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Celebrating Valuable Art Teacher Wins After Another Challenging Year

It has been another challenging year amid a global pandemic. Art educators have faced evaluation changes, health and safety protocol whiplash, and difficult interactions with parents and students. Some teachers have resigned mid-year or are questioning returning to a profession they dreamed of since they were kids themselves. This is a lot. It is all true, and the feelings of loss and disappointment are valid. But what about the wins? What about the small victories this year that validated our role in art education? What about the successes that remind us there is good in the world?

Some may say this is a “toxically positive” way to view our current world. But what if it is simply optimism? As an elementary art educator, I get frustrated, disappointed, challenged, and angry. Still, I also take time to consider the wins (big and small) that reaffirm the difference I make as an educator. Sometimes, these wins lead to the awareness I need in order to change. When we hear about other educators’ successes and small moments of celebration, it can help us to take stock of our own experiences.

Read and reflect as several art educators share their wins from the past year and how it has led to meaningful change moving forward.

smart board in art room
Image courtesy of Brooke Henry

Slower Pace, More Flexibility

Dr. Juliann B. Dorff is a Senior Lecturer of Art Education at Kent State University. She shares, “This new reality caused me to reflect on my teaching methods.” Her pre-service art educators were more on edge and less confident in their abilities when they returned to in-person learning this past fall. “There were immediate wins, including the eagerness of my students. And seeing them in person.”

But, some challenges needed to be addressed. These students, and frankly all of us, had been through a lot and were going to continue to live a life filled with uncertainty. “They needed more support and more breathing room. As a result, the pace of my courses has slowed. Flexibility has become standard.” This mindset has resulted in a rebirth for Juliann’s students. They are establishing relationships, learning what it means to rely on one another, and seeking involvement. This will impact their role as future art educators in how they will interact with future students.

How have you created room for more flexibility for yourself and your students?

You Are Loved

Sometimes, it takes our students’ honest reflections to reveal the wins that have been there all along. Arenda Evans, a K–8 art educator, was in tears during her students’ eighth-grade graduation. A student spoke about the impact Arenda had on her artistically, scholastically, and personally. The student shared, “She has inspired me to push harder, to always think positive, and not just about my work but in life. We may have our differences at times, but she knows I will always love her. She has nurtured me in the right direction and I don’t know how I can repay her.”

We may not have the opportunity to hear our influence in a formal graduation speech, but we often receive small reminders; our portrait scrawled on the back of a piece of wrapping paper, a handful of dandelions picked at recess, or an unexpected smile from behind a hoodie. These are all small wins that remind us we are loved and are making an impact.

When was the last time a student stopped you in your tracks with their gratitude?

Celebrate Kindness

Molly McFee, a Pre-K–5 art teacher, reflected on a year full of wins. Opening a brand new art studio at a brand new school, forging relationships with students and their families, and confetti. Yes, confetti! Inspired by a kindergarten teacher, Molly established a “Kindness Confetti Wall” in her new art room. At the end of each class period, at least one student is recognized for showing an act of kindness. It’s simple. “They get to write their name on a piece of painted paper and glue it to… the back of the classroom door.” She takes a moment to explain to the class why the student was selected. The students have started to cheer for one another. This practice has established a positive classroom culture focusing on how students impact one another. Celebrating their acts of kindness has become a win for Molly and a practice to continue into the future.

confetti kindness door display
Image courtesy of Molly McFee

What classroom practice did you implement to change your classroom culture?

Community Engagement

When our students are proud, we are proud as their teachers. This past school year, Candido Crespo has had a significant win, becoming the newest host of AOEU’s podcast Everyday Art Room. This was also his first year with middle school students in four years. He hit the ground running with a focus on engaging the community with his art program. A huge win in this avenue was a partnership with the local Civic Council and Arts Council for a student art exhibition. This Youth Empowerment Exhibit featured 55 of Candido’s students and was open to the public throughout February, marked with an opening reception. The reception welcomed students, families, and local elected officials. The partnership and exhibit allowed students to see themselves as artists. The community also experienced firsthand the impact of their art education program.

student gallery
Image courtesy of Candido Crespo

Have you had an opportunity to engage with your local community?

