Monday, May 20, 2013

Climbing Out Of The Public School Dumpster

Imagine an alternate universe. A place where kids that are good at computation and reading skills are cute but are good for "elective classes" taking a back seat to the required art, drama, and music classes. Imagine getting in trouble for bringing home failing grades in drawing 1 and Choir but pointing out that you did well in math as a consolation. Imagine not getting into the college of your choice because your SAT or ACT scores were low in art. Imagine the disappointment on your teacher's face when you turned in bad drawings. How would you feel if you were told that your future earnings depended on how well you did in art classes? That your value to society was based on how well you could paint a portrait?


Isn't this what we're doing in public school? We only count the grades on a few subjects like English, math, and science and focus on the same skills for standardized tests. Being good at visual skills like painting but not being rewarded for it in school made me feel alienated from auditory learners. Of course I didn't know the difference between auditory, visual, and kenesthetic learners back then but I remember the feelings of knowing I didn't have the right stuff: unwanted, unworthy, inadequate, dumb, stupid, valueless, low, under achiever, disabled, incapable, and invisible.

I've worked for numerous fortune 500 companies, Illustrated 2 games for Hasbro, big publishers like Random House & Simon Schuster, hundreds of consumer magazines, been included in the Society of Illustrators, taught high school art, teach at two Universities, published ebooks and apps, started my own online video tutorial company, an online live class, and become an avid blogger. So my question is this: How can someone who regularly received below 2.0 GPA's in Jr high and high school achieve as much as I have in the past 20 years? According to my schools I was a failure - even though I was regularly cranking out artwork and excelling at playing the Cello.

I've been told by some that the reason I did so poorly in public school is that I was lazy. I can assure you I have never been lazy. Uninspired? -guilty. Bored? -guilty. -but never lazy.


I write about this on my blog because I feel that this is an issue we must come to terms with if we are ever going to truly support artists. I write about this to continue my healing process and to hopefully help those who find themselves in the same situation I was in - unwanted. Our current system selects for a few skills (reading & math) while discarding everyone else.

Everything we aspire to buy or experience like cars, phones, and movies has a creative component yet we do not teach creativity in school. The Washington Post reports that 54% of young people want to start a business yet we teach no entrepreneurial skills in public school. To become a master at anything we must fail over and over to improve yet our public schools do not embrace a failing forward approach - rewarding those who memorize the right answers.

I think of the poor souls like me who might have turned to substances or other means of coping with the feelings of their perceived inadequacies. I'm one of the lucky ones because I had parents who supported my desires to pursue illustration. I'm lucky because they had the means to send me to school. I'm lucky because I happened to attend a university with a great illustration program. I'm lucky because I married a woman who supported my crazy dream to become an illustrator. I'm lucky because every one of the 2,000 plus commissions I've received over the years has been a pat on the back.

I write this for my son Aaron - who's self portrait was graded with a BIG red "F" by his 4th grade teacher 9 years ago - all because he drew extra personality traits into his picture...because he didn't want his art to look like everyone Else's - apparently he understood art much better than his teacher.


Some have questioned my sanity in criticizing the very system that employs teachers and librarians who make up a large portion of my children's book audience. That I might be black listed for school visits - a substantial boost to author/illustrator incomes and book promotion.  (Isn't it ironic that the very people I feared in school have become a large portion of my audience?) Am I really going to bite the hand that feeds me? If you abuse a dog and it bites you back should you get mad at the dog or realize your mistake and change?


I could sit back and keep my mouth shut in hopes of earning extra income provided by the very system that ignored me -OR- I could do what I feel is right and speak up for the innocent children we feed to that machine every year. I've met parents with kids just like me who ask, "what should I do with my child who just wants to draw?" Should I turn my back on them in hopes of booking more school visits? I tell them to celebrate those passions that their children exhibit! Help nurture those skills and understand that the world may one day value their contributions much higher than the school system is allowed to for the moment.

