Professional Practice

The Importance of Mentoring (Ep. 211)

Debi West joins Nic on the podcast today to discuss her life as a retired-“ish” art teacher and how she stays involved in art education outside of the classroom. Listen as they cover the importance of mentoring, Debi’s work with NAEA’s Emeritus Art Educators group, and why art teachers should be collaborating no matter the stage of their career. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Nic: I’m very excited about the conversation you’re going to hear today because it is with a good friend of mine, Debi West. She is a good friend to many people. I am not unique in this because she is such a bold, bright, loving personality. Today. You’re going to hear about a mentorship program that she is a part of and will be encouraging you to be a part of in some way, if needed. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Hello, I am so excited to have you on today because we’ve been friends for a long time. So I’m excited to give you the opportunity to be on Everyday Art Room because you are one of my favorites, and I can’t wait to shout that out to the rest of the world. Debi, will you please introduce yourself?

Debi: I will. Thanks so much, Nic. I’m so excited to be here because ditto, everything that you just said. I adore you, and I think that what you do for kids and for teachers is just incredible. So I’m Debi West, I am a retired-ish art educator. I always say ish because I retired from the art room, the classroom after 25 years. And for the last four years, I have been kind of, I guess, working my own company, Westspectations Educational Consulting. Where I mentor and teachers, I work with school districts, I work with kids. I also work with the art of education university as a graduate instructor. And now I make my jewelry and my art and I travel around and do jewelry, art shows. So I’m, I’m keeping myself really busy. I’m just not working the 80 hours a week in the classroom anymore. So, hence retired.

Nic: Sure, sure. Okay. All right. You mentioned the word retire-ish, but you actually, you taught me a new word today and it’s emeritus. So you are talking to us today about emeritus educators. Let’s first, just get this out of the way. What does that mean? What does it mean to art educators?

Debi: That’s a great question. Actually, and ironically enough, back when I was a Southeastern VP for the NAEA one of the board issues that came to us is: Do we want to continue to call the retired art educators, retired art educators, or do we want to call them the emeritus art educators? Which is just a fancier name really for retired. And so we took it to delegates and it was approved that the retired art educators would now be the emeritus art educators. And then ironically enough, we do have an NAEA Emeritus Art Educator page on Facebook, but we have a news bulletin. And as an interest group within the NAEA, we are still considered the RAEA, which is the Retired Art Educators Association. So we are a group that works through NAEA, we work with the pre-service teachers. Which I can get into that a little bit more, and we also, every year at the national conference, we do an auction. Where all of our members bring in art pieces that we’ve created or donations that we get, and we raise money for the pre-service teachers, which is kind of exciting.

Nic: Oh yeah. That’s like the whole circle of life type of a situation there.

Debi: Exactly, yes.

Nic: I love it. I love it, and it doesn’t surprise me that you are involved with that, or many other art educators are because it’s hard to leave this profession. It’s a joy, a love, a passion, and so to just walk away is a difficult thing. So being involved in some way is really important.

Debi: Oh, oh yeah. I don’t think that I could ever completely retire and not be involved. I mean, art education, art has really been defining my life since I was young. And so to become an art teacher, or I really consider myself a teaching artist. Right, because I’ve always been an artist, but now to be able to share art techniques, art prompts, push creative thinking, divergent thinking, which is really all-encompassing of what art education is about, I think is just what my life passion is, really. So I can never step away and say goodbye, but I think when we look at it too, there’s so many different facets to it. I mean so do you stay, I guess one of the questions is, do you stay in the art room for years and years and years if maybe it’s time for you to leave the room and I’ve got to say, Nic, it was one of the hardest decisions that I ever made.

But I think ultimately it might have saved my life, because now instead of working the 80 hours a week, which good art teachers work 70, 80 hours a week. And we don’t necessarily, always want to, but sometimes it’s just the realities and now I work 70, 80 hours a month and I’m still entrenched, but I’m not having to deal with some of the other stuff. And do I miss my classroom? Absolutely. And more than anything, do I miss my kiddos? Oh, it can make my heartbreak how much I miss my kiddos, but it was the right thing for me to do at that time.

Nic: Yeah, and actually that was a conversation we had as we joined in together, we can see each other on this platform, but of course you’ll just be hearing our voices. So you won’t get to see the neon clothing and the side ponytail that I’m rocking today, and as I was mentioning to Debbie it’s Neon Day, it’s homecoming week and that hurt your heart a little bit, didn’t it?

