Michael Bell and How to Get PD That Actually Matters (Ep. 173)

The always-inspiring and always-entertaining Michael Bell is back on the podcast this week! He’s had some changes in his professional life, and he’s here to talk to Tim about how he’s bringing art in his district to a higher level. Listen as they discuss the role of an art supervisor, the incredible new ArtScene show Michael spearheaded, and why Art Ed PRO has been a game changer for his district.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today, we are welcoming back Michael Bell. He is an amazing art teacher, artist, administrator, author, and so much more. It’s really exciting to have him back on the show, and honestly, it’s been a while. We’re going to catch up on all the things that have been going on in the last year or so since he’s been on. Michael is actually an administrator now, and I think it’s awesome to have someone like him overseeing art teachers.

We’ll have him talk a little bit about all the great things that he’s doing there. I think, like I said, just having somebody who’s been in the trenches, who knows what it’s like to be an art teacher giving that type of inspiration, coming from someone who knows what you’re doing as an art teacher day after day in the classroom and knows everything that’s involved in what we do as art teachers is so incredibly valuable. I’m glad for his teachers that he is there.

Anyway, I have a lot to ask him about, just what’s happening with him, what’s happening with his district, and just so many great ideas about what he’s doing that I think can share and maybe apply to what’s happening in your district as well. Like I said, I’m excited for this talk, so let me bring on Michael Bell.

Michael Bell is back on the show with me now. Michael, how are you doing today?

Michael: I’m doing fantastic, Tim. It’s great to hear from you again.

Tim: I’m really glad to have you back on the show. I think, though, big changes for you since last time we talked. I know you have a new position as a supervisor of art teachers, I think maybe world language teacher, too. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what I guess made you want to go into administration after so many years of teaching art?

Michael: Sure, yeah. No problem. I believe to be successful in life, Tim, you just got to keep growing, you got to keep learning, and it’s all about timing. It’s knowing when to arrive and knowing when to leave. The new career path that I chose, it actually really chose me, kind of not the other way around, and that’s an important piece of this. I knew it was probably well over a year ago the last time we talked, and I was kind of at my highest peak. I had become a three-time National Teacher of the Year, I’d given a TED Talk, published a book, and my students had done the unprecedented.

They had won the NAEA’s most coveted Rising Star award seven years straight, which is an award given to one student artist in the entire country each year. Scholastic awards, we had racked them up to hundreds at the regional level and the last three years under my tenure had gone to Carnegie Hall back to back to back with winning national medals and over 10 million in scholarships the last five years alone. I was at a point there was nothing left for me to prove, no more room left for me to grow in the district that I helped thrive over the course of that 23 years, so when the opportunity arose for this new challenge, I just took the leap of faith and here I am in a place where I feel like I finally can call home. It’s nice.

Tim: That’s awesome. Let me ask you, though, you talked about taking on these new challenges. What have been the big challenges in a supervisory role? What has gone as expected? What’s been different? I guess also I should ask you, too, has been it difficult for you to kind of step away from the classroom? To step away from kids like that?

Michael: Well, let me start with the challenges. For me, the biggest challenge is here, as you mentioned with these multiple areas, it’s logistical. I simply can’t be in 10 places at once, but I do try to spread the wealth around. Queen Anne’s County is a small district in comparison with the rest of the state, but that also means that all the supervisors here handle multiple content areas. For me, it’s visual and performing arts K-12, which encompasses dance, chorus, band, theater, media arts. I’m also the Supervisor of our World Languages 6-12, Media K-12, Service Learning K-12, Title IV grants, Bridge to Excellence Master Plan, you name it. It’s a big, big job and I report directly to the Deputy Superintendent, who’s also a huge arts advocate, which it’s so wonderful to work for a place like this.

For me, the challenges, they far outweigh their rewards. I’m enjoying the new role being a general champion in the teachers’ great work on a daily basis and shining a spotlight over their programs which they haven’t had in a long, long time. I think that’s the real key. It’s highlighted all these different content areas, and I know you saw the first ever Art Scene Newsletter online and the stuff that we did there. I felt that it was important to highlight everybody and elevate everyone to an equal status.

