Whatever your role is in arts education, the challenges of the world and today’s issues are seeping into our work (and even our play), much more than they did even a year ago or five years ago. The issues weigh on our minds. I am hopeful that the arts will help us not only get through this difficult period but make us stronger!

Each day educators interact with young people facing challenges like food insecurity, immigration, and deportation issues, social or emotional health, fear of school shootings, sexual and gender orientation, just to name a few. In addition, teachers are challenged with standards, assessments, student behaviors, media literacy, school climate, student engagement, and much more. Many of these topics are intertwined.

Teachers cannot go into their classrooms, close the door, and just teach. Educators, in and out of schools, need to face these and many other challenges. Most importantly, the priority for arts educators must be to provide an excellent visual and performing arts education and provide access to that opportunity for all learners.

Traditionally, the arts have been powerful tools when it comes to confronting and processing issues. The arts help us to lean in, be brave, and help us to find and use our voice. Recently, I’ve been asking myself and others: how are you making a difference? What are you doing to confront these challenges and support students? I’ve learned that teachers are making the social and emotional needs of students a priority. Simultaneously, they have to address their personal needs. If the leaders in arts education aren’t considering the health (mental and physical) needs of teachers, how can we expect those teachers to in turn support their students?

Artwork by Marshwood High School senior Mikayla Smith. We can talk about how difficult our role in education is—or we can create a plan and put it into action. We have an advantage in the arts because we can use our knowledge, skills, and passion for the arts to help us take the needed action. The action can start small in a classroom, or perhaps with a larger audience.

We see a shift in young people. They are no longer being only seen and not heard. They are finding their voices, being empowered, and taking action. Our role is to listen to what they’re saying.

For seven years the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative (MALI) has provided opportunities for visual and performing arts educators to learn and build on their knowledge in a collaborative environment. MALI is a program of the Maine Arts Commission and is committed to the development of Teacher Leaders to ensure deep understanding and meaningful implementation of high quality teaching, learning and assessment in the Arts for all students. MALI’s work shifts slightly each year based on the feedback from arts educators across Maine while not losing site of the mission. Students are at the heart of MALI’s work. At the winter retreat in March, MALI leaders communicated loud and clear how crucial it is that professional development include self-care work so that, in turn, teachers can be better prepared to support students.

Educator and writer Peter DeWitt wrote on his blog Finding Common Ground about the 17 Critical Issues Facing Education in 2017. Many of these critical issues are still in place, and the need to address them has grown.

Below are examples of individuals as well as groups and institutions taking action.

  • A drawing created by Marshwood High School senior Mikayla Smith was selected to be printed on t-shirts. The message “We Are the Change” embodies the theme of her 2018 class. Mikayla explains that she is beginning to understand what it feels like to make a difference when using her voice. She sees that the change happening with young people in her community is not through social media, but through word of mouth. She believes what Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change that you want to see in the world”.
  • Last summer at the MALI summer institute, one of our teaching artist leaders challenged her colleagues when she asked, “How do the arts make you bold?” This question is a good place to start when communicating about issues with colleagues or students.
  • Hasbro’s signature philanthropic initiative is called: BE FEARLESS BE KIND. They brought students together with spoken word artist Max Stossel to create the BE FEARLESS BE KIND Pledge. The pledge is designed to inspire and empower other young people to have compassion, empathy, and courage to stand up for others and be inclusive throughout their lives.
  • Recently, the state Teachers of the Year traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. The newly named National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, shared with President Trump how she teaches about respect and empathy. She gave 45 letters to the president from her students, who are primarily refugee and immigrant high school students.
  • Central School music educator Kate Smith is not just singing with her third graders, but looking closely at 12 words found in six patriotic songs as part of a connected unit on government. Students are writing and sharing definitions to these words. One student’s definition for brave: “Brave is being willing to do something that you may not come back from.”
  • As part of the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in Denver, a Creative Youth Development (CYD) Preconference: Supporting the Future of the Field is being held on June 14 and 15. CYD intentionally integrates the arts, humanities, and sciences with youth development principles, sparking young people’s creativity and building critical learning and life skills. Young people will be featured throughout the conference.

If you’ve shifted how you teach because of the challenges we face in education, please send me an email with your stories. I’m interested in sharing stories on the Maine arts education blog so others can learn from your example. If you’re not already taking action to support yourself and your students, it’s time that you create a plan. Your actions can be as small as saying good morning every day to the student who is often alone. Or it could be a major initiative that takes your school’s entire K-12 arts staff to use the arts to make a difference for and with students. I challenge you to organize yourself and go forward, taking small steps to make a difference by turning your kindness into action. You don’t have to do this alone—find a colleague to share your idea with, and who knows, the next step could be a big one!