Celebrating Together

Like Candido, Gayle Mulder made a change this year, transitioning from 21 years in elementary to working with high school students. Her new role is to teach jewelry, sculpture, and ceramics classes. Of course, she was nervous about this change, but it was more the nervousness that comes with starting an exciting new adventure. She shares, “Taking on these particular and challenging mediums, I hoped that my students explored and worked through techniques. And that they would end the semester with a greater understanding about their art and their abilities.”

As this first year wraps up, Gayle is delighted beyond words for three of her students who earned honors at the Scholastic Art and Writing Exhibition, with two gold key pieces going forward to national adjudication. “I knew they were capable, but guiding them to prove their abilities to themselves through their work is the most beautiful and impactful achievement of my career to date. And my time in this new role has only just begun.” Our students’ achievements are theirs, but guiding them to their successes is an indescribable win for any art teacher.

jewelry display
Image courtesy of Gayle Mulder

What student accomplishments from this year are you most excited about and need to celebrate?

Opportunity For New Challenges

The first win for first-year art educators is landing a job in this inspiring and creative profession. It is something not to take for granted. For first-year art teacher Brooke Henry, she heard over and over again, “It’s not normally like this.” To which Brooke would share, “I spent so much time worrying about my future as an art teacher. I worried about sanitizing tables and changing protocols. But now that it is here, I can truly say that the biggest win is that I do not know any different. I have learned to take on every challenge that teaching during this year entails because, for so long, I desperately wanted to be right where I am right now.” For first-year art educators, and frankly all of us, the opportunity to be challenged in a supportive environment and learn new teaching methods are wins for students and teachers to fuel future professional engagement.

student working on art
Image courtesy of Brooke Henry

What is one challenge you are proud to have overcome?

Autonomy and Care

Changing protocols served as a trial for even the most seasoned of teachers. But for many, these considerations offered an opportunity for problem-solving that positively impacted classroom practices and management. This was the case for elementary art educator Joel Scholten. With the support of the administration and the school’s PTO, all of Joel’s students were provided individual art kits with general supplies to limit shared surfaces and materials. Students were able to choose which materials they used in class. Having these individual resources further supported Joel’s mission to bring more choice and student voice to his curriculum.

A significant win for the art supplies themselves is that these individual art kits meant students took better care of the contents because they were their personal materials. Currently, Joel’s students can use shared classroom supplies. They continue to apply what they learned from their experience with their art supply kits: autonomy, choice, and the importance of treating supplies with respect.

supply kit

How have your students been able to take more responsibility for their learning and artmaking?

Technological Learning

Technology took on new importance as digital classrooms, video conferences, and projected demonstrations became the norm. Regardless of the exact technological resources available at a given school, tech became an ever-present part of teaching and student learning. Elementary art teacher Matthew  Bower admits he never had a reason to set up a Google Classroom or conduct a Zoom session. Yet, in the last year, he learned the new technology right along with the students and their families.

Matthew noticed, “I had no idea how excited students would be following a videoed guided drawing. Or, how families seem more comfortable communicating through their computers than in-person.” This awareness led Matthew to consider how best to reach his students and engage their families. He acknowledges learning all of this new technology can be overwhelming. When we have to learn new things, it can make us more empathetic for our students, who are continually learning new processes and resources.

What new technology have you learned and continue to use to support students?

Emotional Communication

It can be hard to put into words the experiences of the past year or the emotions associated with them. Whereas some teachers make time for meaningful reflection, daily schedules may challenge others in a time crunch. Jacqueline Sommer teaches art at an all-boys high school. Conversations about emotions and highlighting these experiences in their artwork has historically been a challenge for Jacqueline’s particular population. This year, Jacqueline introduced students to Visual Journaling in their sketchbooks. She shares, “Students are provided with multiple visual examples and a choice board. These tools offer a variety of prompts to get their wheels turning.” The process is a success for her students and has led to meaningful reflections and action-based artist research.

How have you supported your students’ emotional journey this past year?

How have you engaged in your own emotional awareness this past year?

The past year’s challenges will have a lasting impact on our relationships, profession, and students for longer than we realize. But what about all of those wins? Juliann Dorff sums up the past year incredibly eloquently, “These are small wins that are growing. These are meaningful and lasting wins. They are not my wins, but more importantly, our wins.” Identify and celebrate sustaining and validating moments from the past year. These moments remind you that you are not alone, and they reinforce why you chose art education.

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, an elementary school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He is a social-emotional learning enthusiast and explores this essential concept with his students and fellow art educators.

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