium into an amazing obstacle course, complete with hanging “vines,” hula-hoops, clever contraptions made of PVC-pipe, and opportunities for rolling, tumbling, running, laughing, and learning.
  • One of my kindergarten teacher who works for STEM at Our Early Childhood Education Franchise had many gifts and one such is her unrivaled ability to break into song, dance, skit, funny character voice… basically whatever theatrics is necessary…to excite and energize her students and engage them in learning.
  • My 3/4 hallway has this amazing chemistry. You can feel it when you walk through the hall. It hits you in the face. I love their contagious energy!
  • An incredible group of teachers and staff imagined and implemented a now-annual Day of Service for our entire school community in honor of a teacher who lost her battle with breast cancer last year.
  • Grade 2 teachers designed a Parent Blogging Night, where they will introduce parents to the learning opportunities their children will be involved in using blogs and where parents will help their child write their first post!
  • Students offer to stay in from recess to assist a teacher. They offer to make posters and visit you at lunch time and give you their ice cream and deliver cupcakes to you when it’s their birthday.
  • Dedicated parents in our parent-teacher organization write grants for technology and run science exploration clubs for our young scientists. Another parent blogged with a third grade class on his recent business trip to Shanghai and visited us upon his return to share this experience with our students.

None of these given gifts are written as requisite activities in teachers’ job descriptions, nor in any of those instances do you see the words standardized testing, curriculum map, or homework. They clearly all involve love, care, and learning.

How will you be an artist today? How will your emotional labor and efforts change your organization? Take a risk. Your passion-driven efforts will not go unnoticed, and you will find that when you expend emotional labor, although sometimes exhausting, it will be deeply gratifying. What we often forget, as Godin reminds us, is “The act of the gift is in itself a reward.”

15 Replies to “Be an artist.”

  1. Lyn,

    Excellent post as always. I really think you are making a great point about putting your best food forward…sharing your talents and expertise with others…and bringing your passions into all aspects of your life. We know that the best student / teacher experiences usually originate from an activity or concept that the educator / student is passionate about.

    Kudos to you for embracing a school climate and culture that encourages educators, students, and community members to unleash their inner-passions. Creating an environment where everyone feels free to take risks is the difficult part…giving educators, students, and community members the green light to do what they do best…is the easy part.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Justin! It’s so rewarding to watch amazing educators and kids in action. Best part of the principalship, hands down.

  2. What an inspiring post! Thanks for sharing.

    I love that you encourage your teachers to use their talents for things that are above and beyond the call of duty. Many times the tendency is to pull each other down instead of lifting one another up.

    I have been eager to get my hands on Linchpin for a while now. I think it has moved to the top of my list!

    – @newfirewithin

    1. I was late to the Linchpin party as well… glad I finally made the time to read it. Godin’s writing is very inspiring, but in a way that’s not too over-the-top. He says plainly what one can accomplish given the right mindset. You’re right, it’s way too easy to dwell on the negative… the emotional labor is the tough stuff, especially when dealing with the many adversities we face daily. Thanks for commenting, Justin!

  3. I agree with Justin. Very inspiring. The artist in all of us is what often gets smothered. We need to be us. Share what we love with our students and colleagues. Everyone knows that I’m a Phillies fan at my school. Living in Oregon we have a lot of Giants fans, so it was a painful post season, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if they didn’t know who “I” was and what I loved. Not that being a passionate baseball means “art”, but it’s who I am.

    I also look at myself in the classroom with my students. They know I’m a total geek. I love my tech. At recess now, a few of us hang out and play with my iPad. Sometimes it’s school related, but most of the time it’s Angry Birds. It’s a way for me to share my “artistry” with my kids. A certain trust and comfort comes from knowing your teacher and realizing he doesn’t live or sleep in the classroom.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jeremy. I agree that sometimes the “work” of it all can be smothering. Your students are lucky to have a teacher who shares his art with them to help build personal relationships and engage them in learning. Not all students have that. It’s something that I look for in a teacher when hiring– instructional techniques, use of programs… those things can be taught rather easily. It’s much more important to me to have teachers in our classroom willing to invest emotionally in our students as well.

  4. What a thoughtful post! I can honestly say that I never considered myself or the other educators I work with artists- I feel guilty for this after reading your post.

    The bulleted list of wonderful happenings at your school reminded me to celebrate the variety of gifts each faculty member brings to school each day. I get caught up in trying to “fix” things, and I am too focused on trying to improve our curriculum and instruction for our students, that I have been forgetting the intangibles.


    1. Payton, I appreciate your comments! There are plenty of days when I am basically just trying to make sure things are functioning smoothly, like you said, trying to “fix” things. I’m learning to spend more time recognizing and highlighting the positives that each teacher and student brings to our learning environment. When we identify those gifts that those artists can share, we can build upon them, share them, and create a truly inspiring place for learning! Thanks again for reading. 🙂

  5. Lyn, I always appreciate the thoughtfulness of your posts, and how you connect your reading to your professional practice. I have never really thought of myself as an artist in my work at school. But, in considering the criteria you reference, I see how my work can be an artistic and creative effort. When I work with teachers on how to assess for deep understanding, or how to make the learning more meaningful, I feel very creative and inspired in that work. The challenge, of course, is to be artistic when we are in situations that do not naturally inspire us (ie. student discipline, the budget, etc.). But I think if we tried to approach those situations more like artists, we perhaps would feel more energy, rather than the drudgery of that work.

    1. Again, thanks for sharing my post on your blog. I, too, love the creativity involved in designing PD and thinking of new ways of doing things… scheduling ideas, team planning, etc. If we’re finding that joy in the tasks we do, even in the boring tasks, we won’t have the urge to dread Sunday nights or shout TGIF at the end of each week!

  6. Lyn,
    I’ve never thought about “being an artist” in this way. I think that when I head into school this week, I will look at my building in this lens. Thanks for this fresh perspective!

    1. Jennifer, thanks for reading and for your comments. I appreciate the simplicity of your thought- just to consider our work in a more artistic light will lead us to new discoveries about our role as educators and how we can best impact the lives of kids. Have a great week!

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