I was talking with Mark Coates, I don’t know if you know Mark, he’s high up at the NAEA level and he was a former Supervisor in Howard County and he was a mentor of mine. He agreed that by, and I’ll use his language, “finding commonalities among disparate disciplines”, as he put it, is the key to what I’m doing here. It’s taking a child-centered approach and instilling that love of teaching and learning again into our teachers and including everyone. That’s a big piece of it.

Now, another piece of it is building their capacity. When we did our first two-day professional development opportunity, I of course brought in one of my collaborators, David Modler, who you know from The Journal of Junkies, and I brought him into visual journaling of our troops. We included everyone in the same room, World Languages, you name it. We gave them all the same PD for the first time, so they all heard. The message was loud and clear. It’s about the love, it’s about becoming a team. It’s about drawing that line from our life to our art like I’ve mentioned so many times.

Tim: Let me ask you now, too. You just mentioned Art Scene, doing that with your district this year. Can you talk about what that is? How you got started? Why you think it’s so valuable for kids to be able to participate in something like that?

Michael: Sure. Well, I noticed something when I came to the district and that was that there were some opportunities for students to showcase their artwork, but for the visual arts people in particular, they didn’t have a big show and so I felt this was a need and it was a need that we could easily fill, but because I had done it for many years, I wanted to get the buy-in and have them do this bigger than any other place in the state. You know when I want to do something, I want to do it big.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Michael: I presented the idea to them, showed them that this could be a possible game changer for them, but I wanted the show to be theirs. They would have to own it. They came up with the name. I polled them and we created this whole thing really together, which is the beauty of it. I supported them however I could and we created this K-12-inclusive show that’s held at both high schools in our district and they happen during the same week on different days. It was like fireworks going off, man, at both ends of the district, Tim. It was incredible. When I tell you these teachers brought it, they brought it. You’re talking about teachers that some of them have been teaching for over two decades who all of a sudden this year started up National Art Honors Society Chapters for the first time, had scholastic winners for the very first time. Now, they’re the new game in town.

I think that’s an important piece to this, too, for anybody who doesn’t do something up like this. Kids will stay after school for practices, for games, right?

Tim: Right, right.

Michael: They’ll stay after. Well, why are they going to work in your art rooms if there’s no game, if there’s no external reward? Sure, they might like the teacher, they might like the curriculum, they might like some opportunities to show their work, but it’s the having that game. Now they have a game. Now they’re going to be working hard to showcase their work. When I tell you, it was unbelievable. Students were making live art, they were on the potter’s wheel throwing clay during the Art Scene show. They’re making sculptures. They were doing painting demos. Some students, one even sold their work for the very first time. It was an exciting time for them to be showcased on a huge stage in front of… hundreds in the community came out for it. Students need a “why”, and now the teachers have one and they’re the new game in town, and I’m excited for them.

Tim: That sounds really cool. I love that. I had seen you were highlighted on your local news and they just had some great footage of kids on the wheel, of just these huge crowds going through there, and I think you had shared that on social media and I love seeing that. Like you said, the excitement is palpable there and I think that’s a great thing.

Michael: It is, and for me to be able to get a spot on WBAL through our superintendent who is championing the arts, how many superintendents do you know that are willing to go on national… on a television broadcast on Easter Sunday to promote the arts? Man, she set this thing up and was like, “I’ll go if you go. I’m game.” I was like, “Oh my God, yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s do it.

Tim: That’s great. I love it. Love it. Let me ask you, though. You talked a little bit about professional development, what you’re doing with your teachers, and my question is, how much does your history as a teacher, your success as a teacher kind of inform what you do as a supervisor? Do you offer your teachers a lot of advice? Or do you just kind of let them do their own thing and you support them however you can?