Debi: Oh my gosh. I’m just remembering the costumes we would wear and the door decorating and I had 160 national art honor society kids that were like running around the school, decorating the school and face painting at the football game. And we had the Friday lights and yeah, I just say, I miss it a little bit would be a lie, because I miss it a lot.

Nic: Yeah, well, that’s part of your personality too. You are a fun, fun person, which makes you so easy to chat with, and of course do the job that you’re doing. So let’s get back to our conversation about emeritus art teachers. How do you think that emeritus educators are helping beginning art teachers in this season of art of education and really finding what matters?

Debi: Well, that’s such a great question. It really is because I don’t think of myself as an emeritus art educator until I think of myself as a mentor, right? And so when I go, all right, so I’ve been mentoring teachers, my whole career. I had 26 student teachers throughout my career. Once I retired, I continued on that path of if you need help, I am a phone call away. I’m a shoulder, I am a sounding board, or if you want advice or thoughts, I’m happy to throw some out that you could springboard from. It’s what I love to do. And so I think putting it all together in that realm of, okay, what does it mean to be an emeritus art educator? And then I, I was very humbly recognized as the Georgia Emeritus Art Educator in 2020, and then the National Emeritus Art Educator in 2021, which again, very humbled by that.

And so then suddenly you have this platform where you’re like, okay, that’s great. I’m humbled and I’m honored, but what can we do with that? Is it enough to be like, okay, so I’m currently representing emeritus art educators and what is it exactly that the emeritus art educators are doing? And are we doing our part as a whole in mentoring? Maybe not even just our pre-service teachers or our beginning teachers, but even some of our seasoned teachers who have been struggling. I mean, come on you guys, the last two years have been the most challenging years in the history of yeah. I mean, so we’re sitting off on the sidelines right now, watching and listening and you know, most of us are pretty involved in social media aspects of art education. We’re seeing how art teachers are drowning and art teachers really, really need help right now.

And we are a group that is there for you. And I don’t, if we’re saying that loud enough. And so that’s why I love you so much for having this vision to go, Hey, let’s put it out there on this podcast, and maybe an art teacher will hear this tomorrow or the next day or the next month, and they’ll go, oh my God. I’m calling Debbie, or I’m calling my state association, and I’m finding out, do we have an emeritus or retired group in our state that can help, and that can mentor.

And it doesn’t even have to be so formal as that. Okay, so this is going the name of your mentee, and this is going to be the name of your mentor this year, and you must talk each week and you must document what you’re saying. I mean, I think that there are some places that want to do that. But I think it’s more of like, I am your friend in art education, and I’m here for you, no matter what. We don’t have to document it, you can call me and text, say, don’t say a word. And I promise I’ll try.

Nic: Right, sure, you’ll try.

Debi: And just listen, because sometimes you just need to vent. You just need that sounding word, and we’ve been there now. We haven’t been there, a lot of us, what you all are dealing with, but we can be there of for classroom management ideas. We can be there for lesson planning ideas. We can be there for decorating ideas. We what’s the kind of tape that’s going to make this art stick on the wall. How are we going to exhibit this? How are we going to do an art show? How are you running your art club? This is stuff that we’ve done, we’ve been in the trenches right there with you. So that’s what we are, and that’s what we want to do to help.

Nic: Yeah, and even to have that person who truly, truly understands. Like when I call you up and I say, whoo. Well, for example, Debbie, I’m going to be a few minutes late. Buses were late, and I was on bus duty, and I had to send out an email and you truly understand. Now I can have that same conversation with my kids, my neighbors, my husband, whatever. And my husband’s an educator, but he doesn’t understand what art education means, the way you do.

Debi: Amen, that it. And that’s it. And then you see the folks that are on social media, and I’m going to be careful how I say this because I love being on social media. I love my students are out there and exhibits out there and the lessons that I’m teaching out there to share. And I think most of us are doing that with no ego. We’re doing that because we truly want to share our students successes, right? But then I think also you have to be careful of that whole comparison is the thief of joy. Thank you, Teddy Roosevelt for that one, because I know that I have art teacher friends, and some of my past student teachers that are calling me up going, oh my gosh, how do people have time to put all this stuff on, on social media?

