Waiting for the Art Teacher

Has art been replaced by standardized tests?

When Joe Nyiri graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1959, he began following his personal passion by teaching art with the Madison Elementary School District.

At that time, every single student within the district received a minimum of one hour of art per week. In 1962, Joe moved to San Diego, and began his long career with San Diego Unified School District, while building his reputation as a brilliantly creative contemporary artist.

Joe was teaching high school when he retired in 1995, having provided art instruction for over 250 thousand students from every grade level. By that time, art was on the decline within all schools, but the most severe cuts were seen at the elementary level.

Over the years, Joe’s no-nonsense devotion to teaching his craft has gained him rock-star status among his students, with many of his alumni continuing to correspond regularly, reminding him of the inspirational role that he has played in their lives.

Joe knows as well as anyone the vital role that creative instruction plays in the personal, emotional and intellectual development of students, and has had a frightening front row perspective as art has been marginalized and eliminated in most public schools.

Joe Nyiri shares his lifetime love of art with his grateful students at the San Diego Zoo.


How did it get this bad?

Our nation’s test obsession is making American schools into unhappy places.

- Saturday Evening Post


The most common excuse given for the elimination of the arts is the perennial “tight budget”. This old rhetoric is a mere deflection from the true issue of misplaced priorities, and it is the classroom teachers who are the first to acknowledge the absurdity and unfairness of non-stop testing cycles at the expense of art and other enrichment activities.

It is through art and creative exercise that we process and apply the knowledge that we gain from all subjects, and it is with great urgency that this contribution be acknowledged and respected… and that art assumes its rightful role as essential to the central curriculum.


The waiting game

Art instruction is traditionally the sole province of the art teacher, and in most cases when the budget is tight, they are the first to go. Tragically, this often leads to a lengthy or permanent abandonment of the arts, and an erosion of morale, as students find themselves waiting for the art teacher who never comes.


The Rainforest goes to Sacramento

Last month, a team from the Rainforest Art Project went to Sacramento to meet with a group of superintendents from Northern California, and Sarah Anderberg, the Director of the California County Superintendents Association (CCESSA), Statewide Arts Initiative. We were greatly uplifted by their dedication to arts for every child at every grade level, as presented in their mission statement.

CCESSA believes that the visual and performing arts are an integral part of a comprehensive curriculum and are essential for learning in the 21st century. All California students—from every culture, geographic region and socio-economic level—deserve quality arts learning in

dance, music, theatre, and visual/media arts as part of the core curriculum.



One hour per week

The Rainforest Art Project is working with school administrators and teachers with the objective of one hour of art per week for every student. Although this does not sound like much, it provides a consistent minimum threshold, and is far more than the majority of students now receive.

With the proper support, this is a one-hundred percent attainable goal for every school, even with the most minimal budgets. The deep concern of teachers for the success of their students goes far beyond the all-important test scores, and it is these teachers who are the most enthusiastic when provided with the proper tools and supplies that enable them to include the arts within their curriculum.

For the past fifty years, Joe Nyiri has spent his weekends teaching his exceptional brand of art at the San Diego Zoo. Twenty years after his formal retirement from teaching, he continues to provide healing art classes for victims of childhood cancer with the Rainforest Art Project. His vast experience has taught him that every child needs art on a consistent basis throughout their education, and Joe understands more clearly than just about anyone that we cannot continue waiting for the art teacher, and that the responsibility for keeping the arts alive in our schools ultimately lies in the hands of every single classroom teacher.

Rainforest Art Students find joy in their marvelous creations as they are guided through their projects by revered art instructor, Joe Nyiri.

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