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No Future in the Arts?

STORY 1: There is no future in dance.

“There’s no future in dance”.  This horrible statement was made to my wife, Tonya, in her grade 11 year of high school.  Here is her story:

For as long as Tonya can remember, she has been a dancer.    ballet_shoesThis girl knew her passion at a very young age; her life was spent in the studio and on the stage.  At 7 years of age, she performed in the motion picture, Housekeeping.  She taught dance in her early teens to help pay for her dance fees (her mother also helped clean the studio).  She thrived at dance and was a provincial rep for a number of years which provided her the opportunity to showcase her talents alongside some of the best artists in British Columbia each year.  Along with dance, Tonya loved musical theatre; she was involved in musicals each year up until she graduated high school.

A few years ago, I asked my wife how often she was able to bring her passion and strength in dance into her schooling; she only remembered the one time in elementary school where she was encouraged to perform in front her peers.  Growing up, dance was all she knew; school was far from dance.  She did ‘well enough’ in school, struggled in certain areas, but excelled in the arts.

In grade 11, Tonya met with the school counselor to go over possible career paths.  All she had ever thought about was dance – teaching, choreographing, and performing.  The counselor was very blunt and told her that she should probably consider other options because a career in dance was likely not to happen.  She walked out of that office thinking that her best option would be in the field of secretarial/office management.  However, being the person she was, her thoughts shifted back to dance and she did not pay much attention to the counselor and thus, continued to perform and teach.  She soon realized that her dream also included owning and directing her own dance studio.

Let me catch you up on what she has done since then:

Following graduation, she worked as a teacher and began to audition for certain dance roles.  She landed roles in music videos, a major motion picture Center Stage: Turn it Up, as well as a place in the top 100 of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.  (She also taught hip hop classes at a certain high school which caught the eye of a certain high school PE teacher who may or may not have written this blog).

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

She spent 2 years going to school to complete her Royal Academy of Dance teaching program.  Tonya worked at a few different dance studios and in the summer of 2007, reached her dream goal and opened Kick It Up A Notch Academy of Dance.  Her philosophy as a teacher is much more than just teaching dance; she is a coach, a mentor, a friend, and a leader; she has inspired many dancers with her creative choreography and passionate teaching style.   With over 100 students at her studio along with passionate teachers, Tonya’s love for dance is spreading to young students every year.  I get emotional every year at the Year End Performance when her dancers showcase their unreal talents and love for their art.

What would have happened if she had listened to her counselor and her school’s recommendation?  Has Tonya excelled because of the education system or in spite of the education system?  How many students are pushed away from the arts and directed to focus on something that is a “real world skill” or “practical” skill?  Many of Tonya’s students give up their love of dance to ‘focus on their academics’ in school; university may be a great option for some but I often wonder how many great artists are leaving the field to enter one in which they may not have that same passion.

STORY 2: A Photographer Is Born… 25 years later.

I met Sarah Funk this past year on Twitter (we actually went to preschool together).  Since then, we have hired her a few times for professional photography sessions for my family.  Sarah is amazing at what she does and through our conversations, I realized that she has not always been provided with the opportunity to focus on her art. Here is her story:

Sarah’s interest in the arts started in dance when she began Highland Dancing at the age of 4.  Music was also a large part of her life growing up; she loved it and excelled at from age 8.   Her father always had a camera around; in fact, his camera from when she was a child is sitting in her home today.  She remembers picking up that camera on and off throughout growing up but did not take it seriously until after high school when something drove her to learn more about the art of photography.  At that time it was mostly just flowers and nature,  nothing serious.  Having children only fueled this passion for photography and she began to want to translate images in her head into a photograph.  From there, her passion has grown into a successful business based on one of the top photographers in the Fraser Valley, Silver Lamb Studios.

Thinking back, she can’t even recall what her school offered in terms of photography.  She does recall, that with art programs, they fell to electives and because you only had so many electives that sometimes, your art had to be left behind to pursue the academic courses.  It was made very clear to her by her school that she needed to complete and do well in academic classes to get into a University. She remembers it being a very pro-University environment.  In Grade 12, she actually took a music class, even though she did not get a credit for it (because she already had a “different art credit”); she took it because she loved it.

She went to University, because that’s what she was told you had to do after high school to get anywhere or get a good job.  It wasn’t pushed on her by her  parents but more from the education system.  At the time, she thought the RCMP was the career path for her and she was told a post-secondary education would give her an edge in the field.  She studied Criminology and although she enjoyed it, none of the possible career areas excited her.  So after receiving her Criminology diploma and leaving university, she worked in various retail jobs until she became a mother and stopped working outside of the home.  Only then was she provided with the opportunity to explore her interest in photography.  She began taking photos of her children and family; at that point she knew her

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

purpose, her passion – her love of photography had returned and has since grown into a key part of her life.

I am thankful for her love of photography, her art fills our homes with beautiful captured memories.

When I asked Sarah what advice she would give to a student interested in photography, she responded “I think I would tell the child to follow their passion.  Both my husband and I are prime examples of going to school for one thing and ended up in a totally different field.  I really believe that you can make a living from anything.  It makes a tremendous difference working when you are doing something you love.  I never ever thought that I would be able to say that.”

