Why Art Teachers Don’t Want to Be Called “Special”

There’s no doubt art educators are a special bunch. Some might even say we’re superhuman. When we combine our passion, ingenuity, and knowledge, we can inspire our students’ creativity to last a lifetime.

In short, we are kind of a big deal. The same thing goes for other “Specials” teachers. Music, physical education, and library and technology educators all belong on our superhero team. Together, we teach 21st-century skills and introduce concepts essential to student success.

The term “Specials” does not do our practice justice.

The name “Specials” has long been a prickly subject for art educators. Yes, we are special, but we don’t want to be called that. It confuses students and parents with the important and integral field of Special Education. It also suggests our content is optional or extra fluff.

Along with the other “Specials,” art teaches the essential and integral parts of being human. We emphasize healthy lifestyles and physical movement. We encourage curiosity in the world around us. We teach students how to express themselves. Moreover, we are helping prepare students for vocations and roles in technology that do not even exist yet by “thinking outside the box.”

Fortunately, the data is on our side as to why we should instead be considered “Essential.”

Physical Education

school gym

As for physical education, the need could not be more critical. The lack of exercise and healthy nutrition has led to an obesity crisis in The United States making it the number one health concern for children.

Obesity puts kids at a greater risk of serious illnesses, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and mental health issues like depression. According to The Centers for Disease Control, in the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.

Library

school library

The evidence is also clear that libraries help build healthy communities. Librarians do so much more than help students find and check out books to take home. According to the Brookings Institution, libraries and librarians contribute two particular strengths to advance a culture of health: accessibility and trustworthiness. In a culture where anything and everything can be found online, libraries are a safe place for everyone to find the real answers. Furthermore, school librarians are often asked to take on a wide range of duties, irreplaceable to the culture of the building.

Music

school music room

No one can argue against the importance of music education, either. Research shows, “A music-rich experience for children of singing, listening, and moving is bringing a very serious benefit to children as they progress into more formal learning.” It is especially helpful with language competence, brain development, and healthy emotional regulation. Standing as its own mode of communication, music, and the appreciation of anyone who creates it, is really a universal language.

Technology

school computer lab

Advancements in the field of technology have proven to be both a blessing and a curse for today’s students. Topics of coding, internet navigation, and old-fashioned typing graze the surface of responsibility for the classroom. Technology educators are presented with the daunting task of not only showing the possibilities and the personalization of learning but also navigating the ever-changing and perilous online world.

Art

school art room

Finally, as art teachers, we know the essential value of what we do. We could talk all day about why art education is not just “special,” it is fundamental. Without the creative connections afforded to today’s students through art education, we would have less motivated learners. Years of research show art is linked to almost everything we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

But, how do you get your school or district to stop using the title, “Specials,” and start using “Essentials” instead?

1. Make a plan and back it up with some evidence.

Write up a proposal and present it to your colleagues who teach on “Team Essentials.” Get them on board. Chances are they are tired of the title as well. It is almost like a little promotion, even if it is in the title.

2. Set a meeting with your administrator.

Present the plan. Building leadership will be impressed with your thoroughness, teamwork, and solution-oriented response. With them on your side, you will be able to expedite the “Essentials” title and proliferate it building-wide.

3. Replace the title, “Specials,” with “Essentials”—everywhere.

calendar with word "essentials" on it

Change it on school calendars, websites, newsletters, meeting agendas, E-mail signatures, etc. Share an email or letter to parents explaining the change and plan. Do a “find and replace” everywhere you can!

4. Use the word yourself and ask other teachers, administration, parents, and students to use it as well.

This can be a big frame shift as the term, “Specials,” is so ingrained in our brains. At the same time, try to be okay with other teachers never calling you an “Essential” and give yourself a break if you slip up.

No arguments here, you are essential in the lives of your students and what you do every day matters more than you may ever know. Changing your title from one thing to another can be a tall order. Yet, the more support and evidence you have on your side, the easier it will be. May you be encouraged to share and change this one small thing for the greater good of your vocation, your colleagues, and your students. Good luck!

How do you feel about the title, “Specials”?

What would prevent you from moving forward with a name change?

Megan Dehner is an elementary art teacher at a dual-language school in West Liberty, Iowa. She is passionate about the practice of creativity regardless of any talent or barrier.

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  • Thank you, Megan!
    This encouragement could not have come at a better time for me. I’m going to follow your recommended steps and get our name changed!
    Best,
    Leslie Banta

    • Megan

      Leslie, I hope it goes well! Good luck!

  • Jodi Youngman

    Or maybe we need to rethink how we react to it. I always looked at it as a compliment. I teach a special because I am a specialist-with specialized training in teaching art. I prefer being called an art specialist as opposed to an art teacher.

  • I love the title Essentials! I am going to start calling our team that in our school…I am tired of being considered “the coverer of planning time for real teachers…” Bring on the Essentials!

  • Brooke

    We’re called Related Arts and Sciences, which I like. It includes PE, library, and STEM nicely with art and music.

  • Laura Ornstein

    I hate being called a specialist for another reason not mentioned in your article. I might be wrong but I think the title specialist indicates that the specialist is not credentialed. This is a way of schools to hire people that they can pay less. Otherwise we would all be called teachers. I started out as a specialist or artist in residence and then went back to school to obtain my multiple credential because in California there is no such thing as an art teaching credential in elementary. I also obtained my single teaching credential in art, which is needed in California to teach in middle and high school. I really think it all boils down to money and not wanting to pay for a credentialed teacher on the elementary level. So being called specialist gets under my skin. I am glad that I am not the only one that feels it is degrading. I have a new title for those specialist that are teaching without their credential they can be called educator and those with credentials can be called teacher. Both are better in my opinion. What credentials do other states need to teach art? Thanks so much for your article. :)

    • Megan

      Laura – thank you for your comments and I am so glad you appreciated them! Every state seems to be different…I teach in Iowa where I have a K-12 Art license. In order to teach art at any level here a teacher needs such credentials. Know what you do is amazing!

  • Yvonne

    For a majority of my teaching career ( in Australia) we were referred to as “DOTT providers” ( Duties other than teaching – the title given to prep and plan time for staff here) which was very bellittling. I took on board the title and culture shift by advocating and discussing the issue with our Admin. It took about 3 years to change to specialists. All of our team are more highly qaulified than the majority of the classroom teachers…. but there are still some staff who have a distainful attitude (just last week I received a dressing down from a classroom teacher who felt we were ” less than” and had an easier job. It was painful. It takes a good deal of mental toughness to hold fast to your belief in what you do and its’ importance in the lives of the students. I don’t see us as lessor more than – there are 8 Primary Learning G Areas and 4 of us deliver half of the curriculum to the whole school. But we’ve had to practice great resilience. Things are better now, but it took a long time.

  • Carole Swiss-Petach

    Bravo, Megan! That word has always irritated me to NO end!. Essential is absolutely stunning and perfect. Kudos! I must spread this to the others in my district. 31 years here/elementary & 5 years in another district at HS level. Work to be done. Thank you so much. Carole Swiss-Petach, Plainfield Public School District, Plainfield, NJ
    [email protected]