Michael: Well, I think it’s important to champion our teachers and make sure that they know that you got their back. My Deputy Superintendent who’s a huge arts advocate, by the way, he often says to me he thinks that I was more prepared for this job than I even realized. I think it’s that spending that 23 years in the trenches, and by in the trenches I mean selfless service for someone else’s success, which is often the teaching profession. It embodies that, but I think spending that time in the trenches, going through the incredible highs and lows that all teachers experience, it made me the leader that I am for my teachers. I didn’t strive to become an administrator in this capacity and, like I said, it chose me. It was perfect timing for this job.

As far as championing my teachers and offering advice, well, sure. I’ve seen it all, so I’m happy to step in whenever they want me to step in. I’ve even had a couple of our teachers in the district want me to present first hand the visual journaling to their students, and so I’ve shown up at their schools with a suitcase full of amazing visual journals and unpacked them and shared them out with their students. I think it’s important for me to be able to do that for them, to lead by example. Show that I’m still comfortable on the ground with them, helping them whenever they need it, but at the same token, I’m also great with building their capacity and getting out of their way and allowing them to run and do their thing.

There’s a reason why racehorses, I say, they wear blinders because if you look to the left, look to your right, you’re missing a step. I want my teachers to be running straight towards that goal and feel empowered to do so where they don’t have to be looking over their back. They know that I have their back and they can just do their job and feel confident drawing that line and encouraging their students to also do that between their life and their art. It’s important, too.

Tim: Yeah, I think so, and I think teachers appreciate that kind of support that you’re giving them. Next up, let me ask you to in terms of supporting teachers, I know you implemented Art Ed PRO with your district, which we talk about all the time on the podcast here, and you got your district in position as kind of one of the early adopters of the program. I know it was tough for you to get PRO for all of your teachers, so can you talk about kind of the budgeting process? How you found the money to do that and maybe some advice for teachers over else to talk to their administrators? How they can work at getting PRO for them?

Michael: Sure. Well, there’s a lot of districts that have some big budgets. I was walking into a district where there wasn’t any budget, nothing at all, so it was very… I had seen in other districts do textbook adoptions and I saw hundreds of thousands, and this is sad, hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted on these textbook adoptions that ended up sitting in storage shelves collecting dust. I didn’t want to do that to my teachers. I wanted to provide them something that was relevant. You provide a platform that is relevant, that’s here and now, that populates constantly. A textbook doesn’t populate, it doesn’t, not in real time. You don’t have the opportunities to collaborate even with some of your presenters who I’ve known from being at the national convention year after year after year and watching The Art of Education grow into what it grew into.

I remember Jessica when she was just starting out and it was just a small little booth. Now, it’s exploded, and you’ve also been there on the ground just like me where you know who the best presenters in the nation are and you’ve gotten them onboard with your programs and your packages. I thought, “Listen, we’re a small district. We don’t have tons of money to do a lot of these professional development things with where I can’t hire someone to come out at $2,000 a pop to be doing PD. What I could do is bring PD to their living rooms”, which I thought the Art Ed package could deliver on.

I will tell you this, as far as budgeting goes, I reached out, I shared what I felt was the value in this with our local arts council, and Rick Strittmater, who’s the Executive Director over at Queen Anne’s Arts Council, he was all about it. He was all about us taking a leap forward into doing something innovative, something new. Our Deputy Superintendent also was onboard with supporting it. I found the money through various grants and through the grants for the arts councils in order to do this for my teachers. I’ll tell you, I asked them before coming on the air, I said, “Could you guys share with me your experiences with it?” I’ll just read you a couple of quotes, but-

Tim: Oh yeah, yeah.

They’re really happy. From the high school level they said, “It’s user-friendly. Being really busy the appreciate how easy it is to use as a learning tool. They said that… one elementary school teacher says she loves the freedom to watch it when and wherever you want, and they were surprised and happy that they completed their first PD requirements for certificate renewal. They said, “NEVER, EVER”, in capital letters, big bold, “Have there been anything, anywhere close to this enjoyable in the past 30 years. Finally”, she says, “Meaningful and helpful PD. Positively awesome.”

