Now. Teachers, Now: Reinstating Imagination in your Life and Work | Nicola Conraths | 6 Min Read

Learning by head, heart and hand was the radical thought proposed in the moving writings of swiss reformer J.H. Pestalozzi in the 17th century. At Walnut Hill School for the Arts, where I served as director of artistic studies, we adapted his tenet to reflect our values. Arts, hearts, and smarts is the slogan we recite, sending the message that all three of these pieces of the educational puzzle deserve equal time, dedication and attention. 

Pestalozzi is described as a Romantic educator. What a crazy notion this seems to evoke, since we live and work in an educational system that has predicated head over heart and hand for a long time. Romantics believed that emotions, intuition, spontaneity and individuality would enrich any process, from art to social change.  During the pandemic, and when zoom and online education entered our life overnight, we all became romantics out of necessity, creating something from nothing. In a crisis, most of us drew upon these skills more than any other we have learned in formal education, so we could serve our students and keep going. It is the individuality in you, the teacher, and your imagination, that is getting children through this ongoing pandemic. 

Imagination is the process of leaning into no data data and free association thinking. It beams you out of any room in an instant and takes you wherever you want to go.  It’s the drugless drug, the great escape, the way to a new approach to thinking, living and learning. Artists draw upon this skill all the time. It’s a deep well, the zoom of the soul. 

Can we picture this past year without art in our lives? Without music, without movies, without dance or theatre on film, without podcasts, without books? 

I believe we have been saved, saved by the arts. Thankfully, this thought now resonates with many of us. Art is imagination made visible.  Imagination is the subject that when cultivated in all areas of teaching and learning will heal us. As with all skills, imaginary work needs encouragement  and practice. 

Now is the time.  

Now that testing vanished overnight. 

Now, we proved that grades could be moved to Pass/Fail  in an instant because the moment required it. 

Now, that Colleges are waiving the SATs and are admitting what promises to be the most interesting and diverse cohort since the beginning of Higher Ed. This seems pretty romantic and daring to me and something I thought I would never live to see.  

By contrast, our schools have been training and rewarding experts for a very long time. Expertise is what traditionally promises predictability and measurable outcomes.  Grades, testing, and concentrations are all emblematic of the value of specialization. In order to achieve this level of depth, our teaching methodologies are focused on critical thinking, pragmatism, and empirical research.  Naturally, these thinking strategies make up a significant part of any job description once we are on the hunt for employment. Nobody hires for enthusiasm, feelings, and imagination. Few organizations are interested in giving experienced professionals a chance to learn something new outside our area of expertise. 

As far as character goes, a good head on our shoulders is praised. Making level-headed decisions is the desired leadership quality. Staying cool in a crisis is good. Is it? The current moment is significant because our generation of educators gets to witness how what we taught stood up against a world crisis. 

Where were all the level-headed experts when we needed clear direction? Pragmatism was out to lunch as herds of independent school educators turned into mini-epidemiologists overnight, read dozens of articles, and figured out how to open our classrooms when state mandates allowed it. Let’s remind ourselves that the pandemic experts (scientists? The CDC? Dr. Fauci?) were rather confused for months and made it so that I, the arts administrator and dance teacher, had to become a pseudo-scientist.

Horror! Disbelief! Oh Gawd, no!

From my diary, August 15th, 2020, post-Health & Safety meeting:

Sanitizer or fogger? Masks or no mask inside? Masks or no masks outside? Shield-with-mask; shield-without-mask; mask-with-shield-and-plexiglass-divider; mask-with-no shield-and-plexiglass-divider; 

Next:  3 feet-6 feet-9 feet apart or a combo of all of the above?

How many Hepa filters for a 600 square foot room? How many aerosol particles spread from a throat, tuba, flute, or french horn?

It was madness. 

