Is teaching a creative profession?

Certainly according to Richard Florida’s definition of the "creative class" it is, and I think most teachers would agree (though they might simultaneously remark on how their creativity is limited by standards, testing, budgetary constraints, bureaucracy, etc.). When we think of great teachers, when we see representations of great teachers in popular media, creativity is a common trait, along with a commitment to education that goes far beyond thinking of it as a "job." And perhaps there is a connection there: when we invest our creativity into an activity, our feelings about it change.

Despite that, we don’t think of schools as being creative places overall. People like Sir Ken Robinson identify a crisis in creativity perpetuated by our educational system. Schools are places where creativity goes to die. Students get creativity taught out of them, time and again, in a systematic fashion.

And when we look at teachers overall, do we see creative people in the way we see creativity among writers, musicians, graphic designers, game designers? Or even if we think of creativity in a less "artsy" way as in the creativity of researchers, architects, software designers, engineers: do we think of teachers as a profession that reflects that kind of creativity?

I think most anyone who teaches college can tell you that majors will tend to reflect certain personality types (with exceptions of course). But you can tell the art students from the phys ed students from the engineers from the accountants from the English majors and so on. At Cortland (again.. 9th largest producer of teachers in the nation), there are qualities common to education majors. I would think you could ask any Cortland prof and they could tell you the same thing. Now Cortland is essentially a college of high school B students from non-urban areas of NY state. So they’ve got a fair amount in common to begin with. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the common traits of our education majors were common traits for education majors nationally. What are they?

  • They are polite
  • Fairly studious
  • Well-organized
  • Well-intentioned
  • Socially conservative (relative to other college students)
  • Excellent at following specific directions

My experience is that if you give our education majors a specific assignment, they will do as they have been asked and complete the assignment on time. This is not the way I’d describe our professional writing majors. However, our education majors are not particularly strong creative thinkers. I’ll set aside the question of developing their creativity, but it’s just not their apparent strength as a cohort. On the flip side, our prof writing students are quite creative, and not just in the "creative writing" sense.

Now personally I’d be fairly surprised if most people who’d been through public education in the US would list many of their teachers among the creative people they’d encountered: maybe an art or music teacher; maybe that one special teacher.

Maybe education ought to be a creative profession, but in reality it tends to fall on the management side of the economy. Teachers are trained first and foremost to be classroom managers. Their personalities reflect managerial dispositions.

To a large extent, teachers have been mid-level managers. In addition they are child care and perhaps creative professionals. My guess is that the days of teachers as mid-level managers are short-lived. Mid-level management has long ago been squeezed out of most corporate cultures. I don’t see why it can’t be squeezed out of the education industry. That leaves child care, which is a necessary but deskilled function, and creative-professional activities.

You could argue that this is the central problem of the educational system. Yes you can point to testing and standards, and I agree with you. But hypothetically if you swept those away, what would our teachers do? Are they prepared to move forward as creative professionals? Testing and standards are constraints. There are many constraints. But creative professionals are always working within constraints; creativity is often defined by the constraints in which it transpires.

If teaching is a creative profession how do we develop the creativity of our future teachers? How do we attract students disposed to creativity to enter the field ? I think about this for my department’s own programs preparing high school English teachers. When and where, if ever, do these students come to recognize themselves as creative professionals? How do we develop creativity?   

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