Sarah was directed into a field, away from her passion of the arts, by a system.  I am so thankful that she returned to her passions later in life but I often wonder how many people do not get this opportunity?  How many people disregard their passions for the arts because of a system that pushes people into a certain direction?  Is a university education the ideal option?  Why does “keeping your doors open” often mean focusing on academics?

In a system that is continually trying to just survive with shrinking budgets, how many arts courses are being cut?  If a child is in a small community and has a passion and talent for theatre but there are not enough students to run a program, what happens to this child’s strength?

Reading and listening to people like Sarah, my wife Tonya, as well as renown speaker Sir Ken Robinson makes me reflect on the academic hierarchy that is present in our education system.  Numeracy and literacy are very important skills for our students but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?

I want my children and students to have the opportunity to be part of an education system that encourages them to follow their passions and lead a flourishing life and not one that directs them into a path determined by system hierarchy.

Thank you to Sarah Funk and Tonya Wejr for their stories.

If you have not seen this TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, by Sir Ken Robinson, it is well worth the 18 minutes.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.

10 Comments

  1. Wow! Powerful and inspiring stories. It is narratives such as these that will create the tension and push against standardization and academics-only thought that prevails today. We need to give value as a global society to creativity, passion and the joy that comes when you do the work you love.

  2. Chris,

    Both these stories show how school tries to stifle creativity – and there must be millions more. Thank you for telling them.

    That being said, I wonder how often we think about creativity as only being for the arts. I believe we see a kid who is creative (in whatever way we define that) and say, “there’s no future in the arts” so that kid needs to do something else. Instead we need to think about supporting those kids, and thinking about how any profession (medicine, business, etc) needs creative people.

    We can also kill creativity if we say it’s only for the art kids. (and you weren’t making that argument, I just went on a tangent)

  3. These are incredible stories, Chris, and it reminds me about the importance of encouraging all skills in school (whether the arts, academic, or otherwise), as you never know where students will flourish. This is another great reminder of what we can, and need to do, to ensure that all students are successful!

    Aviva

  4. Wow! Two great stories, Chris. I don’t think schools set out to stifle creativity, I really don’t. But I do believe this is what happens when schools don’t set an agenda to PROMOTE creativity. Creativity should be embedded in every curriculum and we all know the teachers we’ve had in the past who have touched us because of the creative teaching styles. All of these talented teachers do so because TEACHING is THEIR passion! I can’t think of a better way to approach teaching anything; public school, dance, photography, trades, sports, university etc. If we only allowed the passionate teachers to stand in front of students the world would be a better place for it. There is no hierarchy in life. I can’t imagine a world without art, dance, music, math, science, sport etc. etc. I’ve always had this dream of opening a school where people can just LEARN, where kids can be kids, where everyone is honoured for who they are and what they bring to the world – perhaps Kent Elementary will be that school. Way to go, Chris! Keep the thought-provoking conversations going:)

  5. Thank you for sharing this, Chris. My father was a custom picture framer, my brother is a custom book binder, and my wife was a dancer before becoming a teacher and then mother. I share that simply because so many very close and influential people in my life have been influenced by and have influenced me through “the arts.”

  6. So funny you should post this as Lauren and I discuss her future daily, trying to make decisions now that she is graduating. As you know, one of her talents is dance and another one that she has a natural talent in is photography. Both of these she has been told over and over ” Are not real jobs with the chance of making any money .” She has been told ” Photography is a hobby, not a career.” She loves both of them, but due to the reality of living in one of the most expensive Provinces, a lot of the young people base their decisions on ” How much money can I make?” Jobs in the Arts are often not well paying, but the pay off is, that you are doing something you love everyday. My hubby and I are musicians and gave it up as it didn’t pay well and real life takes over. Responsibilities, housing, babies etc! No regrets though! I know Lauren is struggling with her career choice as she feels that she needs to get a degree to make money. As a parent I am trying to support her and recognize the reality and uncertainty of choosing an arts focused career, but tell her to do what she loves so she never looks back with regret. At this point she plans to get her business degree with an emphasis on Public Relations so she can still use her creativity and put her writing skills to work as well. Chris your posts are always thought provoking and make me want to write down my thoughts, opinions . Thanks for allowing me a place to let my opinions roll! I always enjoy the posts by others as well!

  7. Thanks for sharing these stories! It is sad to see that a lot of public schools are cutting funds for their art programs. And not with just counsel support but the actual classes are being cut all together. In my town, elementary music education is practical non-existent. I’m a big supporter of “Save the Music” and when you’re a kid, that’s when you have nothing to fear, everyone’s a singer, artist or musician. They shouldn’t cut any programs.

  8. We should ask the people who tell kids there’s no money in the arts how they would like to spend their lives in a world without music, dance, or art. They might rethink thier recommendations! We have to remember that it takes all kinds of seeds to grow a garden…
    http://www.FunInABoxCanada/blog
    Help! There’s Broccoli In My Carrot Patch!

  9. I KNOW the school system did everything it could to stop kids being interested in arts.

    Our end of school qualification was norm-referenced so that a certain percentage of kids pass and failed. In year 11 (grade 10) most of my class would get 90s for their music class (non-norm referenced). Two years later getting over 60 was a major achievement because of the bell curve.

    Even though I wasn’t particularly gifted at music, I still took the class right through to final year because it was my favourite. All through school I had people saying, “why are you taking music its a waste of time you won’t get a job at the end of it,” those classes have probably informed my teaching far more than any other class. But really I was just learning for the joy of it.

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