Docent Educator Logo

Art Teachers in Museums

Art teachers and art museums – – this seems like a marriage made in heaven. But the majority of art museum educators in the State of Virginia report that most of their school tours are not led by art teachers, and that art teachers make little use of other museum services such as studio classes, in-services, and professional development seminars. Because this seems to be the case in other states as well, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center conducted informal interviews and a written survey of art teachers from every school system in Virginia to find out what brings art teachers and their classes to museums and what keeps them away.

Typically, art teachers in lower grades have students an incredibly brief time each week. Some teachers see their students only 35 minutes weekly. In the 6-8th grades students have visual art instruction only a portion of the year, and some only have art in 6th grade. By the time students reach high school, they are pursuing educational goals that often do not leave room for art classes in their schedules. Students who do take art may still be in classes that are less than an hour in length, and teachers hardly have time to meet curriculum goals within the allowed time.

Other time constraints contribute to the challenges faced by art teachers. Many teachers have 7 or 8 classes per day and these may be spread among several schools, making it impossible to schedule field trips, buses, chaperones, and so forth. If a museum is far away and a teacher has only an hour to travel there, take a tour, and return to school, the logistics become prohibitive.

Money is the second biggest hurdle facing art teachers who would like to make use of museums. Art programs simply do not command the dollars that go to science classes, math, or other “hard” subjects. Money for buses, tour fees, and substitute teachers may be available for only one field trip per year, and some art programs have no funds allocated for this purpose at all.

Another discouraging factor may be a lack of cooperation by school administrators who still see art as a “nicety” rather than a core subject. Teachers report that their art supervisors are generally supportive, but that principals may often refuse permission for trips to the art museum or gallery. It is essential that museums target principals and assistant principals for advocacy efforts. Peninsula Fine Arts Center hosts an annual “Meet Your Principal Night” reception for public school administrators and art faculty. Each year, more administrators attend and enthusiasm is growing as teachers, docents, and museum staff tell principals about the value of art across the curriculum.

What makes teachers want to work through all the obstacles and bring their students to art museums? Of course, seeing original art is the main reason, but teachers have a wide variety of other rationales for coming. Many want to fulfill the goal of teaching aesthetic appreciation and to teach their students how to use and to feel comfortable within museums. Teachers want students to see and respect what others have created. Teachers want to reinforce concepts presented in class and are looking for examples of different styles and art mediums. Other reasons for visiting are: to expose students to the arts of other cultures; to expand the art curriculum; to view the history of art; and to reward good students. Only one teacher in the survey reported that her primary goal in visiting was to have students work on a specific assignment, but several mentioned requiring students to do sketching in the galleries.

Our survey indicates that teachers’ goals for museum visits are often vague and not clearly articulated beyond “having students see the products of other cultures” and the like. Teachers seem willing to leave the quality of the visit up to the insights and skills of docents. and only a few respondents report making pre-visits to help plan out a strategy for their tour. Nearly all the teachers report getting helpful information about exhibitions prior to their visits, but few seemed to make use of this information. Few took the time to contact docents prior to the tour, and equally few reported that docents had contacted them. Teachers arrive expecting docents to provide meaningful gallery activities, and docents are disappointed when the teachers have not adequately prepared their classes for the tour.

The single biggest teacher complaint about museum tours is that tours are not related to the curriculum. Given the reported lack of communication between docents and teachers, this is not surprising. Teachers also complain that tours were often not age-appropriate. The younger students were being given too many facts and information beyond their capacity, while high school students were being treated like children. Only two respondents state that docents appeared biased as to race, gender, or ethnicity, and teachers were unanimous in praising docents for being well-prepared and informative.

Given the impetus of decent training today, it was somewhat surprising to learn that only 50% of the art teachers said docents sometimes used the inquiry method of instruction! Many teachers report that inquiry based tours that have some hands-on component were the best thing about visiting a particular institution. The value of the inquiry method is unquestioned by art teachers.

