It’s that time of year again..you know, when we are called to pause, gather, eat, maybe watch a little football or do some crafts and..give thanks. Pausing to think of everything we have to be thankful for is actually energizing. Pausing to think of everything we wish we had drains our creative energy. Pausing to think of how the little we have towers above what some have and are thankful for produces humility. Giving to others in need without regard to ourselves is powerful. This kind of giving includes time, money and talents. We do this everyday when we enter our art classroom. We are giving and most of the time, not expecting much in return. We are seeking out better ways to reach troubled students. We are cleaning out palettes and sorting markers long after most of the other teachers have gone home. We have little time, sometimes, for our own art making, but when we, as Einstein put it, “awaken the joy in creative expression and knowledge,” in the hearts and minds of those we teach, perhaps that is the best reason of all to give thanks.
I just returned from my state art education conference where I presented a lesson to my peers on how to use a Styrofoam head in the art classroom. Participants received a head and I brought all kinds of materials they could use to embellish it. I showed them how I used the heads, but gave very little instruction, except how to use the materials. In other words..I let them play. They didn’t want to leave, so I pulled some strings and extended their time. They walked away smiling and refreshed. They needed it. I did too. Before they left, I gave them a little clay medallion that I had made with a face embossed on it along with the word, “ART.” I told them to keep it nearby always to remember to, “keep their heads up.” No matter how tough your day is going or has been, keep a little reminder nearby..a pretty stone..a handmade something..that you can touch to remember that in spite of the dirty sinks, piles of paperwork, classroom management issues, etc., you have a job where your“office” is a studio filled with your favorite things. Inspire those little ones who come to “play,” and you have had a successful day. Keep your heads up!
We can get busy. Sometimes we can get too busy. In the heat of a busy, fun, exciting, wonderful day occasionally we make a promise..which we forget..which our students do not forget. It might be something random, like, “Yes, I promise to bring my banjo to Art tomorrow.” Then like a paper airplane icon on the laptop it flies right out of our mind. Promises are important to children. If we did a survey, we might discover that promises are the most important thing to children. A promise could be evidence to a child that they are loved. It is definitely reassurance when fulfilled. Children need promises, but they also need to see follow-through. It gives them a sense of security and stability in a world that is sometimes shaky and definitely ever-changing. Be careful about making promises you can’t keep. Children are handed enough of those throughout a lifetime. Let your promise be something simple and do whatever it takes to fulfill it..even if it means letting a 6th grade student misspell it on your hand in black marker.
Sometimes the lesson turns out better than you expected. Sometimes it happens to be the day of evaluations. Sometimes you actually witness an artistic awakening in the eyes of a child. Sometimes you get recognized with all of the “real” teachers. Sometimes you get recognized with all of the "real" artists. Sometimes someone thanks you for helping her with her bulletin board. Sometimes the teacher down the hall brings your scissors back. Sometimes you get a nice note from a parent. Sometimes you get an amazing note from a student. Sometimes it just says, “I love ART!” Sometimes that’s enough. If you’ve had a bummed day, don’t forget that good things happen too. Be the one who writes a happy note to a fellow teacher. Sometimes you can be a rainbow.
So..how are you? Read any good books lately? What are your plans for this weekend? How’s that painting coming? Remember that blog you were going to start? How’s that going? Didn’t you say you were thinking of picking up the banjo? Isn’t this the third time your friend has called to get you to go with her to that improv theatre? No time? Too exhausted? What’s the use? If you feel like you are closing in on burnout, or if you have already arrived, stop to consider what you are doing for yourself that is fun and unrelated to teaching. All kinds of studies show that Play can actually recharge your brain and fight off the stress factors that are driving you to the brink of giving up. We can complain all day about mounds of mindless paperwork, and unfair policies, but at some point, we need to accept it and move onto something we can actually change. Ourselves. Focus on taking care of yourself, not just the physical self, but also the emotional self. Build in time to treat yourself to something fun. It will refresh your soul, recharge your brain and revitalize your teaching.
I recently heard a song by the recording artist, Plumb titled, “Exhale.” The first few lines say, It’s okay not to be okay. This is a safe place. I thought about how very much we need to communicate to our students and to ourselves that our art space is a “safe place.” Even if you never taught them anything else, let them feel that your art room is the place they can come to be themselves. If they feel that kind of security in the art room, you will probably begin to see it evidenced in their artwork. Create lessons that leave room for self-expression. Build time into your lesson for students to think about universal themes. Show them art that you didn’t learn about growing up from artists whose names are still not widely known. Maybe they’ll find a connection. Then watch them thinking and creating. Soak it in. Take a deep breath and exhale. Well done, art teacher.
