College of Fine Arts

Michael Prater: More than Communicators

By Michael Prater, Associate Professor of Art
Winner of the 2003 College of Fine Arts Dean's Teaching Award


A teacher should be more than a communicator of information. I had this realization in a moment of dissatisfaction in a lecture class one summer in Kansas. I realized that anyone could stand up in front of a group of students and recite a lecture or a passage from a book. And I also realized that with practice, that same person could develop the ability to screen out the faces and personalities of their students until the task of communicating was complete. It is possible to be that kind of teacher, and it is, obviously, easier. But I draw a distinction here. I will not call such an automaton a teacher. A teacher is more than a communicator of information. A teacher must be more.

This must be true because each and every teacher occupies a position of social responsibility. What we teach becomes, at least to some degree, part of the social behaviors of our students. I value the arts in society, and I value art teachers in the schools who will help my children find a lifelong interest in the arts themselves. In a small-town high school in rural Texas, I saw how directly the time and effort I put into training my student teachers could affect the lives of children and even the attitudes and perceptions of an entire community.

Teachers must be more than just communicators. But what else should they be?

  • A teacher should be a scholar, identifying with a body of ideas and pursuing a deeper understanding of them in relation to the world.
  • A teacher should be a scientist, analyzing the structure and order of ideas to better understand their meaning to others.
  • A teacher should be an innovator, combining existing approaches and tools to create new ways for others to learn.
  • A teacher should be a psychologist, observing others to determine their needs and points of view, considering how they learn and why.
  • A teacher should be a guide, showing others those ideas and challenges that will best support their learning.
  • A teacher should be a mentor, offering support and advice to others as they learn.
  • A teacher should be a leader, giving direction to others in times of confusion so the process of learning does not stop.
  • A teacher should be a role model, providing others with a living example of someone dedicated to learning.
  • A teacher is a student, always seeking answers to questions old and new, viewing all their experiences as opportunities for learning.
  • And lastly, a teacher must be a human being, compassionate and ethical, understanding above all that to be human is to be curious despite the cost.

In the field of fine arts education, it is difficult to embody the ideal. And perhaps no one can. I only know that teachers must remind themselves constantly of the difference between what he or she is doing and what he or she could be doing. This is important because for some, the machinations of institutions can lead to conformity, and that conformity can result in mediocrity. In the end, what we do is far too important to allow our jobs to be defined as the simple communication of information.