What we teach sets the stage for how we cope. Our students and all of us did not cope well. The skills we honed for decades were not adequate. Our core curriculum has been devoid of inspiration, sidelining the arts and imaginary thinking to an extracurricular activity. The arts had to make their magic outside of the schedule that education values. When it mattered, where was the lifeline? In those activities that cultivated imagination, namely the arts. 

We all saw students slowly fading away in front of screens, with academic expectations crumbling to almost nothing across the board. This was also the first time that children watched their parents at work in their living rooms, and in many cases, they were disappointed. I’m going to college to do this? Becoming an artist, entrepreneur, inventor, and activist seems like a very attractive prospect right now to a teenager. They are taking gap years and online classes on obscure topics. They teach themselves what they are interested in on YouTube. They want to engage in social justice. They believe that notions such as gender and sexual identity are fluid, not set in stone. 

Gen Z’s have been following their imagination for a while; they are a passionate, pathway-focused generation. The old paradigm does not serve the new frontier we find ourselves in, where conversations about belonging and equal opportunity could benefit from a new entry point. Let’s consider the intuitive, romantic, and mystical elements of imaginary work for the future of education. Imagination and collaboration will set the stage for a new type of thinking to flourish. It will help us rebuild the shattered house. 

During the many months of lockdown, I decided to drill down on this very idea. Which commitments of purpose bring imagination into focus, so that it seems less lofty? What could be some ideas for educators in any subject that they could just try on a whim for more romance in teaching? 

The document that emerged is a manifesto for teachers, a set of beliefs that have open-ended outcomes that can’t be measured, only experimented with. I wanted to describe thoughts and actions that develop acuity and intuition as a path to vision when it’s dark. It’s a mini energizer for all educators in these troubled times. In its true manifesto vein, the pamphlet contains some outrageously bold claims. This is yet another wonderful quality of romantic thinking. Backing stuff up is frowned upon, or as the romantics would say, the worst sin!

Let’s keep the arts and the practice of imagination burning bright in all schools from now on. After the torment of the past year, and a new one with different challenges looming close, many of us feel shell-shocked and beat up, myself included. Perhaps one of these days we will hear statements that may move you enough to question a belief or give you the freedom to drop a ball for another one to come into sight. As we reimagine the days in our schools for years ahead, let the arts in. Make space for imagination.  It’s time. 

Crazy thinking? Let’s talk about it. Email me: [email protected]

Love the poster

It’s available as a limited edition print for $10, which will cover shipping and packaging. 

Email me at [email protected] if you would like to order a copy. 

The poster was printed by letterpress aka heart and hand at SIGNAL RETURN  in the ❤️ of Detroit.

May it remind you of the love pathways in teaching if you choose to pin it on your wall.

Nicola Conraths

Nicola Conraths has been working in independent art schools for 15 years, serving as Director of Artistic Studies at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and as director of Comparative Arts at the Interlochen Arts Academy. In her current role as art advisor to the head of school, she collaborates with New England Conservatory Prep School, Boston Ballet, the LA Phil, and SMOC/Headstart schools. An author, speaker, and movement teacher, Nicola merges her many interests into projects that connect unlikely topics, people, and places. She was awarded the College Board of America’s award for Excellence and innovation in the Arts in 2015 for her collaborative project, Heart & Art. She lives in Detroit.

One thought on “Now. Teachers, Now: Reinstating Imagination in your Life and Work | Nicola Conraths | 6 Min Read

  1. Beyond anything I have read thus far, this article truly has hit home. As arts educators, we intuitively question and search in an imagistic and imaginary way because that is exactly why we are artists. Given a challenge we will find the golden threads. It is the fabric by which we move through life. To be hit by the pandemic, I found that, yes, we continued to question from the heart of the heart to keep our children and our students enlivened and bold to the promises that still await them. I do believe this took quite a toll on all of us in our attempts to ‘stay strong’ for our youth. Through it all, to be able to stand behind a Zoom screen that divided us from our students, or in the middle of a dance studio surrounded by young eager ‘Acrobats of God’ with masks on, the constant…if there can be a constant in this world…is that art speaks…art heals.

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