Taking On a New Role (Ep. 162)

In a teaching year like no other, we are all taking on new responsibilities–some we maybe never dreamed of doing. In today’s episode, Nic talks to Leah Keller, an art teacher from Wisconsin who is working as a 3rd-grade teacher this school year. The first part of the interview is from the beginning of September, and the second part is a follow-up to reflect on the first month and what Leah has learned throughout this unique start to the year. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: I’m really excited about this interview today because it was a month in the making. I, recently, right before school started, interviewed a friend of mine from Wisconsin, her name’s Leah Keller. And I just interviewed her on what her situation is or was going to be for the school year. And we just talked about what to expect or the shift she had to make in her career. And it’s quite unusual. Maybe some of you are in the same boat, but I know that it was something that was new to my ears as a solution to the pandemic. So let’s listen to what Leah has to say. We’re going to interview her from a month ago before school starts. And then current this week, I chatted with her again to get the update on how it’s going. So without any further ado, this is Leah Keller on Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Nic Hahn. Welcome to the Everyday Art Room. Now, let’s first have you introduce yourself and then we’ll get into your unique situation this year. So who are you?

Leah: My name is Leah Keller and I teach elementary art in a tiny little district in central Wisconsin called Adam’s Friendship.

Nic: Yeah. But so you’re mostly rural schools, right?

Leah: Yes. We are in a long narrow county and we are the only district within the county.

Nic: Yep. And so how many schools does that include for you?

Leah: Currently, it includes the elementary school, the middle school and the high school. It used to be many outlying schools that filled up the whole county. And over the years, they’ve all closed down with the last one closing just this last May. We had to close that one down. So this past year, 1920, I was working at the elementary school in town as well as the outlying school. So yeah, in the middle of the pandemic had to pack up all the art supplies at that little school to have them brought into town.

Nic: Yeah. Wow. Okay. So your past experience is art education. Have you mainly been in the elementary?

Leah: Yeah. Yeah. For the most part. I’ve taught as far up as eighth grade, I’ve done alternative ed for third through eighth grade. I’ve taught sixth grade in a middle school, but for the most part, most of my experiences is in an elementary school.

Nic: Got it. Now, shifts have happened this year due to the pandemic, which has been mentioned. And you have a new role. Let’s talk about that.

Leah: I do. So Midsummer, our administrator, our superintendent, sent out an email and I think it’s pretty fair to say that across the country, everybody was getting the same email. We’re preparing for three different scenarios. You probably got the same one too. We’re preparing for face-to-face with precautions. We’re preparing for a hybrid scenario. We’re preparing for all virtual learning. My district has an option for students so that if parents just don’t even want to mess around with all the changes and how quickly the changes can happen, they can sign up for this online learning program. And then they are just doing that all year at home.

Nic: Distance. Yeah. Okay.

Leah: Yes. And the students then still are part of our school district. And then they don’t have to worry about the fluidity because from what we’re understanding, and I’m sure everybody else’s too, changes can happen on a dime. You can go home on a Tuesday night and you find out that night that you are doing virtual the next day, or you’re doing virtual and find out that night you’re coming back tomorrow. So in any case, that was the letter. But part of the letter that I glossed over the first time reading it was district staff may be reassigned to assist with keeping numbers low, to keep that teacher/student ratio up to 15 to 1. And I thought, “Psh. Yeah. That’s whatever.”

Nic: Sounds good. Let’s have smaller class sizes. Great. Good. Yeah.

Leah: Yeah. I would love smaller classes. But what that really meant was if you are currently not teaching a core class, like if you are teaching art, music, phy ed, interventions, you may end up with a classroom. So this year I am a third grade teacher.

Nic: Wow. And so now you’re in third grade?

Leah: Yes. Which,

Nic: Which you’re lucky to be a specialist because you already had those connections with your second graders from last year. And so now you’re walking in as their homeroom teacher. So we’re going to do this recording in two parts. Today, we’re just kind of doing the before. You haven’t started teaching, right?

Leah: Nope. Not until, is it September 1st? The day after Labor Day.

Nic: Okay, got it. Got it.

Leah: I think it’s the first time.

Nic: Leah and I have decided that we’re going to do this quick recording, and then we’re going to do a recording later of what really happened. But so now we’re before actually teaching, and tell us about what your thoughts are. What has been in your heart from the moment that you heard about this to right now today?

