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Where does your teaching story begin?
I typically begin my teaching story with the pivotal moment in college when I decided to apply to graduate school for art education. I wanted to do something meaningful with my two art degrees. Upon deeper reflection, I realized it was way back in fourth grade when my art teacher, Ms. Foley, saw me not just as a child or student but as an artist.
Wherever your teaching story began or how it unfolded, all teachers have one. It’s always good to take a moment and remember where we started and why. On those tough days, it grounds us and reminds us why we are here.
An art teacher’s superpower is the ability to quickly tune into a student’s inner world through their art. We make meaningful connections about their work, developmental stage, literacy, social-emotional state, and more. You can initiate early interventions when you notice students are in distress or are developmentally behind. You can support them as they navigate their feelings. Some students find their anchor in your art class, which motivates them to work in their other classes.
Ms. Foley dazzled me. It was the mid-eighties, and she embraced the artist stereotype of that era. She had short, platinum hair (à la Madonna), wore oversized button-down shirts with a popped collar, statement jewelry in bold colors, and always smelled like minty chewing gum.
Anyone can dress in any way they please, but artists seem to have a special license to play with fashion. We have a creative “pass” to experiment with hair color, jewelry, makeup, and shoes—or whatever your “thing” is. Through your own bold choices, you demonstrate creative risk-taking and embody your authenticity. And students love that! Take Cassie Stephens, for example. She leverages fashion to engage her students in learning. She explains, “I teach little kids, and I’ve always dressed a little funky. I noticed that they really respond to that—and the sillier the better.” Dressing artistically is fun and sends a message that you don’t take yourself too seriously!
Gliding through the studio, moving art from giant drying racks, Ms. Foley was a conductor—orchestrating projects and making magic happen. Like so many art rooms, it was this otherworldly space full of color, excitement, strange tools, different rules, and the most unbelievably awesome foot pedal sink. No classroom in the school was as unique and exciting as the art room.
Art educator and architectural design consultant Marvin Bartel explains it the best, “An art room is a production facility… and an ideal art room has some attributes that are the opposite of those needed in [a] standard classroom.” Art rooms are not like other classrooms in the school, and they are not meant to be! The fact that art rooms function differently than other spaces means that, like arty dressing, art teachers can often be more playful with design and take risks with the arrangement of their contents. Art teachers have leveled up their rooms to be portals of creativity, from wall-to-wall murals to painted ceiling tiles and industrial furnishings to rainbow everything. Check some examples out here, here, and here.
At the beginning of fourth grade, I begged Ms. Foley to allow me to join her Step Art Club, a group of earnest, hand-picked elementary artists. Ms. Foley explained that Step Art was a commitment; that students participated in art contests and sometimes even traveled to art shows. She explained that I wasn’t ready but would consider me again in fifth grade if I demonstrated my commitment during her regular class and managed the workload. At the end of fourth grade, I felt such joy when Ms. Foley told me that I was “ready” and could join the club in fifth grade!
Ms. Foley, and by extension all teachers, wield a powerful gift. Students need to be seen, heard, spoken with, and validated by the adults in their life. Teachers do just that! My fourth-grade art teacher probably had to filter many students from her club who were not ready to rise to the extracurricular commitments required. More importantly, Ms. Foley heard me out and gave me a chance to show my ability. She listened and didn’t forget me. In supporting my goals, she helped grow my confidence and discover my insatiable drive to learn. The art room became a place of comfort where I “fit in.”
Art classes can provide an academic in-road for students who connect with their creativity. It gives students a class to look forward to. Studies show that art education supports positive attendance, morale, and academic achievement across the board.
The act of creation is magical. Art teachers put their special touch on everything from outfits and spaces to lessons and everyday objects. We spark curiosity and generate wonder. In the words of Cassie Stephens, “You have to also be creating in order to teach creating, and teach creatively.”
From a tactile perspective, you get to offer students what they were largely missing during distance learning: hands-on access to materials such as paint (color) and clay (texture). Hands-on learning and fun materials can ignite a sense of joy, innovation, and possibility. Kylie Rymanowicz reminds us of the importance of creation. “Art is a natural activity to support this free play in children. The freedom to manipulate different materials in an organic and unstructured way allows for exploration and experimentation… Art allows youth to practice a wide range of skills that are useful not only for life but also for learning.”
Art teachers and art classrooms accept students for who they are and what they create. Art students process their feelings, tell stories, make sense of political and social turmoil, and express their inner worlds through their work. We don’t always have to understand each other’s art or even like it. Still, we know that anyone who shares their work is, by extension, sharing a piece of their identity. That takes a risk! You can maintain an inclusive climate, give context to big feelings, and offer resources for ideas. You can validate and accept students just as they are.
For many, the pandemic brought a lot of heavy stuff to the surface. The nature of the political climate, unrelenting news stories played on a loop, and topics like racism, gender identity, and mental health are just a few examples. You can model a “come as you are” attitude and set the expectation of being open-minded to foster a Safe Space in your classroom. You can further encourage students to take risks by talking through and creating art in response as you nurture a Brave Space in your studio. Art teachers can demonstrate these values by embracing their vulnerability and making failure a positive learning experience.
The pandemic also weakened social skills because many were isolated at home. The art room is an ideal place to reintegrate and reinforce lost social skills. Your art tables can encourage students to communicate, share, and work as a team after being stuck behind screens. Practicing collaboration and inclusivity and exploring identity helps unite students after almost two unpredictable years of education, changing bodies, and a changing world.
While other educators may be pulled by the demands of testing, scores, and the threat of “learning loss,” art teachers are called to create and inspire creation. You have a unique role because you get to know students through the art they produce. You can challenge students to grow and achieve with your personal perspective and a hands-on approach. Your rooms (and outfits!) can reflect your creative license while also being a Brave Space that supports vulnerability and the hard stuff life throws at us. In the face of a challenging return to in-person learning, your job as an art teacher still stands out as the best job ever!
What is your favorite reason explaining why being an art teacher is still the best?
What made you want to become an art teacher in the first place?
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.