The Importance of Professional Connections (Ep. 109)

It’s the week of the NAEA National Convention! And even though not everyone is able to attend, it is still important to talk about the professional connections we can all make. In this episode, Tim talks to AOE writer Debi West about finding other teachers that share your passion (5:15), how connections can help you improve your teaching (12:00), and Debi’s best advice for teachers who want to help themselves get better (18:45). Full episode transcript below.


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

It is NAEA National Conference week, and there are a few thousand people heading to Seattle for the next few days. I’m heading out there tomorrow. I am really look forward to it. It’s always a great time to be able to connect, to be able to talk to other art teachers, and just kind of see everything that’s going on in the world of art ed. I also know that there are another few thousand people listening to this that aren’t going to the conference, so I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on that one event. Instead, I want to take a look at what we do for all of art professional development, whether it be national, state, or even online conference, or even just the professional development that you do at your own school or working with colleagues in your district. Let’s think about that.

What exactly does professional development do for you? Let me just list a few ideas off the top of my head. First, you are able, in good professional development, to deal with a lot of the most current and most relevant topics in education, and hopefully in art education. You’re able to find those topics and explore the ones that you’re really passionate about, the ones that you really care about. You’re able to network with other art teachers. You hopefully are able to get some time to create. I think the most important thing when we’re thinking about professional development is how it can help you grow as a teacher. When you’re growing, when you’re doing things better, you’re inspired to continue that. You’re inspired to do better in your classroom every single day. If we make the right connections, that is going to help us grow, that is going to inspire us to be better in our classrooms.

I want to talk about those connections. I think they are just vitally important to what we do as teachers. They allow us to do everything that I just listed. To talk about those topics a little bit more in depth, I want to bring on Debi West. Speaking of connections, I think that literally everybody knows Debi. She has so much experience with conferences, with getting art teachers together, and just being a major part of the world of art teaching. Debi is an awesome writer for The Art of Ed, and currently she is traveling around and consulting with art teachers all over the country. I’m not sure that anyone has more connections, and I’m not sure that anybody is going to be better at discussing this topic, so let’s go ahead and bring Debi on now.

Debi West is joining me now. Debi, how are you?

Debi: I’m great, Tim. How are you doing?

Tim: I am doing really well. I am excited about conference week. NAEA is coming up soon, and so I want to … I know, right?

Debi: I can’t wait.

Tim: Yeah. I want to start there. Let me ask you, what do you think are the biggest benefits to attending a conference, and what do you love about the NAEA national conferences?

Debi: Oh boy. That’s a big question. Okay. The benefits of attending a conference are so many. Learning, sharing, networking, and not just learning, sharing, and networking amongst your little art group maybe in your county, but with 5,000 plus passionate human beings that love kids, that love art, that wake up every day with a smile on their heart because they get to teach art to kids. When you get to this national conference, it’s almost like breathtaking how these passionate teachers are just sort of … The energy and the inspiration, it’s just incredible.

Then once you start going and figuring out … I highly recommend, first of all, that you kind of know what you’re getting into. Look over the schedule because with over a thousand presentations and workshops, it can be pretty daunting. Between the workshops, the presentations, the keynotes, the super sessions, the artisan gallery, on that opening night, the vendors in the exhibit hall, like oh my gosh, and then there’s the happy hours, which, in my opinion, now that I’ve been going to conferences for 20 years, those happy hours and those gatherings after the day is over is where that magical networking happens. That’s where everybody’s sitting down and frantically and excitingly and passionately talking about everything that they learned. It’s all up there in the head going, “Oh my gosh. My kids are going to love this. This is what I can do with it.”

It’s just so powerful to be in a group that gets it. Realistically, learning 21st century skills right now, it’s essential for our students’ success. This is the way that we can all come together, because so many of us do teach alone, very isolated. We come together, and it just all falls into place. It makes sense. It’s almost like even with the excitement and the passion, you can kind of breathe knowing that everybody there gets it and we’re all in this same place.