Leah: So I have, I feel like gone the whole spectrum from being just salty, angry, to super excited. Like “This could be really fun. This could be a good…” Sometimes change is a good thing. And anytime that I’ve been presented with change that I was not necessarily excited about, I really ended up enjoying it. I was reassigned. I was in one school district for like 12 years. And within those 12 years, I was reassigned to, like I said, the alternative ed building. I did not want to go there. And it ended up being really fun. I was assigned to teaching sixth grade at the middle school. I did not want to go do that. It ended up being really fun. So I think what I really had to get over was, and we talked about this a little bit on the phone, I had to get over the fact that my administrators did not call a meeting for the sole purpose of deciding how to make my life miserable this school year.

I mean, that was not their intent. And it doesn’t matter that I am a leader in my state art association. It doesn’t matter what other national activities or what other activities I help provide for art teachers. It wasn’t meant to be personal. And it wasn’t meant to say that we don’t value the arts. And I know it’s temporary. So I just had to get over that and I hate to be too Pollyanna, but I had to get over the fact that it is not personal and they are doing the best that they can, and nobody really knows what’s going on. And so this is what’s happening. And so I can either do it kicking and screaming, or I can look at the advantages of it.

Nic: Yeah, no. I really appreciate that. And I wouldn’t ever call you Pollyanna. You’re a very real person. You’re a very real person. And that’s what I enjoy about your personality is you’re going to look for the positive. I think you always land on that from what I know of you. Mentioned being a leader in your state as well. Can we touch on that a little bit? Just because I think it’s important to know that full spectrum of your job and what you do for art education.

Leah: I’m currently the president elect for Wisconsin Art Education Association. I am also currently the co-chair planning our state conference. And like anybody planning a state conference when we started really our plans in earnest in about January, we were still planning a face-to-face conference. And we got to about April. And I said to my co-chair Ellen, “I’m not sure, Ellen, that we’re going to be able to have a face to face conference.” And so I thought, “Well, even if things are better with the pandemic, we still may not be able to have groups of 350 people meeting.” I mean, it may be limited to 100 people. It may be limited to 50 people, or it could be like now, where it’s really not recommended to have groups at all. And so we approached our state board. And as a board, we decided, “Yeah, let’s just skip trying to play on a contingency of virtual and let’s just go straight to virtual.”

Nic: Let’s just do it. Yeah.

Leah: So that’s what we decided to do. But then we realized that other states around us, they might not have the desire to plan a virtual conference, they may not have the means to, they may not have the technology part down. They just may not be able to offer one at all. So we started inviting other states and we are now up to nine states total. This is going to be their main Fall conference. And once registration opens up on September 15th, which this may not even be, this probably isn’t even going to be posted by then. But when registration opens up, it opens up for anybody in anywhere can come to it. So this humble little conference in central Wisconsin is now a coast to coast. We have people from Massachusetts all the way to Washington that are going to be attending. So that in the middle of packing up an art room for a closed building and teaching a completely new foreign thing. It’s not much. Plus, I have three teenage daughters.

Nic: Oh yeah. And also I have a life. Got it. My goodness. But that just goes to show what kind of a person you are, you are a giving person, you are a realist and you’re super positive. I can’t wait to hear more about this experience with the third grade. I know that we’ll hear the real, and I want to. I want to hear the real. And then I want to hear the insights you get, because I think that’s what you’re going to find, is some insights.

Leah: Yeah. I’m really hoping. And in the meantime, I’m also still going to be sending classroom teachers, art lessons that they can teach to kids. So I’m going to, like myself, I get to still teach art, but just to my class. But that also means that I have to be a music teacher and a phy ed teacher. And I think what I’m most nervous about is just all the little things that I don’t know about running a regular classroom. And I feel like this is really, I hope anyway, that this is really going to give all the teachers and appreciation for what the other ones do. Because if I send out this lesson and this teacher’s like, “Oh, this looks really great.” And they’re going to teach this art lesson to their kids and realize that it’s so much more than they realized, and then think, “Wow, she’s got to do this back to back to back all day long. And I can barely manage it once a week,” maybe we’ll all have a better appreciation for each other in the end.

Nic: 100%. We talked a couple of weeks ago and it was before you started school. And you explained that you were teaching a third grade class when you primarily have taught an art education your whole life, and you’re moving into a third-grade class starting with, were you doing hybrid or just small class sizes?

Leah: Just small class sizes.

Nic: Yeah. Okay. And you’re in Wisconsin and we wanted an update. It’s been about a month. You’ve been in school for three or four, this is your fourth week, isn’t it?

Leah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: Okay. Okay. So tell me what school looks like to you right now. What’s happening?

