Professional Practice

Finding Your Art Teaching Community (Ep. 122)

Whether in art teaching or in life, it’s important to have a group of like-minded people with whom you can connect. In this episode, Nic talks with Michelle Mullins-Means about how you find your art teaching community and what it can do for you. Listen as they discuss connecting online, growing professionally, and why they share their best classroom ideas. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: It’s important to find your tribe. No matter what area of life you are looking for, it’s important to have a group of like-minded people who you can converse with or be with, or just have conversations with about a certain topic. For example, maybe you have a fitness tribe, people who you work out with or have the same goals with your nutrition. Maybe you have a mommy tribe. If you’re a mother, you’re seeking other mothers who maybe have children roughly the same ages as yours or maybe have the same philosophies in parenting.

We certainly look for art teacher tribe. One place that I seek out my tribe is through Instagram where I met a wonderful art teacher named Michelle Mullins-Means. She is going to chat with us today a little bit about finding your tribe. This is Nic Hahn, and this is Everyday Art Room.

Thank you so much for being on today. I’m excited to learn all about you, but let’s start with the basics. Please share a little bit about yourself. Introduce yourself; how long you’ve been working, where you’ve been working. Just kind of a short bio please.

Michelle: Well, my name is Michelle Mullins-Means. I know that’s a lot of M’s. I often joke with my students that I’m M-cubed. Actually, I make my aprons that I wear every day and somewhere always on my apron is the little emblem M3 on there. When students first get to know me, they always ask, “Oh, can I call you Miss M?” And I just don’t like it. I liked hearing my full name, Ms. Mullins-Means, and after a while they get it.

I am from Cleveland, Ohio, born and raised. I’ve been teaching for 17 years. I got my undergrad… I also like to joke that I’ve been to just about every higher institution in Northeast Ohio. I started school as a business major, believe it or not, at Ohio State University, The Ohio State University. And then I went there for one year, transferred to Case Western Reserve.

I already knew going in that I hated business. So midway through my career at Case, I entered the joint program that they were offering through the Cleveland Institute of Art, where they offered art education classes and studio classes, as well. Then I got my master’s degree from Cleveland State University.

Nic: Wow! All right. That’s a wild ride to get to art education.

Michelle: It truly is. It really is. My parents, I later discovered they gave me a folder of all the papers and photos and artwork that your parents keep for you. Well, all along through my childhood, teachers would note, “Oh, Michelle is really artistically inclined, or she really has a lot of skill in that area.” But they would never show me the notes or tell me about it.

Nic: Oh, interesting.

Michelle: Because they were terrified of me becoming an artist.

Nic: Glad they did.

Michelle: They said, “We have three other kids that we need to support and we don’t need a starving artist.”

Nic: They tried to hold you down, but it wasn’t going to work, huh?

Michelle: And I really truly tried to please them to my own detriment, because I wasted two years of my college career trying to be something I really wasn’t.

Nic: Well, I’m glad that you landed here because you’re extremely talented.

Michelle: Thank you so much.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. And that was kind of how I came to know you, was through your Instagram and just seeing some of the beautiful work that you guys come up with in your classroom. But also I think the deeper meaning, I’m thinking, that happens in your classroom that you are so willing to share with the world on your Instagram.

One of the things that we have talked about, you and I, a little bit, is trying to find your tribe in the art ed world. Michelle, you are a person of color, correct?

Michelle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: We talked about several different things that we’ll get through throughout the rest of our podcasts here, too. But one thing that you mentioned was just finding your tribe in the art ed world, and what kind of an experience that has been for you. Can we dive right into that and can you tell me a little bit about your experiences and where you’re at with this ‘finding your tribe’ right now?

Michelle: Sure. As you can already tell from my history, just I feel like being an artist, it’s hard to find your tribe. Just the fact that you are a creative person and your brain works differently. If you can imagine putting on top of that being a woman. Well, of course you can imagine that.

Nic: Yes, I can.

Michelle: Then that pool gets even smaller when you add, “Okay, now I’m a person of color. Where is my tribe? Where are the people that look like me?” And throughout my life I’ve been struggling to find that.

About… I would say I was in my 12th year of teaching and I just really found myself burnt out. I started in an urban district, extremely urban. All of the kids qualified for free lunches and breakfast services. I got tired of being counselor, mother, disciplinarian, in addition to just trying to be an art teacher, and show these kids a creative world that a lot of my kids hadn’t used anything beyond a crayon, really.

I actually follow Cassie Stephens, I’m sure she’s an icon in the art industry. And she and a couple other wonderful ladies created Art Scouts. Normally this is something that I would never sign up for myself. I don’t indulge myself in being able to not only leave my kids but just leave out of town to experience this wonderful collaboration of artists and being able to just be among your people.

They held it in… where was it? Berea, Ohio. I think it was Berea. And it was just an amazing experience. It just gave me that lift that I needed. I was really just tired of the lessons I was doing. I was introduced to new materials. I was introduced to art teachers all over the country. And I had never been really strong at fiber arts. We did a lot of fiber arts projects. I just came back with… just invigorated and ready to try these things with my students. But still, even then I was among… I think there was only one other lady of color in the entire group. And I think it was a group of about 60 ladies.

That’s always been the case of, no matter what I’m in I’m usually ‘the one’. And if you can imagine, just even if it’s sexual orientation or handicapable, it’s hard when you don’t see someone like you that can relate to your experiences.

Through Art Scouts, I was hipped to Instagram. I started my account that year, and it just boomed. There’s so many talented art teachers online and just seeing the things that they do, but I’m still on that hunt to find more teachers of color.

Nic: Yep. Did you find that your tribe was different between your two situations? You talked about teaching in an urban school, but I know that now you’re in a very… it’s called an independent school, is that correct?

Michelle: That’s correct.

Nic: Tell me about those two experiences, and maybe how that relates to the tribe that you found.

Michelle: I am currently at a school called Hawkin. It is an independent school and that means that the students that I have now pay tuition, there is an admission process for them to be able to attend. But there’s no religious denomination associated with the school. It wouldn’t necessarily be considered private.

Just the difference between an urban setting and an independent setting was just so different that I had to adjust to. It sounds awful, but I was not used to being appreciated. I wasn’t used to parents coming to an open house or conferences and wanting to speak to me or sending me emails of appreciation. The students, a lot of times in urban setting, the attitude is compensating for a lot of hurt that’s going on in the community. And the kids that I teach now have the freedom to be children, and laugh and just be themselves. And I wish it could be like that for a lot of my urban students.

Because the first, I would say, two to three years that I taught in East Cleveland schools, that’s the urban setting that I was in, I came home crying just about every other day. They were not used to having art classes. I would give them a sheet of paper, it would come back to me balled up. Artwork would be ripped off the walls. And it took me a while to establish just a respect for their drawings and the fact that they have skills and that art is valid. It’s something to be appreciated and shown.

At my independent school, I don’t have to worry that the art is going to get stolen. I also have a lot of opportunities too for professional growth. One of those being I’m able to go to professional development opportunities, and the school pays for that.

Nic: Spectacular.

Michelle: I recently was told about an organization called the People of Color Conference. It’s been going on for years and years. I don’t even know how many years it’s been in play. But I will be going early December in Seattle, is where the conference… and the conference moves all over the country. But it’s specifically for people of color that teach at independent schools.

Nic: Wow, that’s incredible.

Michelle: Yes. They’ve recognized that it can be a lonely place. Usually, you’re maybe one or two of many. So it’s wonderful to be able to interact with people that look like you, that have shared the same experiences as you do. And I’m still seeking those creatives inside of that nook.

Nic: Right. It seems like you can find this group or this group, but you’re hoping at this conference to maybe collide the two; find your creatives as well as people with your background.

Michelle: Right.

Nic: And on top of it, this independent school aspect too. You’re right, that’s like another whole ball of wax. Because I’m in a suburban school and I have a lot of those experiences that you’re describing, but certainly not all of them.

Michelle: Right, because I went from teaching kids that they may not have a home or they’re transient, to kids that their parents are multimillionaires. And you would think, “Oh, well, there are behavior issues.” But there’s a whole set of issues that comes with teaching in an urban district versus teaching in an independent district where maybe these kids are a little privileged and they feel very entitled. And just balancing that and saying, “Hey, we’re all people and you might have to wait, and you’re not the most important person in the room.”

Nic: Teaching a whole new set of skills. I mean, really, is what you’re doing; like how to share and how to… Yep, I’m getting.

Michelle: For sure.

Nic: Like I said, I admire your shares on Instagram. I want to just take a few minutes to talk about how your classroom has been developed in this independent school and what you’re really excited about. I love the way that you form your lesson plans. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Michelle: Sure. For the past four years, I have been choosing an area of the world to study for the entire school year. Before I was at the independent school, I did Asian art, I did African art. And once I changed schools, we’ve done Latin America, and currently we’re doing Australian art.

Nic: Awesome.

Michelle: I really like doing an intensive that way because the kids get a true understanding of the culture, the food, the colors, all things associated, the language of that area of the world. Because a lot of times, we might do a unit maybe a couple of weeks on it, and then it’s forgotten. And it really allows me to delve in to wherever we’re studying.

Nic: Well, right, your research yourself, right?

Michelle: Yes, it refreshes me and it excites me to be able to research. I get started by just creating a Pinterest board and just thinking, “Okay, I’ll look up foods that come from there and save different images.” Then I will look up popular tourist attractions.” Then I start to mold a unit on these different areas and pair it with the elements of art. And it’s really, really rich. It’s so exciting. It’s exciting for me. And I feel like when the teacher is excited, it automatically just cascades down to the students.

Nic: Agreed, absolutely. Now, I guess I didn’t realize that you had gone to Art Scouts. Am I right in thinking that Laura Lowman and Ginger Pacer do a similar thing, or they have in the past, where they choose the area of the world to concentrate on? Are you aware of that?

Michelle: Do they? I am not sure if they’ve done the same thing, but I know that they’ve done so many wonderful things that they’ve probably done it also.

Nic: No, that’s great. Now, I know that one thing that you said was… Can you explain how you choose the area that you’re planning on studying for the year?

Michelle: Sure. In the beginning, it was all about me. I just said, “Well, what area don’t I know a lot about?” I would choose it and then we would go with it. But at my current school, we’re really into choice.

Last year, I had a school-wide open voting for the kids and I gave them a choice between three areas of the world. And Australia was won unanimously over the board. The kids actually chose our area of study. And I think it’s great because they’re already invested. They are going, “I want to know more about this place.”

Nic: I think that’s so cool to give your students the voice to make this choice. And then you still… it’s kind of fun. I mean, then you get to dive into something brand new just per their request or want. I just think that’s a beautiful way to do things.

Michelle: Thank you. I mean, I know probably to some listeners it seems overwhelming. And it can be, because I rarely teach the same lesson over and over again. I think there is merit to being able to use a really great lesson over and over again. But for me, it just keeps things exciting. Maybe I’m crazy, because it also doubles your work, but I like looking forward to, “Okay, so what is it going to be this year? What are we going to delve into?” But I always keep the elements and principles the same.

Nic: Yup. I’m sure a lot of the processes you’re reusing, like you might’ve studied a different area, but like maybe the process, the printing or the fiber arts, like you were talking about, maybe some of that is recycled a bit too. But I know with the amount of years that you have under your belt, this is a great way to energize yourself for a new year.

Michelle: Burnout is a real thing.

Nic: It’s real.

Michelle: And nothing to be ashamed of. So whatever you have to do to find that spark again, you do it. If it’s changing up the way you do things or trying a new media, or just getting away and creating yourself.

Nic: Oh, that’s awesome. Okay. We have about one minute left. Why don’t you share any bit of advice from our conversation today that you just wanted to bring forth to our AOE listeners?

Michelle: Well, something that I’ve thought about, like I said, I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years. And when I was fresh out of college, I was so terrified that I wasn’t going to find a job. So the first one that came along, I just said yes. I didn’t do any research. I didn’t visit the school. I actually didn’t know that I had the job until a week before school started.

Nic: Oh, wow.

Michelle: I kind threw myself in there, and it was like throwing myself to the wolves. Now, there’s something to be said about that. But I would encourage those teachers that are new to just do a little research, take some time. Know your worth. You don’t have to accept the first offer. Because what happened was, I ended up in a district that I didn’t feel supported. And it was a battle for years and years and years for me to finally find a place where I felt appreciated.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching in East Cleveland. And there’s no love like the love of an underprivileged child. Once you have their trust, you’re golden. However, you can’t keep pouring out of the pot and not fill it back up. And after a while, that’s how I was feeling.

By the time I got tenure, I felt like, “Well, I’m kind of higher in the pay grade. I’m not going to be able to find another position because a lot of districts want to find a newbie that they can pay less and it’s easier to do.” I’m just so grateful for the school I have now because they were willing to take that chance on me.

I would also encourage those of you that are new to put yourself out there. Because I’m not one that likes to toot my own horn, but through the encouragement of seeing other artists and seeing what they’re doing out there with their students, I said, “Well, it’s okay to wave a little flag every now and again.”

Nic: You are absolutely right. And it’s so much bigger than just sharing what you’re doing or bragging or whatever it could be seen as. Just to bring it back to our first conversation, it truly is one way to connect with your tribe.

Michelle: Exactly. I would also like to add that you should not be intimidated by Instagram. Even us veterans have lessons that just completely flop.

Nic: That’s right.

Michelle: I’m experiencing that right now, where I just overestimated the skill of my little second graders. I’m having to reassess and dial it back. It’s all a part of the game.

Nic: It is. And share those things on Instagram. Like, share the flops because that’s reality, and that’s what you should be sharing and celebrating. Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today. I really appreciate it.

Michelle: I am honored. I’m truly a fan of the show and just humbled and grateful to be a part of it.

Nic: Thank you. Everything that Michelle had to speak to us today was so valuable. I can’t thank her enough for visiting with us today. It’s extremely important to find your tribe.

Here are some different places that you could look for your creative tribe in art education. Go on Instagram, get yourself posting and sharing. Go to Twitter; #K12ArtChat with the Grundlers is amazing that meets every Thursday night at 8:30. Go to NAEA or your state conferences. Make sure that you reach out to the people that attend those conferences because they can be lifelong friends, for sure.

And, of course, visit the Art of Education University, because this is a place where creative people go to find each other. Come on in, go to the website, go to the online conferences, chat online, follow them on Instagram, you’re going to feel connected. Again, thanks to Michelle, and we will chat with you next week on the Everyday Art Room.

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.