I can’t dance and sing because I can’t breathe right now. And so what I say to you, you don’t have to dance for me, dancing and singing works for me. I want to be up on the table, dancing and running around. But you have each teacher right now has to do what works best for them. And what really, I think this whole conversation is about is when you need help call out. I guess the emeritus teachers, it’s not a competition for us. Do you know what I mean? We’ve been there. We just want, we just want to be your friend and art guide. That’s what we want to, that’s what we want to do. And, and I think that there’s so many teachers out there that don’t even realize that we’re there because they don’t have time to even look up right now.

Nic: No, you are absolutely right. So wait, Debbie, are you currently mentoring teachers, and if so who are these teachers that you’re mentoring?

Debi: I am thanks for asking. I have a group that we’ve been on a group chat. We call ourselves the Art Squad. For several years now, and it’s just a text group and there’s like five or six of us and we just springboard ideas off of each other, right? And I’ve got my group in Georgia, I’ve got a few of that same kind of group in South Carolina. And then I’ve got a group that’s just like, one’s in Colorado, one’s in Oregon, one’s in Tennessee, one’s in Louisiana. And so we’ve all known each other and met through the NAEA and we’ve just remained friends and a lot of those folks, and I guess I’ll specifically talk about my group in Georgia. I’m the only retired one right now.

So when we text each other, literally we text, I’m not even kidding. It might be every day, and it might be one of the teachers just left elementary and last year in the middle a pandemic decided to move to high school. And so every day she would be like “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. I’m drunk. What is happening?” And so, and then she added a bunch of questions about AP because she wasn’t able to take that first initial AP course. So she’s using us to springboard off of it is this piece, and what’s your thoughts on what you would say? And so I’m the one that’s retired and has a little bit more time to do a little bit more research, to be able to answer the question. Hey, that’s a really strong piece. Maybe here’s a question or two that you can throw out, right?

So all together it really reiterates the thing that I came up with years ago #togetherweartbetter, And that’s what we’re doing when we’re communicating. So that’s one group of seasoned art educators that I’m mentoring, but in the same breath, when I’m all like having my moment or I’m going to teach at a school in inner-city Atlanta. And I’ve got a couple questions where my other friend had taught in inner-city Atlanta. So she’s able to go “Hey, here’s a couple thoughts”, right? So it’s not like one person knows more than anyone else, and I would never say the emeritus teachers know it all, like we are the fellows. No, we’ve just been there and we care. And a lot of us have been there a long time, 25 to 45 years, some of these teachers have been in the classroom, in the trenches.

And then I’ve got a couple young students that are teachers, that I’ve been working with that have been great. So I was really fortunate to present at the Peach State Summit in Columbia county, and I loved it. And I had 40 teachers and I was there for two days and I did like six different presentations. And a couple of them were like “Hello, my name is Caleb. Can you be my friend?” And I’m like, yes. And then they’re like, what do you got from me? I’m like, I got everything for you, you know? Yeah. And I sent them a year long teaching curriculum and I sent them, oh, here’s an idea. And then they sent me a text message or a phone call way. Hey, I had a student do this to me today. Oh yeah, there’s no eye rolling.

The battles carefully. And then if you’re getting eye rolling, why are you getting eye rolling? Kids aren’t bad, kids are good. If kids are bad, they’re either bored or there’s something else going on. So as the teacher and their guide, let’s figure it out, and I’m a car ride away. I’m an hour and a half away from her. I’ll get in the car tomorrow and go to her school and help her out, right? And so I think she’s breathing so much easier now, knowing that she’s got some mentors there to help her out if she…

Nic: Yeah, and I’m finding that too, and that was a conversation I had. Our school is over capacity this year, and so we have a second art teacher coming in. And so she comes into my room literally five minutes before she has to teach. So I said, you know what, I’ll jump on a cart because you can’t get a cart ready and get into a classroom in this amount of time. So I’ll go on the cart in the classrooms you teach in here. And every day at the end of our hour, we come back together and she’s the teacher who has been teaching for a half dozen years. But every single day she has another question, Hey, how did you do this? Or why did you do this? Or what would you do in this way? Because she works with third, fourth and fifth. And I, and she’s currently teaching kindergarten in my room. So, we’re mentoring each other in that same kind of way. But like you said, I’m learning things from watching her.

