Photo by Arthur Krijgsman (Pexels)

Art is Not English

Daniel Gauss

The following piece depicts a job interview, for English teacher, at an international school. It illustrates my belief that education is at a crossroads: schools are often focused on hitting academic goals but might be neglecting aspects of education which help students develop compassion and humanity. I believe the best teachers these days want to impart compassion and humanity as much as academic content.


PANEL MEMBER 1: Okay, we know a little about you. We also asked you to prepare a 5-minute demo class so why don’t we go ahead and start that?

TEACHER: Alright, I want to begin by saying that when I taught middle school, I focused a lot of attention on developing higher-order thinking skills, metaphorical-thinking skills, and I think the arts are ideal for this. I want my students to be able to look inside themselves as well as outside, to develop as humane beings as well as learning about the world and different subjects.

PANEL MEMBER 2: OK, that sounds nice.

TEACHER: So last year I encouraged parents to take my students to a big art fair over the weekend. It was an international school, only 17 students in my homeroom class, so everyone went. I also attended and took photos of about 20 thought-provoking pieces of art. So you folks are going to be my students, I’m going to introduce images and I have some questions that we are going to discuss to interpret these pieces.

[Panel sits silently.]

TEACHER: OK, take a look at this painting of a bull — just looking at this, what do you think the artist was trying to say or express here? We could also ask, what do you think this bull represents or symbolizes?


TEACHER: OK, that’s good. Why anger?

PANEL MEMBER 4: The bull has his horns down, he is attacking, I see mud flying through the air, the bull seems to be charging forward, it even seems as if the air is vibrating due to his heavy footsteps as he charges forward.

TEACHER: That’s a great description of this painting. Do you think something positive or negative is being shown here?

PANEL MEMBER 4: Negative. The bull is angry. He is out of control.

TEACHER: What if he is responding to a threat to himself? What if he is charging through some type of restrictive barrier?

PANEL MEMBER 4: Then I would say we see aggression here. Maybe necessary aggression, but the artist just shows the bull, not the circumstances.

TEACHER: So, since the artist doesn’t show you why the bull is aggressive or angry, they might be asking questions about anger and aggression. Is aggression or anger always “wrong”? They might be asking how we determine whether aggression or any type or emotion is right or wrong…

PANEL MEMBER 3: So you are condoning anger and aggression.

TEACHER: No, one of my students, after we talked about this for a few minutes, said he thought the bull represented “energy”. What he said was really quite brilliant for a 5th grader. He said electricity is energy. The bull is like electricity. If we touch a live electrical wire it can kill us, but otherwise that energy can be harnessed to light cities.

PANEL MEMBER 3: This bull is not harnessed.

TEACHER: Well, we don’t know what he’s attacking. If we could photograph an electrical charge, hypothetically, it might look a bit scary too.

PANEL MEMBER 1: So we are having an English class now?

TEACHER: I once had a student who was a bit troubled and he caused trouble in my classes sometimes. He caused trouble in everyone’s classes. When I did this exercise he said something that showed real empathy. I can’t remember what it was any more, but it was beautiful. I said, “Mitch, what you just said shows you have a great heart, you are a good person. I am really impressed with the kindness of your statement, the concern, the warmth…” I doubt he had ever heard that before from a teacher. It had its impact on him. It brought us closer together, I think this guy actually grew emotionally during that year.

PANEL MEMBER 1: You are not an empathy teacher, you are an English teacher and you don’t even shoot for valid English goals?

TEACHER: I wasn’t concerned with specific English standards at that time. This was an experimental class that I thought my students would like and I thought interpreting and expressing were important English skills to help my students work on.

PANEL MEMBER 3: And which English standard were you demonstrating? Exactly which standard?

TEACHER: We were using American Common Core Standards, so I probably found something like “Students will be able to express a figurative interpretation of an artistic blah blah blah…”

PANEL MEMBER 3: He wants to teach empathy and interpretation.

TEACHER: May I apply for the position of empathy teacher?

PANEL MEMBER 3: Don’t be ridiculous, this is a high-quality school for which the students’ parents are paying a premium tuition. We don’t have empathy classes here.

TEACHER: As I said, my goal was to help my students develop higher order thinking skills, creativity, the ability to express complex thoughts and feelings. That’s pretty educational.