Tim: Yeah. I think it’s really powerful to be able to just, like you said, connect with people that share your passion. I want to talk a little bit more about that in just a second, but you mentioned that you’ve been going to conferences for 20 years. Let me ask you, for people who maybe aren’t going to NAEA or they can’t afford to go or for whatever reason school won’t let them off, what are other options? More importantly, how did you get started with conferences in the first place? What got you going?

Debi: Yeah. That’s a great question. Sadly, when I was in undergrad school, I didn’t really know about any state organizations. Then when I became a teacher in Gwinnett County, that first year, a friend of mine, Drew Brown, was like, “Are you going to GAEA?” I was like, “Am I going to who A way what? What? What are you talking about?” She’s like, “The Georgia Art Education Association. Oh my gosh! Do you not know about this?” I’m like, “No, but I am intrigued.” We went to our first conference that year, the state conference. My school let me off. My school paid my registration and I paid the rest. Honestly Tim, I didn’t even realize for probably eight or nine years, I was just ignorant to the fact that there were actually some school districts out there that paid for everything. Then I also realized that there were school districts out there that paid for absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, that becomes an issue to how to get there, how to make that a reality. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Let me go back to how I got there. I started out going to these conferences. The next year, I actually presented at my first conference. I was very nervous but very excited. Then from there, I was asked to come on to the board as the Youth Art Month coordinator. As Youth Art Month’s state coordinator, you are asked to compile all the fabulous activities and projects that teachers across the state are doing. You compile these into a scrapbook, and then the scrapbook gets set on to the Council for Art Ed, where it’s judged. That first year, we won the big national award, like the Georgia art teachers rocked!

Because of that, they sent me to NAEA to do a presentation. I really didn’t realize what I was getting into. I remember that conference in Chicago in 1998 and the people that I met and the energy and just every bit of it. I remember Dennis Inhulsen said to me, “You need to get a journal and start journaling all of your thoughts and everything that you’re learning because it’s so much.” That beginning feeling of what it’s like to be at a national conference is pretty powerful and it’s something that teachers should hold onto forever. I got to tell you, it changed me. That national conference changed me. They had me presenting on something like, “How to get in-kind funding for your Youth Art Month programs.” I was like, “Oh my gosh. Could it be anymore dull?”

Tim: Right, right.

Debi: I changed it to, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Basically, it was a pretty packed room. I met fabulous people. I’ve never looked back. Even on the years when budgets are cut and my school’s like, “We can’t really pay this year, but we can get you a sub” … In my opinion, if they can’t get me a sub, I might have to be sick because I’m not missing a conference. I do state conferences every year. I do national conferences every year. There are years that I’ve had to sell my art, save a little bit more, not drink my Starbucks so that I could make sure that I’m getting, saving up the money to be able to attend. Rooming with others, just figuring out a year to get there, because it’s that important.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really good advice. I actually want to swing back around to what we were talking about before with just making those connections to other art teachers. I want to ask you kind of more generally I guess, not necessarily with conferences, but just anywhere, what are the benefits you think we can get from connecting with other art teachers, no matter what the situation is or the setting is? What do we get from that?

Debi: Connecting with others is key to be successful in any profession, in my opinion. We’re all learners and we’re all sharers. Being a lifelong learner is so unbelievably important. We’re sharing new, innovative ideas, new processes. STEAM, makerspace, these are ways to use technology. This is critical. When you’re surrounding yourself with the best, some of that’s going to rub off, and you’re going to take that and take it with you into your classroom. That really matters.

Honestly, I think state conferences, I think The Art of Education, that in itself is such a great place to be able to connect with others. The articles, the podcasts, the biannual online conferences, the pro packs, the online classes, just being a part of that, that kind of connecting has taken personally my teaching to the next level and teachers that I know. It just takes your teaching and your thinking to the next level. It doesn’t ever get boring when we’re continuing to connect with each other. Again, I think it’s just about surrounding yourself with constantly learning new ideas.

Tim: Yeah. I like that a lot. I actually want to dive into that a little bit more. I think those connections are great. I think all of the examples you list are definitely worthwhile, but if we look at that as like a big picture view, how do those connections or how do attending conferences, how does that help you improve as a professional, as a teacher? Why do you think that that improvement or that development of your teaching skills, why do you think that’s so important?