Debi: Absolutely.

Nic: So it is this give and take. Debi, what is your vision for building that relationship between emeritus teachers and pre-service teachers in a mentoring program? What if you were to put it out there into the world, what would it look like?

Debi: Well, I love that you asked that question too, because we just had a really great meeting a couple months ago with the president of the emeritus group, which is Betsy Logan. She’s incredible, yeah, love her, in Alabama. And she actually reached out to our whole group and said “let’s go ahead and have a conversation with the pre-service books.” And Lynn Loubert right now is a pre-service director with the NAEA and she’s Kendall College of Art Design and then Jesse Torero. So forgive me if I’m not pronouncing that correctly, I’ve not met her yet, but she is a division director elect, right? And so we had a meeting with a group of us and flew that 10 of us, the majority were the Emeritus Art Teachers, and we talked about what is it that the pre-service teachers need from us?

Yes, we do this auction at the NAEA and we raise money for them, and then we show up at their big party because I mean, these pre-service teachers know at a party at NAEA, they are super fun. And so we always want to go there and support them. Also, good leaders are always finding new good leaders, right? You can always see in leadership capacity for a certain amount of time. So our job, so to speak is to go out with fishing line to be like, Ooh, I like what she’s got going on. You can just see who these new leaders are going to be. So now it’s how can these two groups work together so that, and it might even be something Nic that is as formal as what I said like that, that there’s pre-service teachers that can art adopt an emeritus teacher or emeritus teachers that can art adopt a pre-service teacher, right?

We sure we have this, let’s talk once a month and let’s do maybe a little bit of research and kind of document it so that we can prove that it’s something that’s working. I know just with you and I have in the conversation, I went ahead and looked at a couple mentoring programs that really work in education world. And I’ve got some links here that you guys might want to share with the people. But when you see how it’s working in other disciplines and other arenas, it’s interesting to see how it works. So I don’t know if at this point we have an exact way in which it’s going to work yet because like all good things in NAEA, in an art education world, we all get together and we all talk and we all have these phenomenal ideas and then reality happens.

Life happens. So you step away from the conversation and five and six months go by and you’re entrenched in teaching and life, mommyhood and lifehood and all that fun stuff. And all of a sudden you’re like, oh, we got to circle back to that. So we’re in that place right now. And I think there’s a few, like I said, a Meredith teachers that are working with some mentors specifically through NAEA, I’m just sort of on my own at the moment. And then I did start a Mentoring Monday program, right after I received the award. And that was going pretty well where every other Monday I would come on and do a zoom and have a different theme and teachers would jump on and be like, oh my gosh. First of all, is this free?

Yes, it’s free. I’m not here to make money off of this emeritus status. I’m here to help my fellow, our family, so to speak. That worked for a little while and then we got bad zoom bombers happening. And so then I had a company approach me and say the, they wanted to take it over and, and run it. And I’m like, that sounds great. And then again, all good plans. So we’re kind of waiting, but I eventually would like to see that happen too.

I would like to see the emeritus group actually do something monthly where we do a mentoring Monday or something where we have a different emeritus leader or educator come on each month and talk about a different theme and just hope that we can get a plethora of student teachers, pre-service teachers, new teachers, seasoned teachers, whoever might need it at that time. How do you use the visual journal so that it works and I’m not grading for 12 hours? Or, How do you get at the art club set up so that it’s actually a working entity in the community. These are some of the questions that I think teachers have that we’re happy to help answer.

Nic: Wow, and I’m sure is because you’re bringing in other teachers, you’re probably finding the expertise in each of those areas. Like what you just said, one person’s going to know everything there is about sketchbooks, but Debbie, you might be sitting there listening and learning as well, as you’re listening to that, because we all have our things, right?

Debi: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, and that’s the thing, two brains are way better than one always. And that is something that we all figured out when we first attended our state art ed conference or our national conference. I know that I am a much better art educator for all intents and purposes. I’m a much better human being because of GAEA and because of NAEA and because I’ve got a circle of art educators that have made me want to be better in the classroom and not. So, yeah I think that’s sort of just going to be reiterated in this vision for what the emeritus teachers will be able to do. Just to be maybe a little bit of a louder presence in what we’ve been, I think the goal is that our new teachers, the millennials out there realize, we’re not that old and we love you guys and we’re here for you guys. So, Together we are better.