Leah: Okay. Well, the first update is that you and I spoke on a Saturday. There was one week left before school actually started. So the week after we originally talked was the teacher work days, and getting your classroom ready, and all that good stuff. So you and I talked on a Saturday. The following Monday at 4:00 PM, the day before the first teacher work day, my class disappeared off of the computer. Then we used Skyward and they were no longer on Skyward. So I emailed my principal and I said, “What’s going on? My kids are gone.” And I just got this message saying, “In an admin meeting, talk later.”

Nic: Okay. Super.

Leah: So I then found out that so many more kids had decided to go virtual that they took my class of 10 and they split them up among the other five third grade teachers, which still amounted to them being less than 15 to one. And told me, I was now teaching first grade.

Nic: Oh my gosh. So we were going to start this conversation, but I said, “No, let’s just get started on a recording.” Okay. Okay. So you’re now currently teaching first grade?

Leah: First grade. Yeah. Yes. So the beauty of it was though that I got a co-teacher and she had actually been in the classroom before, just not for 10 years, but she had at least done the job before. So, I mean, I felt like I had that going for me. But she also is a math interventionist. And so I knew right away that her role, in the afternoon, she would be out teaching math to the classes where there were other specialists as the classroom teacher. So she was out teaching math in the class that was being taught by the music teacher. And she was out teaching math to the class being taught by the phy ed teacher.

So that happened for a couple of weeks. And I slowly took on more and more of the teaching throughout the day. And then they told her that they needed her to teach kindergarten and first grade virtual. So now the only time she’s in the classroom with me is an hour in the morning to teach math. And the rest of the day is me.

Nic: Face-to-face with first graders. What’s your class size?

Leah: 12.

Nic: 12. Okay. And she comes in and teaches math and you’re teaching all other subjects?

Leah: Yep.

Nic: Okay. Including the specialist. Is that the way that’s happening?

Leah: Well, we are able to have phy ed now. We do have phy ed once a week and they have a daily recess and we squeeze in go noodles and things like that throughout the day. And when they do math, actually they do a lot of physical movement in math. When they count, they’ll raise their hands above their head to count up and then they’ll push their arms down to count down. And so she gets them really moving and physical for math class, but-

Nic: That’s good.

Leah: And I have to say, I’ve been failing miserably at doing anything with music. Today, we watched the StoryBots about how music is made and I’m afraid that’s all they’ve gotten, but we’ve done a little teeny tiny bit of art.

Nic: Yep, because you don’t have time. Okay. So do you have an extra hour at the end of the day then, since you guys aren’t necessarily being watched?

Leah: I have a shorter day.

Nic: Okay. With the kids?

Leah: Right. So we used to get out at about 3:05. Now, it’s an hour shorter. It’s about 2:05 because they needed more buses to keep the amount of kids on the bus lower, and more buses means it just takes more time for them to get out and about and moving. So we actually lost an hour of the day, and we’re actually starting a half an hour later than we did last year. So we’re trying to fit everything in with losing an hour and a half a day. So, I mean, that would have been your daily 50 minute art period. That would have been your daily 50 minute music period. So it’s challenging to get everything in that I’m supposed to get in without squeezing in some of those things.

Nic: Yeah. That’s a really interesting concept though, because there are many schools out there that don’t have specialist the way that your school traditionally has, or my school traditionally has with the art specialist. And then you hear that from those teachers, like “It’s so hard to get everything in. I don’t have time to do art. I don’t have time to do music.” And it’s pretty legit, isn’t it, now that you’re living it?

Leah: Yeah. Yeah. It is. They used to tell me. Prior to this year, they used to say to me all the time, “We don’t have time for that fun stuff anymore.” Now I see exactly what they’re talking about.

Nic: Aww. Okay. So when we talked, we were hypothesizing what you might find to be very beneficial and what you might find to be a struggle. If you were to answer those two questions now, living it for a month, what is beneficial in this role?

Leah: It has been a really interesting and positive change to be able to see these kids all day every day. I mean, I know that specialists often think of that as a positive, “Oh, thank God. I don’t have to see them all day every day.” But you can flip that right around. And it’s really such a benefit to see them all day and to build those relationships with them. And just things like it’s really pretty phenomenal watching a kid sound out words and read for the first time. And it’s pretty awesome. And the things that were challenging, or just things you wouldn’t think would be challenging, just the little things like, “Oh, now I have to take attendance every day and I have to do this breakfast count and I have to do the lunch count. And I’ve never done that before.” And where do you put it? I just-

Nic: What’s your organization and yeah, all of that.

