Lisa Gillett Teaching the things that defy testing



Growing up, I had a lot of anxiety about school. In elementary school, I had early morning stomach aches and a package of Rolaids in my back pocket at all times. I would pop a chalky tablet before P.E. and pray to the gym gods that I could climb to the top of the rope or break the chin-up record for Stockbridge Plain School. I never did either. One single chin-up was never in the cards for me. I did however execute an exquisite scissor-kick over the lowest level of the high jump.

The one place that didn’t make me anxious was the art room. You couldn’t get picked last for a team, no one told you that you ran like their grandmother, and nobody yelled, "No" in what seemed like slow motion when you managed to let the volleyball drop on the floor in front of you. Volleyball, especially serving, made me especially nervous and required two Rolaids. Oh, but the art room -- in the art room I could just be. My mood and motivation were driven by the materials, not by competitiveness.


Joan Erikson, who started the Austen Riggs Center’s Activities Department, wrote in her book, "Wisdom and the Senses: The Way to Creativity": "When materials teach us they do so silently -- without praise or blame. Quietly and with utmost integrity, they abide by the lawfulness of their own nature, responding to the touch and skill of the hands. Unlike the most even-tempered, well-disposed human teacher they do not get upset, or angry or even indignant. They do not have an agenda."

I was blessed with two wonderful art teachers in elementary school and high school, Richard Weber and Primm Ffrench who understood what Joan Erikson meant. They always beamed when students walked into the room. Under their tutelage, no one ever felt inadequate. It is clear to me not that they taught from their hearts, and they loved their jobs,

Nel Noddings, an educator and philosopher best known for her work in philosophy of education, educational theory, and ethics of care, believes, "The main goal of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people." I was much more lovable in the art room than I was on a volleyball team. Mr. Weber and Mrs. Ffrench did indeed make me more competent and caring, and probably more loving, as a result of time and interest they took in me, so much so that I became an art teacher myself.

For the past 12 years, I have taught art at Albuquerque High School. In New Mexico, as in many other states, students are being over-tested and the teachers are being unfairly evaluated. For my students, I will scissor-kick my way through the bureaucratic hoops and I will shimmy up the red tape. I don’t care what score I get on my evaluation (well, maybe I do a little), but I do care about the safety and well-being of the young people in my classes. I strive to foster values and skills that can’t be tested on the PARCC or on the End of Course Exams.

The Core Curriculum standards were created "to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live." But students do not get tested on respect, creative problem-solving, sense of humor, confidence, active play, forgiveness, acceptance, risk taking and self-discovery -- which are also necessary to succeed in college, career and life, regardless of where they live.


The most critical thing that I learned in school from my wonderful teachers is to live a life filled with gratitude and compassion. In "Teaching Themes of Care," Noddings states "We should want more from our educational efforts than adequate academic achievement, and we will not achieve even that meager success unless our children believe that they themselves are cared for and learn to care for others."

My students are not test scores, and my colleagues and my teaching abilities are not the extraneous numbers we receive on a faulty evaluation system. Whatever the New Mexico secretary of education designate thinks of us, whatever information is gleaned from our evaluations, will not reflect who we really are as educators and what really happens in our classrooms.

I am proud to be carrying on the legacy of my art teachers and inspiring others to give back their communities in positive ways. I will continue to honor them in my teaching and my life, and feel gratitude for all the ways they nurtured and inspired me.

Lisa Gillett is the daughter of regular Eagle contributor Michelle Gillett.


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