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Were you ever forced to choose? Were you ever told that you had to decide between teaching and being a working artist? It’s possible to do both, and more likely, doing both will make you an even better teacher. Cassie will telly you how and why that can work as she shares her own artistic journey (2:00), talks about the undergrad experience that every art teacher has been through (8:30), and discusses how your two paths can come together so you can do it all (13:15). Full episode transcript below.
Do y’all remember the very moment that you fell in love with art? I’m not talking about that gross, icky, mushy stuff. I’m talking about when you first realized that you loved creating and it was something that you couldn’t see yourself living without. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my sophomore year in college, and I was taking my very first painting class, oil painting class. And I was just thrilled. Everything about that class excited me, that really sweet slightly chemical smell of oil paint, the shiny little metal tubes, and being able to mix up beautiful new colors with a palette knife that I’d never used before. It was just all so magical to me, even down to the coffee pot that was always churning where at that time I liked my sugar with coffee and cream.
I loved everything about that experience, and I really couldn’t see myself living without painting or just creating of any sort. Unfortunately it was also in college that I learned the biggest lie, the biggest lie that I carried with me for nearly a decade into my art teacher and career. I want to share that with lie with you today, and I’m going to debunk that lie. What is it? You’ll just have to keep listening. I’m Cassie Stephens and this is Everyday Art Room.
Okay, now before I dive into that big lie and y’all it’s a big one, I need to give you a little bit of a history about me, so bear with me. Here’s the reason I’m sharing my art teacherin’ journey with you. I think it’s really important to always reflect on what brought you to this place, this art teacherin’ place, this place where you love not only creating but sharing the excitement of that creative process with your students. Thinking about what brought you to this very place will help you stay excited about being here and about teaching art.
Anyway back to my journey. I grew up in rural Indiana. Despite all the y’alls that I throw your way, I am actually not from the south. I graduated from a high school where my graduating class was maybe 60 students, so we’re talking pretty small, and in that really small setting I was the kind of crazily dressed go figure kid who loved art. I loved creating, I loved performing in plays, and I was also a big time speech geek. Every weekend you could find me at speech meets. I knew who I was, which is kind of unusual. But in that really small school setting you got kind of pegged and you got kind of to the point where you figured out who you were pretty fast. I was definitely not a jock, totally not a cheerleader, so artsy speech geeky kid it was and I was totally cool with that, because I felt like I was the big fish in a small pond. I knew who I was and I was really happy with that.
I decided to attend Indiana University. I say I decided to attend. My parents, thank you parents, were paying for my college education. I know I am super fortunate for that. And they told me, “This is the school that you’ll be attending,” and so I gladly did so. However, Indiana University is massive. I went from a graduating class of 60-ish students to a college campus with 30,000 people, people who knew exactly who they were also. There were not just one art kid, there were tons of artsy kids, there wasn’t just one speech geek, there were hundreds of speech geeks, all of these kids who knew exactly who they were just like I thought I had. Suddenly overnight I was no longer this big fish in a little pond, but a really small, insignificant, at least according to me, fish in a massive, massive pond.
Overnight I just felt like all of my securities were gone. I became so insecure during my freshman year in college that I oftentimes when I was in a group of people, for example in my art classes, I would start to stutter when speaking. I developed a social anxiety stutter. Look, it flared up for a moment just then. I was so insecure, and very insecure on top of it because of that stuttering speech, that oftentimes I just wouldn’t talk much at all. As a person who is very social, I became very antisocial and rather depressed because of it. My freshmen year was probably one of the toughest years of my life.
Thankfully, my sophomore year I discovered that painting class that I mentioned. Walking into that class and finding something that I felt like I was good at again was just so wonderful. Suddenly I gained my confidence back and I felt like my old self again. Painting did that for me. I was so excited about painting and even more thrilled when my professor said, “You know, this seems like something that you’re really good at and you’re really passionate about. You should apply for the two year BFA painting program.”
Now it was known amongst the art kids that this was not an easy program to get into and that you usually had to apply a couple of times before they let you in. So just on a whim, thinking there was no way I was going to get in, I applied, and I got in. I was beside myself with excitement. My parents, those people who were paying for the college education, not so much. They were like, “Wait a minute. Not so fast. Are you telling me that we’re about to pay for you to have a studio space for two years and do nothing but paint? I don’t think so.” So we had to come to a wee bit of an agreement.
