Though they wield paint brushes, dance on stage and craft sculptures, local teachers of the arts say they can feel somewhat isolated from Chattanooga's vibrant arts scene.
So, to bring those teachers into the fold, the local nonprofit ArtsBuild took about 20 area teachers into the city's theaters, studios and galleries this week. They met with artists, heard about performance opportunities and learned the nuts and bolts of arts funding.
"These teachers are a part of our arts community, yet they are very isolated in their schools," said Rodney Van Valkenburg, director of grants and initiatives for ArtsBuild.
ArtsBuild rolled out a special version of its annual Holmberg Arts Leadership program designed especially for teachers, taking them to the Chattanooga Workspace, Hunter Museum of American Art and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, among other venues. And, after meeting artists, performers and heads of local arts agencies, many participants were blown away by the depth of Chattanooga's art culture.
"We had no idea how much was going on," said Soddy Elementary music teacher Ellen Leamon. "One would think that we would have known."
After rubbing shoulders with artists and art leaders, Leamon said she'll encourage parents and students to visit the area's arts destinations and even may bring her students to perform at some of the venues she visited.
Aside from networking, teachers left encouraged by the local enthusiasm for the arts.
In school, art classes sometimes are an afterthought, a supplement to more critical curriculum in math, reading and science. Though research often cites a link between the arts and overall student achievement, local arts teachers say their classes sometimes aren't taken seriously and their programs are often the first to get cut in tough budget cycles.
That can make music, art and dance teachers feel isolated even from other teachers within their own building. That's especially true at the elementary school level, said Karla Riddle, who oversees Hamilton County Schools' fine arts programs.
"People don't view them as real teachers," she said.
And though the city continues to build a reputation as an arts destination, Riddle points out that only about a quarter of the county's elementary schools have visual arts teachers. And those that do often are funded by parent groups or grants, not the school system. Those numbers surprised even some of the arts teachers this week.
If nothing else, they themselves may become louder advocates for the arts, said Karen Wilson, director of dance at the Chattanooga High Center for Creative Arts. Instead of the negative politicians or squeaky wheels getting all the attention, she said arts teachers need to be avid proponents of their own value.
"We as a group need to be as loud as those negative voices," Wilson said.
With crime, jobs, test scores and other pressing issues at the forefront of policymakers' minds, it's easy to see how arts could get short shrift, said Susanne Bowling, who runs an art academy at Chattanooga Christian School and volunteers as an art teacher at Calvin Donaldson Elementary.
After all, no one is dying from a lack of art, she said, though skills learned in art translate into other aspects of life, work and education.
"But at the same time, someone like me is saying they are dying," she said. "We're not going to have these creative people."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.