I love presenting in schools because I feel that I might actually be able to make a difference in some of the budding artists in the crowd. My feelings towards the broken system do not prevent me from working within it's framework - just like many of the committed teachers who get up every day trying to make a difference in spite of having to teach in handcuffs. I hope anyone reading this will understand that I'm passionate about illustrating children's books, teaching, and helping people realize their potential in unlocking their talents and inspiring them to work hard to achieve their dreams.

If you don't have any idea what I'm talking about there are many great discussions online: Check out Ken Robinson and what Seth Godin has to say about this topic.

41 comments:

  1. And on the other hand all the others are often envious of the ones who can draw, they are someone special with special talent.

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    1. I have respect for you and your comment, but I disagree, I really think we are all born mavericks and creative and we can draw, I think along the way someone was told they couldnt draw, and then the interest stops, and the idea that they "cant draw" starts, that becomes their definition. I think anyone who is good at what they do has found their passion and spent many hours pursuing the nuts and bolts, it is initially God given, being the interest, but the job of being really great is the pursuit, and their is our Will Terry, thanks for teaching, and sharing.

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  2. Hhhhmmm, obviously I went through a very different education system here in the UK and I really feel for you in having such a bad experience. The thing is that finding core subjects difficult is not something that goes hand in glove with being good at art or music; otherwise how would students in the UK meet the academic requirements to get on an Art Degree Course?

    I very much doubt that you are bad at reading, writing and arithmetics it just sounds as though you were not taught in a way that allowed you to excel. If you don't have a natural love of a subject and then your teacher approaches it in a way that makes you feel excluded, naturally you will fall behind and blame yourself, this will cause you to doubt yourself for years to come and assume it is your own fault, that you are somehow stupid, lazy, all the negatives we throw at ourselves.

    If those teachers had used multiple teaching styles that regularly allowed you to feel top of the class (or at least GOOD at) those self same subjects, then that success would have engaged your mind and boosted your confidence. Confidence would help you to learn faster! You definitely were failed by your school but it wasn't because they didn't bias lessons toward Art subjects it was because they did not teach the core ones well enough.

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    1. Yve, you are right - "core" subjects like English and math are very important but not at the expense of art - which is how it is currently administered here in the states.

      My reading and writing skills were gained well after high school. When I found my passion in illustration I began writing on an illustration chat board. My wife was mortified at my writing in the early 90's. She made me promise not to post anything without her proof reading it first. She didn't belittle me but I could tell she was tempted - I couldn't stay on topic or write a complete sentence and my vocabulary was very limited. Over years of contributing to the chat board and her private lessons I learned to write. Now I'm allowed to blog on my own :)

      This is one of the problems with public school - there isn't time to engage students to find what they're passionate about.

      "If those teachers had used multiple teaching styles..." Yes - absolutely - this was the point I was trying to get across - perhaps I wasn't clear enough.

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  3. I'm convinced that the public school, on a level above the teachers, invests little into the children. Their systems are designed to make learning difficult (boring and unnecessarily complicated) and in turn the children exhibit learning deficits that ensure the school more public funding. Where we live problem children=New Lexus for the principal.

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  4. Also would you add a follow by email widget I'd like to have your new posts delivered to my inbox

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    1. Same here! And suggest trying out different contrast formats in your blog - when I read a long post like this, I have a lot of fuzziness going on when I look away - white text on black could be the cause, dunno.

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    2. Thank you guys - I'll try to add that widget...I use black background because I think it displays artwork the best...I know it's not as good for reading though...

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  5. I think we as a culture have decided art is a hobby, not a profession, and treat it accordingly. We are also very judgmental. How many times have you been discouraged by someone in authority for lacking intelligence...talent...insert whatever here? I learned a valuable lesson in college. I struggled the first two years on all levels. For part of my junior year, I studied in Oxford. I did not set the place on fire, BUT THE TUTORS HELPED ME without being judgmental. They took me where I was and helped me go forward. As a result, I sailed through my senior year. All because somebody thought I was worth the bother. Worth teaching.