About 3/4 of our sample state that they prefer to have a docent-led tour. Those who prefer to lead tours themselves state that docents simply cannot relate the art to the curriculum like a teacher could. Some teachers have very definite ideas about tour content and visit only museums that allow teachers to lead their own tours. Some museums mentioned in the survey provide special training sessions for teachers and then allow teacher-led groups to tour at no charge. For the majority of teachers, however, docents are regarded as colleagues and experts.

When asked how they might change museum tours, teachers all emphasized their problems with time and money. They need help finding the funds to make a tour possible. They need to be able to bring large groups, since combining classes can give them more time away from school and can justify the use of a bus. Many teachers are requesting longer tours, and one hour seems to be the most popular length. Teachers want docents to make tours more age-appropriate and connected to what is going on in the classroom. Docents and teachers need to communicate before a tour, and most teachers request that docents call them. Interactive and inquiry based tours are most in demand. Also, teachers want docents to use art terms correctly and to help give students an art vocabulary.

About 1/4 of the teachers complain that docents are too formal, too stiff in manner, or too strict. Most teachers reported being happy with the pace of the tours, but a significant number remarked that tours were too slow and docents spent too much time “‘mining” a single object.

When asked what teachers want from their museum visit, many replied that they wanted someone to do all the planning for them, create gallery assignments, and offer options for classroom follow-up lessons. Many more reported wanting more control over their tours. The great majority requested inquiry based tours and imagination-engaging activities. Expansion of their own and students’ awareness was high on their list, and the opportunity to see arts of other cultures was also very important.

Teachers were asked what types of exhibitions are most helpful to them. Multicultural themes top the list. Contemporary art is also important, as are exhibitions that show a wide range of methods and materials. Curriculum-related themes most requested were American art, 20di Century art, African art, and Latin American art.

What keeps teachers out of museums besides time and money constraints? Guards and docents who discourage exploration, bad experiences with docents, unfriendly encounters with receptionists or tour coordinators, and the inability to find chaperones. About 1/4 of the art teachers were concerned with student behavior, citing a lack of self control. Since art teachers have students for shorter times than most regular classroom teachers, they do not have the same opportunities to establish control with groups.

When asked what they would most like museums to offer in the way of other services, nearly all the teachers requested outreach programs that would bring original art into the classroom. Peninsula Fine Arts Center, the Virginia Beach Center for the Arts, and Young Audiences of Virginia are currently collaborating to make two small traveling exhibitions of original art available for loan to schools. A docent can accompany the exhibition and an educational packet outlining how to conduct a whole-language tour of the objects is included. Teachers also want help with the studio portion of the curriculum, both in terms of having museums send out an artist-in-residence to the schools and for studio classes that teachers can take. Several teachers wished that museums would reach out directly to principals and school board members on a regular basis.

Art teachers report feeling overwhelmed by the demands of teaching studio skills, art history, aesthetics, and criticism. They do not have time to plan museum tours, and they seem unaware that museums can be perfect partners in teaching, especially in those areas of aesthetics and criticism. Art teachers may require more effort than it takes to reach teachers in other disciplines.

Better communication between museums and teachers might begin by using established channels such as the National Art Education Association and its state branches. At the most basic level, docents and teachers need to talk and plan tours together. Having teacher advisory panels can help create curriculum related tours and ensure age-appropriate gallery experiences. Bringing art teachers and their students to art museums may take a special and perhaps unanticipated amount of energy, but enhancing this partnership is a powerful way to influence the future of art in our culture.

Ellen J. Henry is a museum education consultant. Formerly, the Education Director for The Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Virginia, and the museum ‘s representative to the State of Virginia Fine Arts Leadership Coalition, Ms. Henry authored the article, “Skeptical Visitors in the Art Museum, ” which appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of The Docent Educator.

Henry, Ellen J. “Art Teachers in Museums,” The Docent Educator 5.2 (Winter 1995-96): 5-7.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *