Professional Practice

Life as a First-Year Art Teacher (Ep. 233)

In today’s episode, Candido talks with his colleague JT Harris about Jt’s experiences this year as a first-year art teacher. Listen as they discuss how to navigate the challenges of your first year, how to establish yourself with both students and colleagues, and why self-reflection can make you a better teacher in the long run.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Candido: I don’t envy teachers that were hired in the past three school years. You all entered a profession at a time that even some veteran teachers were clueless about what to do. And yeah, that includes me. We have all been learning and making adjustments. When I was first hired, my biggest issue was learning the software used to take attendance and input grades. While I learned most of what I knew in the early part of my career through trial by fire, there were plenty of good teachers that helped me. When our district was preparing to hire JT Harris, I wanted to make sure I was present for him. I wanted him to know I was available and ready to help. So, as we enter our third trimester or fourth quarter here in New York, I asked JT to sit down with me for an update on his experience as a first-year art teacher. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Candido Crespo.

All right. So, I’m super excited for this conversation. But, let’s just get you introduced. JT, that’s how I know you, but please just tell my listeners how you would like to be known and your role in education and who you currently serve.

JT: Sure. So my name’s JT Harris. I currently work in the Central Islip School District, about a mile and a half away from Candido. Our student population is primarily black and Latino students. My building is K to 6. We have around about 350 students, which I have the entire school.

Candido: Right. I was just about to ask that because on this podcast already I’ve spoken about how I currently have a split position, and we’ll talk about how that works between the two of us, as far as history goes.

JT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Candido: But, I think this is funny and important to add, I want to, I want to preface this conversation by saying, if we run into something where we want to speak about complete transparency and honesty, I’ll take the brunt of that conversation just to keep your name clear because-

JT: I appreciate that.

Candido: … You’re still untenured and I’m the veteran in the conversation. So I’ll take care of you, my brother, man.

JT: I appreciate it.

Candido: So, let’s talk about when you first working in the district, what did the position look like when you were first hired?

JT: So, it was January, 2020, I won’t forget. I started in a leave replacement. I really went into it cold, I guess. My background is in general education, special education in the elementary setting. Art has always been a passion. I had the opportunity to take classes at my college, so I gained the credits needed, I took the test. And, there on out, I thought having an art teaching position would be a pipe dream and then it unfolded. So, I started out in a school similar to mine, a different school in the district. Same thing, about the same amount of students, same population. We got about three months in and then everything got crazy.

Candido: Right. So, to be clear, you’re saying that, you are in the leave replacement position and then we go virtual.

JT: Yeah. So, just as I got my classroom ready to roll, and I had my routines, and I had a rapport with my students and the staff, we get that, “We’re going to be out Monday, Tuesday.” And then Monday, Tuesday turned into Friday, two weeks, months. And then, we know the rest.

Candido: Okay. So, you are as prepped for this scenario as I am with the exception that, I have already established relationships, so the moment that we go virtual, it’s more like, “How do I just connect with these students that I already have relationships with?” You are just scratching the surface of that.

JT: I probably knew, in the three months, I’m going to be generous to myself, 60% of the names of my students. So, it was a challenge, but definitely, I think looking back at it, so many benefits to going forward.

Candido: Yeah. So, let’s jump in right there, right?

JT: Yeah. Yeah.

Candido: Because, I too feel like I grew during the height of the pandemic and when we went virtual. And I guess, all three experiences, what it was like virtual, what it was like hybrid, and then now that we’re back in the classroom, I think I’ve experienced three different evolutions as far as myself as an educator. And that’s me speaking as a veteran. So I’m definitely interested in your perspective as a first year teacher, and how you moved and how you navigated during this time. So yeah, let’s talk about the benefits.

JT: Yeah. So, I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure the crazy thing for us who had just started, this was all we knew. As soon as I started that was normal, but I had a little taste of it. So, it was real roll with the punches, just like everyone else. But it might have been easier for us, just because we were already rolling with the punches. Things were already new and unfolding every day. This was just another week of being in the ring.

Candido: Right.

JT: So, yeah.

Candido: Yeah, go ahead. I didn’t mean to cut you off. Sorry about that.

JT: No, no. The first thing I realized that was such a blessing, every art teacher, you have some projects in your arsenal and you have some things you want to do, but it’s not going to last you forever. So, it was really cool to see the community of art educators come together and post things online, and blogs, and podcasts, and how everyone used their time was really beneficial to myself.

Candido: Yeah. Okay. So, what resources online? What social media outlets? What did you find being the most helpful?

JT: I’m on Instagram and everybody who’s got an art educator page I’m immediately follow, follow, follow.

Candido: Right.

JT: Nothing too big or too small. YouTube obviously was huge. And I noticed from, let’s say, March through August, a huge boom in links on the side of YouTube of different projects and people getting real professional with their videos. And, it was nice to see firsthand hands-on how people are handling this, who are true professionals.

Candido: Okay. And then, I speak highly about the importance of relationships. So, during these three different periods of your experience, or so early on, how did you manage to start building or establishing relationships with students?

JT: It happened pretty organically, I want to say. And I think, because, and what I’ve noticed is, being new to the profession, you don’t realize the importance and the impact you have on everybody every day. So, with everyone home, or either hybrid, or whatever it may be, I started to realize that these kids really took pride in what they were doing, because there was not much else going on. A lot of kids would reach out to me on the side and be like, “I need more. I need more.” Which was great. And, it started to realize that… Or I started to realize that, what we do here is just important as the math, and the reading, and everything. It gives the kids an outlet to express themselves, to learn, to explore. And those are things that really… They clicked. And I don’t think I would’ve got that as upfront if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

Candido: Yeah. Okay. So, my early experience, as far as the time before I got hired full time was, I took on a leave as well. It was a 6-month leave.

JT: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Same here.

Candido: Yeah. Okay. And, it was a great opportunity for me to start feeling what it was like to be in the position. And, it’s a lot different than just subbing in a district and bouncing between classes. When you are in a long-term position, you really get a feel of what it’s like to be a full-time teacher, that’s probably the best example of what it’s like. But of course, I wasn’t under the same circumstances that you were.

JT: No. No. And, you could have all the schooling and all the prep in the world, nothing’s going to give you that until you’re there.

Candido: Yeah. I thought-

JT: So, those leave are valuable.

Candido: … I thought that year, or at least that moment, March, 2020 marked a moment where it was an even playing field for most teachers. It was year one for most teachers, with the exception of those teachers who were already conscious enough to establish themselves with the digital identity. Those teachers who already had a flexible classroom, those teachers who already had videos on a YouTube channel where they were providing instruction. They were ahead of the curve. And there were some districts that were ahead of the curve. Our district was not one of them. Unfortunately, we had high expectations as far as what we wanted from the students, asking them to join us in virtual classrooms.

But, where we teach, it’s very common that there’s only one device in an entire household. So it could be three students that are all trying to use mom’s cell phone and it just doesn’t work that way. So it took us a very long time to get everybody even remotely capable of joining a virtual classroom. So, that part was not easy. And I think, what was super important for all of us was to learn that patience and really understand who it was that we were serving. I think that was missed for a long time, especially for some teachers that were established, because you really found out what it was like to have parental engagement in a school district during that time, because we needed them more than ever, because we couldn’t get our job done without them. We needed parents. And, it was about time that we saw them as a true asset and an important aspect of education.

I think you mentioned something earlier that I just want to revisit for a moment, but that, early on when you’re a new teacher, you’re so open to learning because you’re trying to grow into your position. And, you might have had the upper hand during that time than I did, because I was so comfortable in establishing my position that there is sometimes reservation of trying new things. I mean, there’s teachers who are still hesitant to read emails. You know what I mean?

JT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Candido: It’s still like, “Hey, wait, what do you mean? You sent that over email.” And, we’re talking about 1999 technology. You know what I mean?

JT: That’s crazy.

Candido: So, okay. This whole stretch, you learned all this stuff, you and I, we are crossing paths because of another position that you took on. But, you receive a call to come join the building that I am in because of a transitional period where my colleague at the time had left the district. You enter. Talk to me about that.

JT: Yeah. Yeah, that was one of those moments, the stars aligned for me and it was pure luck, right place, right time. I was there actually doing testing for the STAR Program. There was nothing wrong with it. I was working. But, I didn’t feel like an educator. I was testing a couple kids a day. I’m walking around with my laptop and that’s when I had run into you, just started talking to you about the profession, and being an artist, and all the above. And then, you actually helped me out a lot. I can’t thank you enough. I think you put my name out to our colleague who was leaving and she had approached me and said, “I would love to leave a recommendation.” And, I was like, “Oh my gosh, of course.” So then, from there the interview process, and here we are today.

Candido: Yeah. So, that moment, to be more specific, my colleague at the time was leaving out of the district, transitioning out. And, you came in and filled her position, which was still considered a leave position. But again, it was an opportunity for you to experience the classroom again, for a little bit of a long-term run. It was shorter probably than the leave that you had initially. Right. Okay.

JT: Yeah. Well, it was interesting because I was in the leave while interviewing for the position.

Candido: Correct.

JT: So it was like, at the same time, “Oh my gosh, if I don’t get it, now I’m just out? I don’t have a leave. Someone else has the job.”

Candido: Right.

JT: And then, on top of all of that, I’m trying to just get through the day to day and get back in profession. I mean, we were on the cart. You and I would have our morning chat, and then I remember giving you the sailors wave, like, “Have a good day.”

Candido: Yeah.

JT: We’d push our carts down the hallway.

Candido: Right. Right. Well, this is my opportunity to tell you that you helped to invigorate me a little bit during that time as well, because I was approaching a point where I was reaching a different fatigue, not so much as being tired about the profession, but I wasn’t so enthusiastic about what we were going through. But, because you brought that vibrancy into the classroom and that curiosity, it was reinvigorating for me, it charged me up. So, definitely thank you for that.

JT: Yeah. I miss those days. It was nice.

Candido: I wanted to discuss then… Let’s build off of that a little bit, because I’m wondering for you what your experience was with support. What did you think that you needed as far as a first year student when it came to support? What did you think support looked like prior to receiving the full-time position?

JT: Yeah, it’s crazy. I think I was a little over confident looking back.

Candido: Okay.

JT: So, looking back, if I had not had my time with you to just go over things like, “Oh, this is what I think I’m going to do.” And then, you would either give me the green light, or you’d be like, “Hey, let’s try this. Let’s do this.” And having that kind of bounce back and forth was huge. And then on top of that, I think where I definitely underestimated and not thinking this is what support was, but the supplies, and working with the budget was something I really, really overlooked for everything.

Candido: Sure.

JT: Because when you get into a leave replacement, you get what you get.

Candido: Yeah. Yeah. And, in your case, there was already closets, right? There were already supplies in place for the two leaves that you…

JT: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, I stepped in mid-year, so what was there you worked with. Which makes it easier, I guess. I’ve listened back to some of the podcasts talking about resilience and being resourceful. And that’s what we do as artists. So, when I walk into a room and this is what you got, no problem. We’ll use it. But when someone hands you a budget and a catalog, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, where do I start?”

Candido: All right.

JT: Like, “What am I going to do?”

Candido: So, let’s move ahead to you received a full-time position. Now, what does support look like for you, in that moment? Now, you’re part of the district, what is the support that you’re experiencing in that moment?

JT: I think, we can all relate to this as new teachers. Definitely, like we were saying, having you was huge. I can’t thank you enough. And little things too. Even now, when I started in the new building, being the only art teacher, feedback is the best support you can get, from classroom teachers, just anyone who works in the school saying, “Oh, the projects look great. Oh, I love what you do in here.” Those little things make you feel like you’re on the right track. Because every day, I’m sure you remember as a new teacher, you’re just second guessing. You’re like, “Oh my God, is this working the right way? Am I getting my point across to these… Are these supposed to look like this?” And there’s no right or wrong answer, until someone walks up and they go, “You’re doing a great job.” And it might be the lunch aid, it doesn’t matter. Anybody who’s in there and watching what you do and gives you positive praise is huge. That support was at the top for me.

Candido: Yeah. Yeah. Oh man, I’m so glad that you mentioned that. It’s a little bit off the topic of what I was thinking, but our staff and faculty is comprised of much more than just whoever has a certification in something, as far as education goes. Like you said, the lunch aids, the cafeteria workers, the custodial staff, they can provide a different level of support, man. A good custodian on your first year of teaching can make your life incredible, man. I mean, talk about receiving assistance and support inside of a classroom. They can provide you with just so much, it should never be overlooked. So, I’m glad you mentioned that for a moment. Now, I get to ask a negative question.

JT: Okay.

Candido: What have you missed, what have you not been afforded it as far as support as a first-year teacher?

JT: Hmm. I think, this just comes with the territory, I guess. But, having you and working next to you, I think being the only art teacher in the school. It has its positives, but it can feel isolating. So, there’s no one to, again, bounce ideas off of, or even just know what it’s supposed to look like at first. And I guess there’s no right or wrong, but that’s tough.

Candido: Yeah. So, we should make it clear for everybody that we did a domino’s game, where-

JT: We did. Yeah.

Candido: … The positions that we moved around. So, when you were hired for the second leave that we’ve described, it was the split position that I’m currently in.

JT: Yep.

Candido: So, I took that position, and then you swapped with the other lady who’s in my building right now.

JT: Yeah.

Candido: So, it was a three-way exchange of positions. So, was she helpful to you in your transition too, into that building?

JT: Oh my gosh, yeah. No, she has been and was amazing. She came in, showed me around, didn’t have to do these things. And they went such a long way. She left me years worth of the supplies that she had been saving, and she didn’t have to do that. And her logic was, this isn’t mine, it’s the schools’. It’s for the kids. And that really resonated with me. If I ever find myself moving or whatever, it’s not about being selfish. I’m here to be a great educator and a great teacher, but I’m not here to be the only best teacher. I’m here to serve my part of the community, and that might be leaving some things behind for someone else to take over and give them the opportunity and the capability to do what they do.

Candido: Right. Right. So shout out to Mrs. O’Grady, she’s a wonderful colleague of ours as well. And, comes from the same frame of mind, as far as understanding that serving our students is our primary responsibility. So, yeah, this was an easy transition for all three of us, because her and I had to come to a working agreement as well, how we were going to get things going. And I did the same thing. She came into the building without her supplies. And so, having her understand like, “Hey, anything I have inside of my room is community supplies. This is for our department, it’s for our students.” And so, having that frame of mind is definitely helpful for everybody, both veteran experience and both first-year experience as well.

JT: Yeah.

Candido: Did you receive a mentor teacher? Do you have a mentor teacher? Is that a program that you’re part of?

JT: So, I have a mentor teacher, it’s the music teacher in the school. She’s been great for just day to day things of how the school works. But the other thing is too, she’s on the other side of the building. I don’t see much of her, but she’s been great. And then, Jeanine, so O’Grady is my other mentor.

Candido: Great.

JT: But you know what? I’ve been able to make relationships like this one between you and I, other colleagues of ours, everyone’s been great. It’s been such a awesome community to be a part of in our own little niche department.

Candido: Yeah. Great. That’s great. I did have a mentor teacher, but I was fortunate to be in the high school at the time of my first year. So, there was six of us in the building, so everybody acted as my mentor at that time.

JT: Yeah. Those are important. They are.

Candido: Yeah.

JT: Little things like, “Where’s the faculty room?” If you don’t know the building, who do you ask? You don’t want to come off in the wrong way. So, it’s nice that those things were in place.

Candido: Oh, there was something else I had in mind. And maybe it’ll come back to me, but I want to ask now, what has been your greatest challenge to date?

JT: My greatest challenge by far was timing.

Candido: Oh, okay.

JT: Learning the students work rate was something that was giving me anxiety a little bit, because I wanted to get this work out. And it may seem selfish, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I wanted to show what I can do and what we can do together. Because I think, their projects are a direct reflection on what we do. And, in our district we have a really good control of what we choose and when we choose to teach it. So, I remember the first September and October coming in everyday and we’re working, but a little bit gets done, and maybe I’m talking too much, maybe I’m lecturing a little too much, or I could have skipped a step in the process, or whatever it may be. So, those are things that I’ve been jotting notes, I have all over my lesson plan book. Little notes, “Take this day out. Add this day. This worked. This didn’t.” Maybe you start with something small and quick, just so you can rid yourself of that anxiety that I hope no one thinks we’re doing nothing in here.

Candido: Yeah. Hey, applause for self-reflection, that is probably one of the most important things that we can do as educators is, just take a moment and look at what we did, whether it’s on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly, quarterly, whatever you need to do, definitely reflect on the way that you are teaching, because that’s probably one of the only ways you’re going to get better. Especially, if you’re alone in a building. It’s one thing to have people that are around you that can assist you with that direct constructive criticism. But if you’re alone and you feel isolated, self-reflection is really going to get you to advance, because you are still professional, you are intellectual, and you are going to be able to make these changes, especially for a profession that we love.

JT: And, you know what? To bring it full circle.

Candido: Sure.

JT: Those videos, and these Instagram accounts, and TikTok, they’re such a good benchmark. If I see something I want to try, I’m not going to show them the YouTube video, I’m going to go teach it myself. But if it comes out a little different, sometimes it’s great. But sometimes I can look back and be like, “Ah, this is what I missed.” Or, “I didn’t get this point across.”

Candido: Okay.

JT: So, they serve as a really good benchmark reflection.

Candido: So, I want to do a little bit of future thinking here. And, I think, you know personally, as well as the listeners that… Well, let me backtrack a moment. Again, thinking ahead, so a lot of teachers are excited for a return to the normal. And, because of the work that I do outside of the classroom, when it comes to anti-racist work, when it comes to advancement for underrepresented community, that return to normal for me is not enough for the population that we serve. I don’t think that going back to normal is the answer. So, that’s my take on it, right? But I’m wondering for you as a new teacher, what do you hope that the art classroom looks like in two years? Have you thought about that yet?

JT: It’s tough to look two years when I’m not even sure what next month is going to look like for them. But, I think for our particular district, I love your idea and your theory on growing the art classroom. The community based initiative would be huge. And if we can get a district-wide agreement on something like that, it could be real powerful. Definitely, the other thing is these kids are becoming really resourceful with technology. And there’s no reason why they can’t implement that with their artwork.

Candido: Right.

JT: Especially, a lot of my students, as young as third grade, second grade, they know NFTs. And they know what that’s about. And, for me, I’m learning with them.

Candido: Right.

JT: And they’ve asked me, “Can we do a project like that?” While we could do it pen and paper, which I think is really important, how cool would it be if we can start something actually from the ground on using technology?

Candido: Right.

JT: So that would be something, it’s realistic, but it may not be plausible, today, if we start working towards, anything could be feasible.

Candido: Yeah. All right. Just to let you know, we are working towards it. We’re going to make that happen. We’re working on that.

JT: I have faith.

Candido: Let’s see… Let’s do a little bragging. What projects have worked for you? What projects have you felt like is something that you put on this… I already know, because I’ve seen your displays. Tell me a project that you feel like has been super successful.

JT: So there’s been a couple of good ones and I get really into the displays. For me, that’s my new art making.

Candido: Okay.

JT: I put a lot in thought of how can all these pieces come together and make a museum out of the school. But right now, and it’s unfolded so nice, we’re working on repetition.

Candido: Okay.

JT: So I have third graders drawing, I showed them Murakami’s art and his flowers. So we start talking about it, and it unfolded again. I didn’t realize their misconception of just the idea of overlapping. So, we talk through all of that. And then, I give them the task, “You come up with your own flower. It could be anything you want, make it simple, give it a face.” And, they’ve taken it and ran for miles, it looks incredible. I can’t wait to post that. It looks awesome. So, that right now, currently, is what we’re in.

Candido: All right. I love that. I love Murakami’s flowers. So, I’m excited to see that project. Yeah. I’m sure that between color and your enthusiasm for a good bold line, it should make for a fun project. For sure.

JT: Yeah. Yeah. You know me.

Candido: The question might seem a little odd, but it’s important in establishing yourself in the building. What’s your relationship been like… Or what has your experience been like building relationships, not so much with the students, but with colleagues?

JT: Yeah. I think, the biggest thing for me right now, and I don’t think it will, but it could come back to haunt me, is I’ve just not been saying no. And little things of, “Hey, can we try this? We’re working on this.” It gets me to have a one on one with the teacher and see what they’re all about, because I don’t know what their classrooms look like. So, a better take on how they teach will give me a better idea of what their class does primarily all week. So, I’ve been working with a lot of teachers and keeping my plan book open to suggestion, whether I had one of the reading coaches come in and we worked directly off a story. And then we worked at craft with kindergarten, to just chatting up and seeing. I gave every teacher actually a suggestion paper, where they can be like, “We’re working on…” I think, second grade did flags. So I was like, “Oh, let’s bring that into the art room, and study flags, and how they work, and things like that.”

So, building the relationship like that through the students, showed my colleagues that I care. And also that, I’m open to suggestion, nothing’s set in stone.

Candido: Yeah. You know what? I think that’s actually a really great approach. It’s not something I would’ve thought about. I happen to be a proponent for no, just to set ground rules. But also, it’s different, this is my 15th year, saying no now is completely different than you saying no in year one. But also, just to clarify for listeners, we don’t have the set curriculum to at some other school districts have. We also don’t have an administrator that’s supervising what we’re doing. But our curriculum is super loose, the only thing that we need to do is essentially teach mediums. There’s a list of mediums that the school district would like us to meet. And anybody can hit those mediums, because if you have a choice-based classroom, or you teach three different lessons, you’re probably going to cover everything that’s necessary.

So, that’s why you are able to do that. There are school districts that have set curriculums for their art year, where introducing a new lesson from a classroom teacher is just not possible. It doesn’t fit into our schedule. But we are able to adapt what we do daily, weekly. It’s really up to us as teachers, as far as our district goes. So, it’s just important to clarify that for other art teachers that don’t have that same level of flexibility that you do right now.

JT: Absolutely.

Candido: JT, there’s obviously more growing to do, more lessons to learn, but I am proud of you and what you’ve done up until this point. And I’m excited. I’ve said it before, I’m excited to have you part of our team. And, I look forward to hearing more stories. So, thank you for sharing, bro.

JT: Thank you. Candido, you have been an inspiration man. And I can’t wait to see what’s next for you. Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor.

Candido: Having that conversation reminded me of the importance of mentorship. In our district, we are providing mentors through our union. However, those people may not always be the mentors a new hire needs. Sometimes, mentorship can happen more organically than that, or I’d encourage new hires to seek out the people they want to learn from. I’d also encourage veteran teachers to make the effort to help our newest colleagues, without being asked to do so. Do it for the love of our profession and the love of our students. To all the new teachers, I hope you found additional support from local colleagues this year, social media connections, or from great resources you can find through AOEU, such as Britney Witt’s series on YouTube, the Art Ed Radio, new teacher episodes, featuring Janet Taylor, and the downloadable guide for first-year art teachers. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you next week.

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.