Erik Wahl: The Art of Vision for Educators

By Catherine Beck

#NAESP15 was in for a treat with the Opening General Session led by Erik Wahl. Graffiti artist, speed painter, motivational speaker and bestselling author Erik Wahl’s “The Art of Vision for Educators” left us gasping with wonder as we watched him create amazing paintings in sync with powerful music in under three minutes. He challenged us with the question, “At what point do we lose confidence in our artistic abilities? Where is the space of creativity and innovation for children in learning?” I wondered myself: “What I am doing, as a principal, to inspire creativity and innovation for not only my students but my staff as well?”

Wahl demonstrated the power of risk taking when an audience participant was chosen for a “Fear Factor” like task. We all silently thanked the heavens that we were not chosen, for images of eating live bugs or having to do an interpretive dance paraded across our very inhibited minds. Were we ever wrong when we watched the original participant delegate the task to a colleague only to watch her win the coveted painting of Bono and the original participant leave with an extra $100 bill. Reflecting I think I would have been happy to dance or eat anything unsavory in order to leave with one of Wahl’s paintings. Risk taking clearly paid off.

Wahl feels like the number one challenge in education is that we are losing our most talented teachers. He challenged us by saying, “We must reclaim these teachers! Engaged and affirmed teachers create engaged and affirmed children.” Once again, Wahl began painting an eagle to an emotionally charged song, “I’m Coming Home”, and there was not a dry eye in the room. Wahl encouraged us to take a second look at the science of reprogramming our teachers to look for ways to create the emotional connections needed to create safe places for our students to explore their creative sides. Breakthrough thinking only happens when an emotional connection is made.

Wahl discussed his failed business and how everything he had been taught about proficiency and success had failed him. He went on to speak about how he had been a rule follower and had not only stayed within the lines but thought inside the box. His self-worth was tied to his net worth. He had no problem solving skills and felt completely lost. Only at his lowest point did he return to his roots of art and begin painting again. His right side of his brain began to churn and he viewed life’s challenges as opportunities.

Wahl believes that breakthrough thinking has been misdiagnosed as either “you have it or you do not.” This is wrong. It is a practiced and disciplined skill that everyone has the ability to tap into. Practice not only the notes, but the spaces in between the notes, and the magic will be found. We are capable of so much more. Strive to broaden the spectrum in your life. Look for ways to be remarkable.

I am inspired! Let’s get out a box of crayons, the ones with 64 colors and a sharpener on the box. Let’s create. Let’s see every barrier that we are faced with as an opportunity. I want to break out of academics and value the outliers, the “outside the box thinkers, the ones that do not color inside the lines.” These are the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs. What am I doing to help them along their way? Maybe I just need to get out of their way and encourage them to find the space between the notes as that is where the true magic lies.

—Catherine Beck, Assistant Superintendent in Summit County School District, Colorado.

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Photos courtesy of Lifetouch Photographers.