Nic: Together, we are. Absolutely, and I love that you keep bringing that up because that is your tag. Like it has been for years and it truly shows what type of a person you are and your values in, in life. I think that the idea of someone taking advice from a more advanced person, we aren’t going to say older, we’ll say more advanced.

Debi: Seasoned.

Nic: See, a seasoned teacher is actually, it’s kind of hip right now, right? I mean, everything that is old is now new again. And what I’m finding is I’m going back to even my childhood and thinking, what did we do for activities? What was really fun for me, because guess what? That same thing is going to be fun and interesting to the first graders that I’m teaching right now because it’s developmental. And when we didn’t have all the technology that we do now, we came up with different ways to teach and that’s cool and that’s hip right now. And that’s what you have that maybe a new teacher doesn’t have, right?

Debi: That’s it, that turn it off just for a minute. Cause I don’t ever want to see anybody completely unplug, but every now and then, I love that you just said that, to unplug and just really think creatively. I think that the cool thing about social media is that we can find ideas out there and then hopefully you’re springboarding from those ideas, and you’re not just stealing those ideas. As you springboard, think back to your past or think back to your mom or dad. What were they doing? You have a conversation with mom and dad even, Hey, do you guys remember art class back in the back in the seventies? They might really surprise you there. So yeah, don’t dismiss us yet. We’re we’re still breathing and we got a lot of ideas.

Nic: Lots of ideas. What do you want to leave us with today? What are some final thoughts?

Debi: Oh gosh, just you guys know how much we love you. Our art teacher, family. I literally send prayers every single night. I know how hard it is. One thing that I always have said throughout my career is that we don’t teach art. We teach kids. So hold on to that, we’re blessed that we teach kids through the discipline of the visual arts, but hold onto the fact that you are blessed to teach somebody’s baby, somebody’s child of day. And even on the days when you are stressed and you know, the emails are rampant and the testing and the micromanaged administration is downing, it’s rearing its ugly head, hold onto the fact that you are going to be a light in the day of that child. And that’s what really matters.

Even if it’s a day where, you know what, we’re just going to take out some primary cohort crayons and have ourselves a crayon party that works. Even call today, We’re going to get our cray on because you’re getting your cray on. Woo. So yeah, I think that’s something that’s really important to hold onto is that what you do really matters your art class, in my opinion, is the most important class in the school. What you do is you are creating those divergent creative thinkers that our job force is seeking. So, don’t let anyone tell you that your job is not important and that it doesn’t matter, because it really does.

The last thing I’ll say is this Nic, one of my favorite books was written by Neil O’Connor and it’s called, If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students. Neil is actually going to be our keynote speaker at our Georgia conference, we’re really excited. But if your administrator is not being kind, buy them that book. Buy them that book and just leave it at that.

Nic: Just leave it there.

Debi: I have literally had to buy that book for several administrators over the years. It’s amazing how, and it’s not a hard read. It’s a fun, little read, with just little fun bullets in there, and that they don’t remember that they need to authentically accept, appreciate and acknowledge the hard work that their teachers are doing. This book will remind them of that.

Nic: Wow. Well, that’s, that’s an excellent tip as well. Debi, I cannot thank you enough. I know that you have created a lot of resources for us and found a lot of resources. We’ll put those in the podcast notes, but just, just thanks for not just being here today, but being here and offering yourself to anyone who needs it in the future. Thank you so much.

Debi: Absolutely. Nic, Hey, I love you. I love the AOEU and I’m just so thrilled that you guys continue to do this for our teacher family. So thank you for all that you do, it’s been a joy.

Nic: All right. Did you hear it? Did you hear the excitement, the energy, the love in Debi’s voice? I know you couldn’t have listened to this without hearing it. She is such an amazing person, just a human you want to be around. So, take her up on what she’s offering. Take her up on listening to her advice and possibly listening to others that are in the same kind of situation, wanting to share with others, the experience, the learning, the wisdom that they have gained over the last many, many years of working the same job that you’re working today. Of course, the Art of Education is always there for you. We have tons of resources and we’re in every platform that you can imagine, but there is something about that human contact, having someone to talk to, having someone to go to. That is what Debi is offering. So make sure that you check it out, look at those podcast links and just look up Debi, because she is someone to follow and truly enjoy.

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.