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    1. That's a great story Kate - it proves that with the right care any student can learn...too bad our Public school teachers aren't given enough time to help students individually as much as kids need it....and you're right about our society being judgmental - I think it's a way for a lot of people to feel better about themselves.

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  7. I understand your frustration Will, as a teacher I was as frustrated as you. I thought kids' education should be well rounded, and gave kids in my English classes that loved to draw the opportunity to succeed by drawing instead of writing. Probably why I couldn't keep a job I thought it was more important for kids to love learning than to do well on a standardized test. I no longer teach and focus all of my attention on my art. Maybe someday the people in charge will understand how important creativity is to learning.

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    1. Yes! - My wife would come home from her special ed teaching position totally frustrated that the paperwork kept her from being an effective teacher! She started spending less time on the paperwork so she could spend more time helping the kids - the parents and kids loved her - her principal was getting more and more frustrated with her for not following the rules! What a joke our system is!

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  8. I agree entirely will. You have underlined the irony of our public schools. Memorizing a periodic table may get you an "A" on a test but without some creativity you'll never do anything with the knowledge. Grammar may be great but the masters of our language are the creative individuals who step out of the box and make something beautiful out of the words. We need the Arts to foster creativity and teach kids how to learn by taking leaps and sometimes failing. Knowledge is good but it takes more to move a society forward.

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  9. Well said. Thank you for all you do Will. Really.

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  10. Powerful post, Will. I'm right with you. I'd also like to see art actually taught, and not just allowed - to many of my former art teachers did not show me how, just let me loose. I tried teaching art in an elementary school, and it didn't work out when the directors decided I fostered too much creativity. I follow Sir Ken, and am so grateful that you both speak out like you do!

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    1. Thank you Julie! Yes - art in school would solve so many more problems!

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  12. Right on, Will! I had a similar experience, except my parents bought into the public school mantra. Thanks you for your honesty.

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    1. Hey Brad - glad to hear I wasn't alone...one of the saddest things is that as a kid you don't know enough to realize it's them not you - and when you get older there usually isn't much incentive to talk about it - thank you for sharing!

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  13. There are so many good teachers. There are quite a few "bad" ones. And every once in a while, there are great ones... Will this resonates on lots of levels. I was one of the lucky ones and excelled at a lot of subjects, but did horribly on the social level. I look back now and realize I was different, younger, and hampered (I really didn't have much freedom to explore and in my family if someone screwed up, like a silly brother, I had to give up what I loved to make sure he was on the straight and narrow. A thankless, warped job, but that's another story (and the way of a lot of old time ethnics)...

    Anyhow that being said, part of the problem is NCLB has now become ingrained and the ideas have taken root a long time before that. In order to make sure is our kids learning we test the bedogsnot out of them. Which means teachers are now trained to give good curriculum in the eyes of the system's machinations. And unfortunately most creativity, individuality is squelched out to be replaced by conformity and rote. Sad that, because how does that breed happiness?

    Truly, the biggest question I've asked for the last thirty years, is what are we actually teaching children and whether it's effective. To me, we should be teaching them the love of learning and feeding each others creativity and love of this planet. I see a vast wasteland of ignorance, and partially because so much of this is specialized. You really don't want to get me started. I think you're a great start, though. You are not only a wonderful artist, but a great teacher (and believe me, those are often mutually exclusive). I also think as an artist, writer, whatever medium you work in, staying close to all those old insecurities and fears, provides your audience and whom you are meant to help. I have precious little doubt you have, and will continue to do so, and be a part of the solution.

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    1. I'm so glad that so many people GET IT - like you Agy...as we grow in numbers there will be more chance of making significant changes.

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  14. No one can teach what they do not know... you're a great artist and sharing that with children teaches them from the hand of an artists and that is as good as learning art will ever get... thank you for getting involved...