I have never met an art teacher who said that they had adequate storage space in their art room. This is quite possibly because we like to “collect” things for lessons we might do…someday. We also like to “collect” supplies, books, posters, tchotchkes, freebies, cardboard, buckets and the list goes on. After all, the art teacher with the most toys..wins? Not! We need to support each other along this journey. Evaluate what you have, what you are actively using, and what you can actually part with by starting with duplicates. Then seek out other art teachers in your community who might need what you have due to a lack of funding or because of a new position. Check with your administration to be sure it’s okay for you to dispose of it. Post it on social media. Be willing to deliver it if possible. Or, set up a trade fair at your school or at your state conference and swap art stuff. Due to budget cuts in the arts that continue at an alarming rate, there is even more reason for us to share the love!
As a veteran teacher, I can think of no single factor that has inspired me more than my relationships with other art teachers. Not only do I glean ideas from them, but I find among them..among you..a group who understands my passion. I remember the first National Art Education Association Conference that I attended. I knew no one there, and yet it didn’t take long to find out that I actually knew them all too well. We lived hundreds of miles apart, but in some cases, it even looked like we shopped together. It was easy to strike up a conversation as we made art together or attended sessions. Even though I have a wonderful group of art teacher friends here in my region, I still try to expose myself to new art acquaintances whenever I visit the NAEA Conference. I suggest you do the same. Find a group. Join your state organization. Join an Art Teacher group on social media. Go to conferences. Meet for coffee. Mentor and Observe when you can. We need each other. I want to learn all I can from you and I’ve been doing this a really long time.
We need to be cautious in the art classroom not to show favoritism to gifted students. We also need to be careful not to ignore them. Our lessons need to include modifications for the gifted students, “who finish early,” or “who would like to include…” However, we need to find positive things to say about the progress of each type of learner. A positive, truthful comment could become a key that unlocks a world of possibilities for that student. By differentiating not only our approaches to lessons, but also offering students a variety of ways to express themselves artistically, we give more students an opportunity to find “their” medium and thus make a connection to art.
It’s a little difficult to do what we do everyday and not be passionate about Art. Each of us can probably point to a particular artist or art movement and find our personal voice resonating with every brushstroke or found object. We have an experience with that particular work or artist that sometimes goes beyond or trivializes description. We need to realize, as art teachers, that although our passion and excitement for art may be inspiring to some students, others will either not have or refuse to have the ability to relate either because they haven’t found that art voice yet, or because they are a 12 year-old. So when you are introducing that particular art passion to your students and they don’t seem to connect or even snicker, don’t take it personally. If you feel your blood pressure increasing because of a student comment or that all too familiar roll-of-the-eyes, back down. Move on. This also goes for the project that you were sure they would love. It may be a successful lesson plan and, at the same time, not be a success with all of your students. Don’t take it personally. This even relates to classroom conduct. Anger to anger solves nothing. You can discuss the issue with the student without taking the conduct as a personal threat. Try to imagine what horrible underlying conflict this student could be facing at home or at school that causes the negative behavior. Above all, when you are dealing with the issue, do not take it personally. Address it and move on. Let Art Class be the place the student can find solace and their own personal voice.
Sometimes in our day to day drudgery of slopping buckets of water around the art room or down the hall for Art on a Cart or going through stacks of papers on an already cluttered desk, or trying to soak paint out of a school uniform, we fail to look around. Sometimes as we squeeze through an inadequately-sized annex to see if students are, “getting it,” or picking up fifteen pencils in the hallway that you need in the art room or “decorating” the school’s bulletin boards, or matting work for art contests, we fail to look around. Pause for a moment today even a brief moment, while students are working and look around. Look what is going on. Realize it for a moment. This is an amazing calling. Tell your students to stop working and to look at you. Repeat this to them and mean it, “I have the best job in the world.”
Just for a moment, remember what caused you to want to be an art teacher. As we think back on it, most of us recall a positive experience in an art room somewhere. Some of us will even tribute our career choice to a person..maybe even an art teacher. What was it about that teacher that you remember most? Was it the swell way that she wrote the lesson objectives on the board? Was it the manner in which he delivered Bloom’s Taxonomy to the door of your creative brain in 30 minutes or less? Is it the strategies that your favorite art teacher used to teach you skills, techniques or processes? No? What was it then? Was it, just maybe, the way that your art teacher made you feel? You can’t exactly recall every detail of the bulletin boards in the art room, but there are certain memories that bring back a sense of belonging that you once felt entering that elementary, middle or high school art room. Remember what did it for you and remember how important it is that you show up for your students. Show up and show them you care. Give them a reason to want to come to school. Say that quiet student’s name when you greet them today. It might be the nicest way anybody has said their name in a really long time. It’s the simple things that count sometimes. Thirty years from now, they may not be able to recite the Elements of Art or identify all the art movements, but I’m fairly certain they will recall you and how you made them feel.
Young teachers, you have an advantage when teaching young students. You know their interests. Knowing their interests and implementing aspects of it into your lessons when possible, keeps them engaged. There's a real danger among veteran teachers if we tend to teach the same lessons using the same examples year after year. Sooner or later, the engagement will wane as student interest changes. Also, what might have been a rockstar lesson in one placement simply does not work within the culture of another placement. It all boils down to "Keeping Up!" We need to know our students' interests (material culture) and keep updating our pedagogical gray matter (teaching brains).