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Advice for a Strong Start in Art Education as a Second Career

We know that being an art teacher is the most incredibly inspiring, fun, creative, and exhaustingly awesome career around. And word is getting out. Many people have switched from other fields or content areas to join us in art education. Now, you are in your art room or pushing your cart down the hall. Reality has kicked in—you are an art teacher. Now what?

Know that you are not alone. Take the following advice from other art educators who once stood where you are now.

student coloring

1. Ask yourself, “Why art education?”

It may have all started because of a need for supplemental income. This is how it started for Sarah Gillmor Babione. Working as a graphic designer, Sarah began to substitute teach and fell in love. “I walked into the school’s art room and a feeling like no other came over me. And I knew at that moment I wanted to teach art!” Now, she is starting her first year in a second career. After twenty years as a graphic designer, Sarah became an elementary and middle school art teacher.

sarah and her classroom
Image courtesy of Sarah Babione

Regardless of your age, experience, or context, it is essential to focus on your why. Why did you choose to join the art education field? With all of your daily responsibilities, it can be easy to lose sight of the inspiration that brought you to this point. Take a moment and write out a short narrative with your reasons for becoming an art teacher. Distill your words down to a brief statement, mantra, or quote. Keep this with you, or hang it above your computer. This visual reminder will be waiting for you when you need it the most.

So, why art education?

2. Honor your lived experience.

Dr. Jason Cox started his professional career as a puppeteer in western New York before making the career change to art education. He reflects, “Teaching is an art form. And every artist’s work is shaped by their experiences.” Now an assistant professor of Art Education at The University of Toledo, Jason’s performative start prepared him for a life in front of students. A previous career is part of your identity. Honor your story by sharing it with others. You never know what connections you will make or when an opportunity arises for your hidden talent to shine. Your students and colleagues won’t have the chance to make those connections if you don’t share your story.

jason and stage design
Image courtesy of Jason Cox and Black Cherry Puppet Theater

Some art educators join the field after time spent with young children at home. Late nights with tiny humans require patience and might be a shared experience with colleagues. Michelle Sodano, an elementary art teacher in Ohio, acknowledges that late nights with her kids and her time as a BFA student helped her develop into the learner and teacher she is, including the ability to send emails late into the evening.

Who have you shared your personal teaching story with? 

How has your story fostered new connections and opportunities for your coworkers and students?

3. Acknowledge your transferable skills.

Regardless of your previous position(s), there are transferable skills you need to identify as strengths coming into art education. You might be ankle-deep in papier-mâché before you realize that you know exactly how to handle the situation. Or perhaps the PTA is willing to fund a major art project, and you need to take the lead. You are equipped with transferable skills that you learned long before you became an art teacher.

Suzanne Mitolo worked as an arts administrator for Dayton, Ohio, before becoming an art educator at the age of 40. She had extensive on-the-job training with organizational skills, project management, and grant-writing. These skills have served her well in her role as an art teacher, advocating for arts funding for her students and their large-scale projects.

suzanne and students painting mural
Image courtesy of Suzanne Mitolo

Dr. Jason Cox learned how to solve problems with relatively few materials through his puppeteer experience. Sound familiar? Your budget may be tight. You may have walked into an art room outfitted with ancient powdered tempera paint and yellowing paper. In these moments, remember that you have been here before. It was a different context, but you know it is time to roll up your sleeves, and you are confident that you can figure it out.

Almost every profession relies on clear, purposeful communication. For Michelle Sodano, her time as a BFA metalsmithing student taught her the importance of providing feedback. “I learned to analyze and respond to my classmates’ artwork in a positive and constructive way. I learned how to listen to others and appreciate their process while understanding my classmate’s attachment to their body of work.” It is not a stretch to see how pursuing a BFA can lead to meaningful formative assessment strategies in the art room.

michelle and metal working
Image courtesy of Michelle Sodano

What specialized skills do you have that are transferable to your new career in art education?

4. Accept that there will be mistakes.

You work with your students, showing them how to acknowledge their mistakes and turn their “oops” into art. You need to take that same advice. Regardless of if you are right out of college or joining the education task force after years in another field, there are the same jitters, tears, and mistakes. Recognize that you are not invincible—as much as you want to think you are—but you are learning and growing. Suzanne Mitolo shares, “The first year is full of mistakes and recovery. The second year, not as many, and your confidence and skills improve. And then the third year… You got this!” Honestly, there will always be mistakes. You are a human working with other unpredictable humans. Prepare yourself for many more years of learning and growing.

How have you learned to process your mistakes?

5. Be vulnerable and seek support.

There are challenging moments in our classrooms that we don’t want to admit are a struggle. And, if you are in your second career, acknowledging your missteps or need for help can feel especially daunting and embarrassing. You may think you should have all the answers because you have more life experience than the teacher next door. Remember, our profession requires we learn from one another. To do so, you have to take the first step and ask for help.

Sarah Babione believes in her core that her career change is the best decision she has ever made. Despite that, there are still challenges. She acknowledges that classroom management with her block-scheduled eighth-graders puts her to the test. When you are vulnerable and seek support from fellow educators, especially art educators, you gain innovative tried-and-true ways to support your students. Sarah has her eighth-graders for one and a half hours at a time. She knows this is a long time to be in the art room, so she sought out instructional practices from her colleagues. Instead of pretending everything is running smoothly when it is not, Sarah’s colleagues have helped her modify her approach to be more sustainable in the long run.

Get involved with a network of art educators. You may be the only art teacher in your building or district, but there are still like-minded art teachers waiting for you to join them. These teachers can validate your concerns, process your challenges, and celebrate your successes in a way that only other art educators can. They get you. Consider a membership in your state art education association. These art teachers may come from different contexts, but they know your standards and state educational processes.

Who is an art educator you can be vulnerable with and ask for help?

6. Make a plan to self-regulate.

We can discuss self-care all day long. However, you may have already noticed a need to regulate your emotions and responses during the school day. Maybe you start by saying, “This is nothing. At my last job…” This can be a fine mindset for a while, but it can be detrimental in the long run. This is why it is essential to practice strategies to process frustration and disappointment. For more resources, check out these seven tips for meaningful regulation practices.

What is one self-regulation strategy that you will commit to for the rest of this year?

7. Have fun!

It’s easy to forget to prioritize joy. If you are like Sarah Babione, recall the way you felt the first time you stepped into the art room and knew this was the path for you. Paperwork, evaluations, mistakes, and classroom management can feel discouraging. Find time to be goofy with your students and to laugh with them. On your way home, think about the moments that made you smile that day.

And if something you are teaching is not bringing you joy, change it into something that does. Take control and read the room. If you aren’t enthused about the lesson or experience you provide students, it is a safe bet the students aren’t enjoying themselves either.

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What was one spontaneous and fun moment from your classroom this week?

You are here. You took part in a journey to join the world of art education, and that journey is now part of your identity. Delight in your new career choice in the art room while also acknowledging the life experiences that have prepared you for this. Your unique training and perspective are an asset to your school, students, and the overall field. But no one will know about your path and your abilities unless you share them with others. Remember, “Teaching is an art form. And every artist’s work is shaped by their experiences.”

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

Jonathan Juravich is an elementary art educator in Columbus, OH. A self-described Social Emotional Learning enthusiast, he explores this essential concept with his students and with fellow art educators via the podcast The Art of SEL.

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