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    1. That's a good point Sharon - I think we'll have more online lectures in the future from teachers who are passionate and capable and inspirational - then kids will be able to get personal help with the material at school.

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  15. So true! I think it´s great that you talk about it on you´re blog!

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  16. Sorry to hear of your experience in school, Will. And I'm even more sorry to hear of your son's experience..that just makes me angry! Our girls are in public schools here in CA and have had art and music wash away throughout their time at elementary school. We continue to supplement with lessons after school, and of course art at home. Some teachers "get it" and try to inject some art within their curriculum, but alas with STAR testing and benchmark tests, the teachers' bandwidths are shrinking and unfortunately art and music are the first to go. It really is very disheartening that we're experiencing this still to this day while we live in a state known for it's artistic achievements (movie and animation industries). Awesome that you continue to do school visits. Whether you promote the importance of art or not, I think it's great that the children are exposed to your successful career in the arts and that YES you can make a living doing what you love, if you work hard at making it happen. Great post, Will. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  17. Thank you Shirley - you nailed the problem...it's such a shame that we don't allow our teachers to do what they are dying to do! TEACH! It has to stop - it will stop eventually - it cannot sustain itself...just don't know how long we'll have to endure it.

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  18. Have you heard of Art Integration? I just stumbled on it last week but it looks like a move in the right direction to including the arts in a serious way. The idea is to use a crossover method of teaching pulling creative thinking into the core subjects with the help of the arts and art teachers. Its an interesting idea and seems to be exceptionally effective. If you google Arts Integration you'll find some great resources on the idea.

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    1. Yes, I've heard of it and I hope it grows to become more mainstream in the coming years!

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  19. I remember wanting to draw and paint all the time when I was a kid, but my stepmother decided that art was a waste of time and I should find something better to do. I would get yelled at for spending my time doing that rather than something more practical. I had one teacher in junior high that fostered the art bug in her students and I absolutely loved her. she made me feel good about what I created and made me want to make more. On to high school and my first oil painting class. the teacher wanted everything just so and actually came and took my brush out of my hand and "fixed" my painting for me. I was crushed. I liked mine better and her "fixes" ruined MY work. I think after that I felt defeated. I put down my brushes and stopped creating. It wasn't until I hit about 38 I picked up a pencil or paintbrush and did it for me. I have a degree in graphic design so I had some basic art classes, but no real focus on it. when I finally did pick up the brushes again, I was in heaven. I wasn't very good, but I got a ton of practice time in after my kids went to bed and I got better and developed my own style. My kids go to a charter school that focuses on classical education (including the arts--yay!) and each term they have "enrichment" classes that allow the kids to choose an area that they are interested in (some of the classes include Grossology, robotics, computer animation, strategy, etc) and when the teachers found out I was an artist, they asked if I would volunteer to help and/or teach the art classes. Oh my gosh. I was in heaven (I think I may have missed my calling). Anyway---in one of the classes I taught, I wanted the kids to do a self portrait, but I wanted an abstract portrait. I told them that I wanted them to think about who they are, how they feel, how they relate to the world, who they want to be, etc. And I didn't want to see just a pretty face on the paper. I knew it might be a quite a bit above 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade level, but I wanted to try it anyway. I told them that there was no right and no wrong. if they were angry, they could use red and black to create angry lines. If they were sad or in a dark period in their lives, they could use that and express themselves on the page. There were 2 4th grade girls that, during the sketch phase, came up with amazing ideas. One specifically, had experienced a great deal of loss. Her father had died about 6 months prior, her uncle had died the week before and she had a little brother dying in the hospital. What she had sketched out was a face that was broken into 4 pieces and had tears. She had nailed what I was looking for. I told her that I loved it and could not wait to see it, that she had the perfect example of what I was looking for, because it was her. Well, the next week, she came back to class and her self portrait was no more. She decided she wanted to paint a pretty princess. While I never got an explanation other than she had changed her mind, I wondered if her beautiful self portrait had gotten the cleansing that my work so often did. I wondered if her honesty scared her parents and they told her that wasn't art. I have heard similar things many times from friends and strangers. I think that too often beautiful and honest work gets dismissed because it does not fit the preconceived ideas of what art is. My parents LOVE Thomas Kinkade, but do not understand the darker stuff that I do (stuff that makes me angry--human trafficking, abuse, etc--often has a place in my art). They just want their world to be pretty. I want to tell someone's story. I think that parents and teachers are both guilty of taking art and putting the appropriate stuff into a little box and there just isn't a whole lot of room in there. they do an incredible disservice to kids by saying what they do has to fit into that little box and if it doesn't, well it is not worthy of someone's gaze and/or admiration and therefore has no value.