My parents said, “Look, we’ll pay for this two year painting adventure, as long as you also get an art education degree.” I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking, “This girl is never going to get a job with a two year painting degree.” And you know what? They were probably right. I mean I probably I could’ve gotten a job, but it definitely would not have been something in the field that I was interested in. But an ed degree, I mean y’all I had never even contemplated for a second becoming a teacher. But since it meant that I could get that painting degree, I was all for it.
The following year I started taking my painting classes and had my own studio space and working toward getting my BFA in painting, while I also started pursuing my art ed degree. All right, now I’m going to paint you a little picture in your mind’s eye. And I have a feeling that your college experience may have been similar. On my college campus the fine arts department was on one end of the campus and the ed department was on the opposite end of the campus, and the two entities could have literally been on opposite ends of the universe. Here were two schools that had so much in common, art, and yet neither of these schools ever seemed to talk to one another or engage with one another. Half the professors in one building didn’t know who the professors in the other building were. It made no sense to me.
And when I was in my painting classes, I was led to believe that unless I was doing nothing but eating, breathing, living, and painting 24/7 that a) I was not a dedicated artist, and b) I was never going to make it as an artist. Then when I would attend my ed classes, I was led to believe that unless I was working on the most beautiful bulletin board displays and the most amazing lesson plans there ever were with the most clever projects, then I was not suited to be an art educator.
And this is where the biggest lie I ever learned in college came to be. And that lie was this: That I had to choose. I was led to believe that I had to choose between being an artist and being an art educator, because I was led to believe that I could not be both. Y’all that is the biggest lie I learned in college, and that is a lie that I believed to be a truth for nearly a decade after graduating from college. I’m here today to tell you that it’s complete hogwash, that you can be an art teacher and an artist both. But let me return to my journey.
So when I did my student teaching experience, I did my student teaching experience in Ireland, which was fabulous. Pre-service teachers out there, if you ever have an opportunity to do your student teaching experience anywhere other than the States, go for it, it’s amazing. When I came back, my dad, wanting me to get a job, had sent out 52 job applications to places even as far away as Alaska. This dude was determined that I find employment, and that’s how I found myself in Nashville, Tennessee. I had gone on a job interview and accepted.
Those first 10 years of my teaching career I made the choice that I was going to be an art teacher. I didn’t think that I actually had the option to also pursue my love of painting and art. I thought, “I have a job to do, and that’s to teach these children art, and this is a paying job and that’s a huge responsibility, so I am going to spend every moment that I can devouring every art education book, working on the best plans that I can come up with, and creating a beautiful environment for my students,” because that’s what I was led to believe would make me the best art teacher there was.
It wasn’t until about 10 years into teaching that I reached my breaking point. I felt this big emptiness, this deficiency, and it was the fact that I wasn’t creating. I was sharing my love of creating with my students, but I wasn’t doing it myself. And that was making me an unpleasant person to be around. Nobody wants that person as their art teacher.
It was at that point that I started to pull back. I stopped spending all of my time reading art ed books. I stopped spending all of my time working on lessons and I started creating. In fact, I spent a little bit of time actually making ceramic belt buckles and belts and had an Etsy store for a while, which was a great outlet for me. The problem was, was that then I was focusing strictly on creating and my art teacher inside began to slide. It wasn’t until I decided to start aligning my two paths, my teaching path and my creating path, and having both of those paths go toward a common goal, which was usually a lesson that I had in mind for my students, was I really able to be an artist and an art teacher both.
Let me explain this a little bit better. If for example I want to teach my second grade students about Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, I usually start sketching out a lesson plan. While I’m kind of coming up with an idea of what I want them to create, I start thinking about what I can create. For me, I love needle felting, I love clothing, and I love creating clothing. So that’s usually what I create.
However, for you it might be something totally different. Perhaps you enjoy creating jewelry. Maybe you love painting. Whatever your creative outlet is, start thinking about that as a path, start thinking about how you can align that path with your teaching path. Then bring your creation in to share with your students. Not only will you be creating at the same time, but think of how inspired they will be to see that you were so inspired by this artist that you were creating as well.
