By Angela Watson
On a recent visit to the High Museum of Art at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center, I had the pleasure of visiting with a volunteer docent who was a recently retired art teacher from the Atlanta area public school system. I was there to observe their elementary field trips as part of a research project. She and I talked about changes she has seen in field trips over the years. I always ask about struggles field trips face due to accountability and the stress placed on seat time. This docent told me that, as an art teacher, she always advocated for her students to have at least one field trip to the art museum a year. She said that her school was usually supportive. However, as we continued to talk, she recalled that that was before her school cut arts programming. She said the school had a beautiful music room with high ceilings that used to house three full time music teachers. Now, the school only has one music teacher, and that beautiful music room is the teacher’s lounge. When she taught (she retired two years ago) she used to see her students once a week, but that time got cut, and cut again. Before she left, she was only seeing students every eight days, and for only a 45 minute class. In my own child’s school they had a full time music teacher just a few years ago, then she was asked to split her time between two schools. This year she was asked to split her time between three schools and I heard that she told them no.
We have to assume that as arts teachers are split between schools or cut altogether, that this reduces the number of teachers in a given school who will advocate for arts related field trips. Sure, an English teacher may want to take her kids on the field trip, but her level of investment is likely not the same. And make no mistake, these field trips are no walk in the park for teachers. They are a struggle, from coordinating busing, figuring out where students will eat lunch, and wrangling 20 excited students in a place filled with priceless works of art, or where they have to sit quietly and listen for an hour. It takes an invested teacher to make a field trip a success.
Further, if we split the arts teachers between three schools and let them see their students for 45 minutes every two weeks, how impactful can that really be? I guess it is slightly better than nothing, although the quality of the learning must be diminished, and the relationship between teacher and students must be stunted. Worst of all, it drastically reduces the number of arts champions in a school.
When I go along on field trips, I try and talk to the teachers and it is usually the art teacher or the music teacher who is most engaged. They are the ones who planned the trip, got the bus, and made sure kids got to the show. They are the ones who have integrated the material into their lessons for weeks before the field trip. They are the ones who are not on their phones during the field trip. While this is not always the case, I have seen plenty of general classroom teachers go the extra mile for their students, the arts teachers are particularly invested.
If we think arts related field trips are important for students, then we need to be increasing arts advocates in the schools, not cutting them out.
Angela Watson is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow and Research Assistant in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.