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    1. Thank you for sharing - it means a lot to me and I can tell it means a lot to you. We have such a sacred responsibility to our little ones and I'm not sure we're living up to the opportunity they are.

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  20. I can relate, Will. I am going back (at 30 years old) and reading classics that my "average" literature classes didn't think I could handle. My test scores put me into average and below average classes where not much was expected of us. Teacher taught from the text book. I feel jipped a bit literature-wise and am playing some catch-up.

    I also have a heart for art students in high school and college. No one knew what to do with me really. Art careers are not usually linear, (go to college, land an art job). At least in my case, there has been plenty of stumbling around, trying to find my place and make an income to support life. I am conditioned now to think I have to be 2 people- one that makes money and one that can dream and create. As you can tell, I'm healing too!

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    1. It's funny how getting older and a better perspective can change your values - I'm glad you're finding what you want and healing!

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  21. Two things:
    1.) Trying to teach so many kids at one time demands a "one size fits all" system. There's no way a teacher with more than 4 or 5 students can teach the same lesson in all the different learning styles. So we concentrate on one and the rest are labeled as "slow".
    2.) Public school is, unfortunately, more about fund raising than teaching. I've seen at least a couple of posts knocking NCLB and while I know that's popular these days and I would agree it's not all good- the program was not intentended to work the way schools are using it. Instead of teaching the kids as well as you can and then seeing where you stand (and receiving the funding) based upon the testing, virtually every school is teaching the test. Our local school district now only "teaches" 3/4 of the year with a full 1/4 of the year devoted to drilling the kids on how to take the test to help their funding. This was not the intention of the program.
    Finally, there are various kinds of genius. My son just graduated with honors with a mechanical engineering degree. Numbers are a piece of cake for him while my daughter struggles with math and science. However, she plays (and teaches) the violin, taught herself the guitar and tin whistle, and excels at voice. She not only reads music but thoroughly understands music theory and is poised to receive a music scholarship after she graduates next May.
    My daughter often feels less intelligent than my son because she's not a math and science wiz but I tell her there's different kinds of "smart". She's trying to gain an academic scholarship via her ACT (high of 25 so far) but there's absolutely no mechanism for measuring her "intelligence" within the ACT.
    Until we realize this our public schools are doomed. A few will excel, a bunch will just get by and too many will be left behind.
    The entire philosophy and system needs to be changed.
    Great article Will, thanks.

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    1. Great insights! Thank you for sharing - your daughter scored much higher than I did at the ACT...I love how you can have two children that are miles apart academically and both are highly intelligent. I wish every family could experience this - we would probably change the system faster!

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  22. Watch the documentary, The War Against Children." There are a number of educators in it like you who speak out about the imperfections of school, wanting things to improve. Thank heaven that we have teachers like you, who notice reality, think outside the box, & have the courage to say/do something about it -- giving so much of yourself to others in so many ways. :)

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  23. I quoted the documentary wrong. It's called "The War on Kids." Here is a really good part of it on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6WXl2kAG7Q

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  24. What if our education system tried to create the most knowledgeably diverse population as possible instead of the most knowledgeably homogeneous as possible?

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