It took me so long to realize that I could be an artist. It didn’t have to mean that I was painting 24/7. In fact, I don’t paint anymore. But I do create and I do consider myself an artist and a teacher both. I’ve debunked that big lie that I learned in college, and I truly hope that you will too. Thank you so much for letting me share that very long-winded journey with you.
Tim Bogatz: Hello. This is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. We’ve been talking a lot lately about Art Ed PRO, the essential subscription for professional art teachers. It is on demand professional development with video tutorials, downloadable handouts, and all kinds of other resources to help take your teaching to the next level. The PRO library has over 40 topics, which should cover just about everything you need.
Earlier this month new learning packs were released on color theory, getting started with water color painting, and utilizing games in the art room. And next month, November 1st, we’re going to release three new packs on art history, strategies for teaching with kindergarten, and even tie dye. Art Ed PRO is the PD you need when you need it. Make sure you check it out and start your free trial at theartofed.com/pro. Now let’s get back to the show.
Cassie Stephens: And now it’s time to take a little dip into the mail bag. This question comes from Sarah, and Sarah asks such a great question that I do believe this will have to be a topic for an upcoming podcast. Let’s hear what she asks. She says, “I wondered if you have any tips for keeping the art room at least semi quiet. I’m a brand new teacher and the kids are so noisy. I wondered if this is an issue that you face.” Oh Sarah, this is an issue that all of us face. So let’s break it down for you.
The first thing you need to do is decide what noise level you are comfortable with because this is your art room. Would you rather have the kids work very quietly, medium-tone, or just let them express themselves and be loud and proud? Me personally I vary. When it’s my younger students, I know that they like to chat, they’re very social, and when I overhear their conversations, they are almost always chatting about what it is they are creating. My older students however, not so much. They’re usually chatting about something else and oftentimes a little bit distracted, as interesting as that may seem.
So here’s what I do for all of my classes. I set a timer and when I’m finished giving directions I set my timer for five to seven minutes. During that time my students are to gather their supplies and get started silently. We call that level zero in my room and throughout my school. It’s great if your school has a school-wide silence signal. Definitely use that in your room. That way all of your classes will know what to do. And if there isn’t one established school-wide, then definitely establish one for your room. It can be as simple as the level zero that we use, where I simply put a zero up in the air by touching my thumb to my forefingers, and the next thing you know my students all put their zeros in the air as well and then they’re silent.
The reason I have my kids spend the first five to seven minutes getting started quietly is so that they can settle in, really reflect on what the directions are, and get a good start. When my timer goes off, they are supposed to work at what we call level one. That’s a whispering tone. But can we be honest? Children don’t know how to whisper. Oh, I take that back. The only time children know how to whisper is when they’re told they can’t talk and then magically they know how to whisper.
What you can do is decide on the noise level in your room. If you find that your students, when they’re working, if they are having conversations about their art and their creations, you might be okay with them working at a level one or talking softly. But talking softly, like I said, kids don’t really know how to do that so you have to teach them. Anytime they get above and beyond that noise level, then you might want to consider taking away their right to chat and go back to silent art class.
That’s usually what I do. If the noise level climbs too high, my students will get a warning. If it continues to stay a little bit too noisy, well then we return to silent art class. I set my timer for five minutes. When it goes off, then we give it another shot. But it truly is up to you. You need to decide what noise level works best for you and for your students and go from there. Excellent question Sarah and one that I know many, many people have, so thank you so much for reaching out and asking.
If you have a question for me, please feel free to send it my way. You can send it to email@example.com.
So I’m curious. Was I the only one that was fed that great big lie, that I had to decide whether or not I wanted to be an artist or an art teacher because I couldn’t be both? I think one of the reasons I believed that lie for so long was because that I had that stereotypical picture painted in my mind quite literally, that you weren’t an artist unless you were eating, breathing, living, painting, and selling your paintings, and showing them in places like Soho in Paris, France.
Y’all as long as you are passionate about creating, no matter what it is you are creating, then you’re an artist. And as long as you bring that passion into your art room, even if you’re like me and you still have the same old bulletin boards up from maybe a couple of years ago, it’s fine. As long as you have that passion about art in your art room and you’re bringing it to your students, then you’re doing the best job that you can be doing as an art teacher. So I say, throw that big old fib out the window. Thank you a lot for letting me share my journey with you today. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m Cassie Stephens.