Getting Back to the Basics-Exerpt from My MTAEA Keynote


On May 30, I delivered a Keynote Address to the Middle Tennessee Art Teachers at The Frist in Nashville. This was not my first presentation, but it was my first keynote. For weeks I deliberated over what to say and how to say it until I was reminded that it might be better to think about what those teachers needed to hear at the close of the school year. Or as a retired teacher-friend reminded me, "Remember, Mel, they are exhausted." Once I focused on them instead of myself, everything fell into place. Here are a few excerpts. If you are a teacher too, I hope it will uplift and encourage you.

Today I'd like to explore two basic questions: 1) How can we motivate students? and 2) How can we motivate ourselves? We are, at times, oceans apart from our students..socially, demographically, emotionally…We don’t always know what’s going on in their heads or their lives..we might THINK we do. And we also probably have no idea how much it means for them to come to art. Art class for these students can be more than a place where they learn about the Principles of Art and Design, or where they learn to identify masterpieces, or where they learn skills, techniques and methods. It can be more that a place where they learn to draw..forms. Don't get me wrong, these things are important but they cannot be all that we teach anymore. We have to help students utilize these tools to make connections and respond to the world around them.


Can we make students LIKE art? No. But we can design lessons where their concerns are addressed and where they feel connected. Can we make students HATE art? Absolutely. Isn't that scary? However, if we give students more choices within their lessons, and if we design lessons they can relate to, art class can be that place where they feel safe to express their own uniquely wonderful voice.

How can we motivate ourselves? 1) Find an Interest (unrelated to teaching). Not only do we need a break, but it will make us more interesting as teachers. 2) Find a Workshop. Learning new skills and techniques always seems to rejuvenate my teaching! 3) Find a Group. Following a positive professional group of art educators via social media or meeting for coffee or dinner regularly makes for meaningful dialogue and can be a springboard for new ideas.


A few weeks ago, I commented on a post by a discouraged art teacher. What I said to her, I'd like to say to you today. I’d like to say how much I appreciate everything you do EVERYDAY for your students. I appreciate all the worrying, planning, lifting, stacking, measuring, pouring, monitoring, CLEANING, distributing, listening, caring, inspiring, questioning, reading, writing, assessing, drawing, painting, printing, sculpting, installing, emailing, classroom managing, and teaching you do every single day and the next. I appreciate all the projects you bring home because there’s just not time enough in one day to breathe. I appreciate all the Friday’s you work until it’s too late to go to dinner with friends. I appreciate your choosing to become an art teacher..your students’ lives are different because of YOU!  You don’t make it different by teaching stuff. You make it different by showing up and unlocking a door. That door just happens to be to your classroom and it just happens to be to their imagination. You make it different because you bring them to a place where they can express how they feel about what's going on in THEIR world.


..and for 45 minutes they might be expressing how they feel about these problems or they might just be able to process they work on getting the textures just right on that collograph or fixing the crack in their ceramic slab or altering the pages of an old discarded book..or gluing snowflakes on a piece of blue construction paper. So, when they take a little longer on projects, maybe it’s because they're still working on some deeper issues...But that student who has faced those challenges this year would probably tell you, “Maybe I didn’t always show it, or tell you, but Art saved my life this year. Some days, it is why I even showed up for school. You called me by name, and you saw potential in me. I saw my friends feel better about themselves not because of art, but because of you."

Thank you, Teachers. Have a great summer!