Leah: Exactly.

Nic: So Leah, tell me, what’s happening right now in your classroom? Have you seen numbers go up? Do you feel like this is going to shift again? What is it looking for you? What is it looking like for you?

Leah: The first week I had all 12 here the whole week. As the weeks have gone by, different families have had COVID scares. And so we’ve had kids out for two, three, four days at a time. And so actually now having all 12 of them in the room at the same time can be kind of rare. Our whole district is operating very fluidly. They say that’s the term of the year within my building. We’ve had one first grade class that has had to go virtual while the rest of the school is still there. Our middle school is currently virtual while everybody else is still face-to-face. So it all depends on the numbers of positive cases or contact in any given classroom or any of the three buildings.

Nic: Yeah. Wow. So you really are in a lot of fluctuation in your school.

Leah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: That’s what I’m feeling as well. In fact, my husband got off a phone call today telling him that he has been exposed to a student. He’s a teacher as well. And so he will be quarantined for the next two weeks. And so then it was, what does that mean for us as well? Do we stay home? We still go to work, but if there’s symptoms in the house, then you don’t. And just all these rules and regulations and trying to figure out how to best still teach and go to school. And sounds like you’re doing both.

Leah: My own daughter stayed home. She had a sore throat one day, and then the next day it was a sore throat and a headache or something. And I turned out to be nothing. But because the second day there was more than one symptom, I couldn’t take her back to school unless we either quarantined or went and got a test. And so then the whole family had to stay home until we got those test results.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. Right. And that’s what we’ve been told if there’s any symptoms that occur. So do you see at your school, do you see any change within the year? Are you going to be teaching first grade for your whole entire school year?

Leah: I have no idea. I have no idea, because what we started off the year with changed five days before school started. And even my own co-teacher, her role changed just last week. So I have a feeling that as kids move in and out in terms of virtual, they might do virtual the first, we do trimesters, they might do it the first trimester and then decide “This isn’t for me,” and then want to come back to face-to-face. And then we’re talking about numbers fluctuating. Oh, they actually did just add a 4K class last week. They needed another class. They needed more space for them. So they added a third or fourth 4K class and they have their classroom in the library. So I think the whole year is just going to be one fluctuation after another and whatever changes come along, they’ll meet those needs and change with it.

Nic: So tell me, what is the one thing that’s getting you through? Are you able to get through or are you overwhelmed right now? Or is there something that’s like keeping you going and positive?

Leah: I think the biggest thing that is getting me through is that compared to my specialist cohorts, I really got eased into it. I mean, the first two weeks, especially, she was there most of the day. My co-teacher was only leaving for like an hour in the afternoon to teach a couple of math classes. So it just started off with just, I was very much eased into it. And I realized very quickly that had I just been thrown into a third grade classroom like the intention was, I probably would be floundering and maybe just getting my bearings now, whereas with this I feel completely comfortable.

Nic: Sounds like it’s almost a student teacher experience.

Leah: Yeah. Yeah.

Nic: Like you have your teacher and now she’s made you into the master teacher of this room. Hmm. Interesting. Leah, I know that not only do you have this amazing classroom this year and new situation, but I know that we just touched on this last time, that you are very much involved with the Wisconsin Art Educators, and you have been working on their virtual conference this year.

Leah: Yes.

Nic: Can we talk about that a little bit and how that’s going and how you’re feeling about the whole thing?

Leah: I’m feeling good. I think we have absolutely amazing sessions to offer people. Registration is open right now so people can register for that. We are collaborating now with nine other states. So this is the main Fall conference for 10 different states. So we’re hoping to get a lot of participation. We have, in addition to the recorded sessions, the prerecorded sessions that you can access through December 31st. We’ve got Cindy Ingram from Art Class Curator. We have Laura Grundler from K-12 Art Chat, and we are going to have a live Q and A with the anti-racist or teachers. All of the live events will take place on Saturday, October 24th. We’re also going to have lot live door prize drawings, which who doesn’t love getting in on the drawings?

Nic: I love that. Yeah.

Leah: You’ve been to a Wisconsin conference, that’s the most fun part.

Nic: I have. And it’s a big hyped up thing and it’s pretty amazing. So I’m excited to see that in a virtual way too. So, okay. Let’s go through the states that are involved in this right now.

Leah: Okay. So we have joining us, we have Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Washington.

Nic: Wow. Okay. So if you’re an educator in one of those states, how do you register? How do you go about that?

