This painting was done last year by my son Andy, the day before his 13th birthday. He started it in the morning and I helped by advising him as he worked on it all through the day. It’s the best work he’s done so far.
Unfortunately, Andy’s art teacher here in Japan (where we live) is well-known for grading based on his own subjective feelings. If he likes a student they will get an A, if not they are lucky to get a B. Andy’s grade for the semester he made this painting was a C.
At first, I wanted to visit the school to complain but my wife and son said best not to go. His teacher is famous for his vindictiveness and attempts to have him fired have been unsuccessful, so far. Best to let it go, they felt, as long as there is a chance Andy might have his class again.
Fortunately, my son has confidence in his creative skills. He knows this was the best thing he’s done so far and trusts his own judgment. And so, I realized that he has learned a very important lesson from this experience. Don’t let the critical and subjective judgments of others, even those in positions of authority, shatter your confidence or touch your heart.
Andy has been drawing since he’s 3 years old because he enjoys it, he’s intrinsically motivated. Creating art work is a flow experience for him, something he loves to do. Because he enjoys drawing he put much more time into it then most of his peers. Ten or more hours of drawing each week for a decade adds up, as would the same amount of time put into reading, playing soccer or practicing the violin. Like many children who have mastered an art he has already developed what psychologist Carol Dweck describes as a growth mindset about his talents and skills.
I think this is so important for a young person. To know with confidence that they have skills and are NOT their test scores, knowing that sometimes the negative assessments of others lack validity. A child with such an attitude will have great resilience in life. It’s a gift they carry forward into the future.
For adults- especially teachers and other employees being assessed by punitive measurement systems- this is something we may be challenged to develop as well. Right now, around the world, there are punitive systems of accountability being set up to locate “bad” teachers like the one my son had.
Unfortunately, too often the adults who should not be teaching children are able to avoid detection while other more talented teachers are being scapegoated and bullied. Creative and competent teachers are being told they “don’t measure up” according to the “standards” of their principal, state or school district. Talented teachers are receiving grades or rankings that ignore some of the most innovative and valuable things they are doing.
Some are becoming depressed or want to quit teaching because of this. As one teacher told me privately…
“After an evaluation I start feeling like I have to get out of this craziness…. Then, I’ll hear back from a former student now about to graduate (from a poverty and EL background), or a parent of a former student will text me to find out if we have a snow day, or a former student will call for help with homework, and I’ll remember THEY are why I have to stay. If I leave, someone will take my place who doesn’t realize how they should be taught. At least I can “sneak” in real hands on learning opportunities, music and movement, art, and play… I communicate regularly with parents and try to have casual family afternoons twice a year where we eat together and then I show them how they can support their child’s learning at home in fun ways..”
Teaching is an art form, and learning is an art form. It’s also a social activity that is built upon a foundation of trust and compassion, the strength of meaningful relationships. Those of us who know this may sometimes be challenged to brush off assessments that ignore these essentials. If we can do that successfully, we may find ourselves “gifted” with a natural confidence and insight that we can then pass on to our children and students.
What we teach then (by our words and example) is that learning news things and being creative is a reward in itself. That life is for strengthening your heart, mastering skills, facing down fears and taking on challenges with confidence. That each of us has great potential for growth and creativity, and that cultivating a love of learning will take you far further then any concern for grades, test scores or material rewards.
In the case of my son, this painting represents a jump in his artistic abilities. He had never painted with watercolors before, so I advised him. Although I’ve also been drawing since childhood and studied Art in college it was the first time I’d ever “instructed” him directly. Up until then his drawing had been totally self-directed.
We looked at photos of whales till he found one that he wanted to copy. We watched videos of mother whales swimming with their young and observed together how the light reflecting on their bodies looked like snow.
Andy wanted to make the background show sunlight streaming into the ocean but we couldn’t figure out how to do it with watercolors. Then his mom suggested looking at Van Gogh’s paintings. So we checked out Starry Night and he used that as his model, copying Van Gogh’s style.
That evening, when the clock hit midnight, the painting was done and Andy officially turned thirteen. And later, when his Art teacher gave him the C grade it was clear to us that our son had grown and matured.
There is much to be learned from what happens to us in life, that are not “official” parts of a school’s “curriculum.” In our case, we as a family learned how essential creativity, love and confidence are, and that much that truly matters cannot be measured.
The Art of Learning