I even had one of our elementary educators signed up and she’s doing The Art of Education University and furthering her degrees. She said she’s enjoyed looking at the lesson plans, coming up with her own ideas, and she’s been using the Art Ed PRO to even help with her planning with your planning templates for the classroom designing curriculum for her own programs. Helping her with her choice-based programs. She says she, “is hoping it stays around for us to use.” I’m definitely going to keep doing it!

Tim: That’s awesome.

Michael: My best to… Couldn’t be happier with the experience. It’s been invaluable and the teachers that took full advantage of it. I think for other supervisors out there, I think it’s really important that they realize that you need to give your teachers something innovative, something different. While the data points are great, I can track through PRO, through you, who’s using a lot and who’s not and stuff like that, but that’s not the kind of data I actually shared with my teachers this year. I want them to trust me and that’s not what I’m doing to them. I wanted to bring them an opportunity and if they took advantage of it, then they got a lot out of it. The ones, if they didn’t, then that’s their fault. The people that did, they certainly soared and loved it and I’m going to keep continuing to bring it to as many of them as I possibly can.

Tim: That’s awesome. I love that. Cool. No, and I think that’s good advice. I think it shows a lot of people just all the benefits that are there for that.

Let me ask you before we get you out of here, I have to ask you about your personal art, everything that you’re doing because you always have amazing stuff going on. I know that people love to hear from you. They love to hear about the art you’re making. What do you have happening right now? Or what do you have coming up in the future that we should look out for?

Michael: Well, right before I took this position, I had done an exhibition up in Pennsylvania and it was a very successful exhibition and I felt like I was just getting my career even exploding in that realm. Since taking on this position, I put that aside for the year and I’ve been very satisfied just painting my masterpiece really with my team in the district and in other areas. We totally are revamping our visual arts curriculum at the high school level, I mean completely and Art Ed PRO is helping a lot with providing some valuable resources for us to do that. We’re doing that also with the World Languages. We brought CL literacy here to the district for the first time ever.

I’ve been painting my masterpieces in other ways. I’m going to definitely get back to painting some more this summer and lining up some different work for a future show. I’m also working continuously on The 31 Nights Project and developing that into a book since it’s a real valuable resource.

Tim: That would be nice.

Michael: Resource for teachers and providing them those exciting challenges and prompts for their kids to create authentic artwork, and that’s so important as opposed to project making, authentic work. That’s where I’m headed.

Tim: For sure. I love it, love it. Cool. Well, Michael, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate-

Michael: Sure.

Tim: Talking to you. It’s always good to talk to you. I love hearing what you have going on. Hopefully we can have you back on again soon.

Michael: Absolutely. Always enjoy it and I enjoy the hard work that you guys are doing over there, too. It’s always a pleasure, Tim. Thank you for having me.

Tim: Thanks, man. Appreciate it.

Michael: Thanks, Tim.

Tim: Michael and I talked a little bit there toward the end about Art Ed PRO and how he got it for his district. Let me give you the rundown on PRO if you are unfamiliar. Art Ed PRO is 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. As of right now, the library has over 100 Learning Packs in it and it’s going to continue to grow because we release three new Learning Packs every single month.

Coming up in July, our Learning Packs on screen printing, if you’re looking for something hands-on, there’s one on identifying essential content if you want some curriculum help. The third is on understanding and implementing IEPs, so if differentiation information is something that you need or that you want, that topic is covered as well. With so many ideas and so many topics already covered, and those three packs released of every month, it is the PD that you need when you need it. Make sure you check it out at the, and make sure you ask your administrator about getting it for your district.

Again, a big thank you to Michael Bell for coming on. We’ll make sure that we link to his social media in the show notes so you can follow him, keep track of everything that he’s doing and everything that his district is doing. There are obviously some great things that are happening right now and some of what we talked about today might even be able to serve as a roadmap or a template for what you can do in your district.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Make sure you go check out Art Ed PRO, and more importantly, go see if you can get your admin onboard to support you with the PD that you want and need. We’ll talk to you soon.

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.