Leah: You will go to, we have a website for registration and it is W-A-E-A, as in Wisconsin Art Education Association, And then if you are in one of those 10 states, there’s a shopping link. There’s one link per state. So you click on the state that you’re from. And then that way, we’ll know who is registered from every state. And then there’s another link. So if you’re from a Texas and you want to attend, you click the link for, I forget what it says, non-affiliated states, other. So it does not matter what state you are from. You don’t even have to be in the United States. I think somebody teaching overseas registered for it the other day. If you are from one of those 10 states, though, all those states I listed, including Wisconsin, if you are from one of those states and you are one of the first 500 registrations and you belong to your state association, you will be getting a swag box.

Nic: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that you guys were doing that. That’s awesome. I’m going to register tomorrow.

Leah: What else? Oh, did I mention the Makers Market? We’re going to have a Makers Market on Facebook.

Nic: No, tell me about that. What does that look like?

Leah: Yep. So our secretary, Susie Belzer, is organizing that. And her plans have kind of changed. So to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, but I think it’s going to look when somebody has a web-based home party, when they post pictures of things that are for sale and you just click sold and then the seller will contact you, and let you know the details, and you get your cool art stuff.

Nic: Wow. That’s awesome. And that’s another one of my favorites in the Wisconsin conference, is just meeting the artists that are participating. And I have lots of art ware from the last time I visited. So it’s always a really fun thing to, to chat with the artists and just get to know what our PLN actually makes as well. So that’s really fun. That’s nice that you’re still creating a space for that, even though it’s virtual.

Leah: We’re trying, we’re trying. We also are planning a membership show. So like a virtual art show for any members. And then the participating states also, if they would like to have, there’ll be links on the site from each of those states if they choose a state meeting or a live awards show, there will be links for all of that. So some of them are still deciding how they’re going to have those run, but you’ll be able to see any of those shows or attend your own state meeting if they’re having a live meeting.

Nic: Oh, I love it. I love it. You go ahead and tell the rest of your group too. You guys have really took on a huge role in making sure that we still can have some kind of connection in a pandemic. So thank you, Wisconsin. Truly. Thank you, Wisconsin.

Leah: Challenging, because we know that people want that connection and they need that connection, but yet we can’t physically have it. And I know that people are tired of being on the computer. So we wanted to offer as many live things as we could and as many things that would really get people excited about it. But yeah, it’s hard with everything being virtual all the time now.

Nic: All the time.

Leah: It is really challenging to get that excitement level that you hope to get.

Nic: Yeah. I think once we are able to go face-to-face again and just be together, it’s just going to be that much more special. But in the interim, this is going to be an amazing event. I just know it. I will definitely be there and I know you will be there, of course. And we will, I don’t know, party all day. October 24th, right?

Leah: That’s right. It does start a little bit later than we would typically start, but we consider that we have from Massachusetts to Washington in there. So we didn’t want Washington people that have to get up at 5:00 in the morning and-

Nic: Oh, come on. We don’t have early birds in Washington? I don’t know. Yeah, no, that’s respectful. That’s kind, that’s a nice job. Well, Leah, thanks for letting us join along in your adventure of your 2021.

Leah: First grade. Or fifth grade.

Nic: Yeah. Who knows where you’ll go?

Leah: Plus, I’m still sending lessons to the other teachers too. So they’ll come up to me and they’ll be so excited when they finished a project and “I hung our project up. Did you see it?” And I feel really guilty because I had just walked by and didn’t notice.

Nic: But look at that. Look at that.

Leah: They’re amazing.

Nic: You’re still wearing the hat of an art teacher as well, providing that for your… Make sure that you’re finding some time for some self-care, because it sounds like that might be a difficult thing to find some space for.

Leah: I’ll do my best.

Nic: Thanks a lot, Leah.

Leah: Thank you.

Nic: Each of us are living such a bizarre world right now. But what is really interesting, there’s so many things that are similar and so many things that are different in the way that education is approaching this problem. Man, I can’t even fathom living the life that Leah is living right now. Switching from third grade, now she’s doing first grade, when she has been trained as a visual arts teacher. And also still providing that art education for the rest of her school, I believe, out of the kindness of her heart. God bless. And then on top of it, she is rocking out the Wisconsin Art Education Association convention coming up. So definitely jump on, check out that website, make sure that you register because I think it is going to be quite grand. So kudos to Wisconsin. Thank you for Leah for you taking the time to chat with us today. It was really interesting. Actually, I can’t wait to talk to you in another month and see how things have changed. Thanks for listening today. And I hope your year is a story to tell as well, just like Leah shared with us today.

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.