PANEL MEMBER 1: How do you know our students would be able to do this? Interpreting, expressing…

TEACHER: Just getting that guy to feel empathy and to express it… IN ENGLISH… was truly memorable for me.

PANEL MEMBER 3: And you think all students have this ability to express themselves in this way?

TEACHER: Well, as an experienced teacher I would gauge the ability of my students and if this were too difficult, I wouldn’t do it, of course. But I did this with a 5th grade class; it was an amazing experience.

PANEL MEMBER 1: 5th graders? You did a contemporary art component, in an English class, with 5th graders?

TEACHER: Yes, they got it. Some of their answers blew me away. Students rise to the level of expectations we set for them.

PANEL MEMBER 3: It doesn’t mean it would work with one of our classes. Maybe our students couldn’t handle this.

TEACHER: Well, in all candor, you did not give me specifics about the hypothetical class, you just said your school conducted its classes in English and I should do a middle school English class for 5 minutes… honestly, I wasn’t even going to come, I didn’t like your interview format at all — but I like accepting challenges, I like seeing what’s gonna happen.

PANEL MEMBER 1: How is this English? This is art. Art is not English.

TEACHER: Well, English was our mode of communication.

PANEL MEMBER 3: This exercise was not fostering any concrete development in English skills.

TEACHER: Well, students were invited to express themselves in English.

PANEL MEMBER 1: Come on, expression is not a goal in itself. Thinking is not a goal. You need to find specific English standards to promote, not thinking and expression skills.

TEACHER: So, folks who speak English don’t need to think before they speak? You are telling me that we can teach English separate from thinking skills?

PANEL MEMBER 3: You are not even tying this to anything in the curriculum.

TEACHER: Maybe in your educational philosophy people don’t have to think before they speak English, but I would like to believe people develop their ideas before speaking.

PANEL MEMBER 1: My God! What position are you even applying for?

TEACHER: English teacher. Did I make a mistake? Am I here for any other position?

PANEL MEMBER 1: English teacher? You are here for a position as an English teacher?

TEACHER: That was my belief, that’s what I prepared for. You remember, you were so kind as to give me 12 hours after I returned from a lengthy overseas flight to prepare this class and fill out a lot of paperwork. I stayed up all night and I truly believed it was for the position of English teacher.


TEACHER: Yes, I did a pretty good job of that before, I won some awards. I trained some foreign teachers.

PANEL MEMBER 1: Then you should certainly know better than to come in here and try teaching us art!

TEACHER: What if I had a PPT with a reading passage on pandas, would you tell me that was about science?

PANEL MEMBER 3: If it is this free love, peace, I-wanna-express-myself hippy garbage then yes, I would say it is about science and not about English.

TEACHER: I’m not teaching free love. I can only aspire, though…

PANEL MEMBER 3: You’re all over the place. This is freeform crap. This is just freestyling.

TEACHER: This is a very structured exercise offering opportunities for artistic interpretation, the development of insight and the expression of interpretations.

PANEL MEMBER 1: Then go and teach art!

TEACHER: So, if I had a 12-line poem on this PPT, like Richard Cory, I would be teaching what? If I asked students why Richard Cory killed himself, I would be teaching criminology, not English? There’s no difference between teaching the interpretation of literature and using visual art as a way to stimulate thought and expression.

PANEL MEMBER 3: You have some kind of an art agenda.

TEACHER: I’m promoting an education agenda, to teach skills but also to challenge my students to rise as human beings.

PANEL MEMBER 1: Where is the academic standard for that?

TEACHER: (remains silent) You know, the bull is an ancient symbol. It has an ambiguous meaning — sometimes it is positive and represents fertility, sometimes negative and represents brute force…

PANEL MEMBER 1: OK, we gave you enough time, 5 minutes is up, we have other qualified candidates to interview.

TEACHER: Are you aware that my last class rose two grade levels in regard to their English usage and reading skills?

PANEL MEMBER 3: Thank you, sir. Betsy, please show this gentleman out. 

Daniel Gauss was born in Chicago, studied at UW/Madison and Teachers College Columbia University, and has worked in the field of education for the past 20 years. He has had numerous non-fiction articles published on a diverse range of platforms including The Good Men Project and E: The Environmental Magazine. He has also published some children's poetry on Dirigible Balloon and Balloon Lit Journal. He currently lives in Shenzhen, China. 

Linkedin: Daniel Gauss

IG: @dgaussqu