Debi: It’s funny. The first year that I taught, the first, second year that I taught, I would make a scrapbook at the end of each year just of all the lessons that I taught, little notes that I’d get from the kids, just sort of a way to document what I had done throughout the year, what my kids had done. I remember that first year I thought my scrapbook was so good, like it was awesome. It was never going to get any better than that. Then I started going to conferences. Then I’m like, “Oh. I’m teaching this lesson this way, but here’s another way to do it.” It’s that springboarding. How can I take what Drew Brown just did and springboard and turn it into something that works with my kiddos in my school in my district?

By the third or fourth year of attending state conferences, and then eventually national conferences, I go back and look at these scrapbooks, and it’s a visual testament to how I grew as a teacher. As I grew as a teacher, my kids’ art grew. Their art go stronger. Their visual stories got stronger. It was really, really eye opening. It’s almost like I unconsciously, subconsciously, did a longitudinal study on the impact of what conferences can do, what that networking can do. I know for a fact that I improved as a professional.

I spent 14 years at the elementary level. I was really fortunate that I started hanging out with some really amazing elementary teachers that I met at National. Hence, these national conferences are sort of like a family reunion anymore because there’s a big group of us that have been going for so many years. We’re always wanting to bring everybody in, very inclusive, “Come on, come on! Join us, join us!”, to make that circle of friends and networking bigger.

I worked as the southeastern elementary division director for actually six years. In that position, we started up what’s called the kaleidoscope of learning. That’s where we would take these awesome art teachers from all over the nation that were teaching really innovative lessons, and we pulled them in, and we’d do these quick roundtable discussion, little hands-on, little, I guess, process, packets of process, where people could see it, like a little demo, and take that with them. Then that turned into later on carousels, roundtable carousels, at the elementary level.

Then after 14 years, I moved to the secondary level. I got to tell you, I was scared to death. I was like, “Ooh. But my people are in elementary. I think I’m just going to stick with elementary at National.” I go, “No. That’s ridiculous. Don’t be afraid. Step out.” I was a little intimated by secondary honestly. I went to my first conversation with colleagues at the secondary level. I met Diane Scoley, Nicole Prisco, Josh Drews, these awesome art teachers that, again, it wasn’t scary, it was just different. They opened up my eyes to, “Hey. Go to this lesson. Go to this presentation. Go to this workshop. You got to meet this person. Check out the AP stuff. Check out the Scholastic stuff.” I’m telling you, the same exact thing happened at the high school level. I went in, a little bit nervous, started out. It was good, but man, where it went, year after year after year, because of that networking, it went to a level that I never saw it could lead to.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. I think that’s a really good illustrative story of the power of what’s there with conferences and with those connections. You talked a lot about bringing back a lot of new ideas and improving your teaching. I want to ask you, when you are able to bring back those new ideas, whether it is from your conference or from just those connections that you make, do you feel like that when you’re seeing that improvement and bringing those new ideas, does that make you more confident as a teacher? Does it help you in other ways beyond that?

Debi: Oh absolutely. I think teaching is all about our kids, always. Teaching has no place for ego, but certainly teaching has a place for feeling confident in what you do, because your kids know. My kids got to a place when I’d come back from conference, be a fall conference for the state or the NAEA conference and now The Art of Education conferences that are online, my kids are like, “Okay. We’re ready. Tell us what you learned.” They can’t wait to hear all about it. They see my excitement and my passion. “Oh my gosh, y’all. I just learned the coolest printing technique. I know we were in the middle of something else, but put it away because we got to play.” Then we’ll all just experiment with this new lesson that I’m bringing back from a conference or this new thought or this new prompt.

I’m telling you, we come back garnering more tools in our proverbial art teachery tool belt, so to speak. I think the kids know that the more we know, ultimately, the better we are for our kids. My quote has always been “#togetherweartbetter”. Ultimately, when we art better together, our kids win. They become better thinkers, better artists, better with technique, better with creativity, because we’re bringing them a plethora of ideas that they can springboard from. I think that that confidence really matters.

Then keeping up with social media groups. I’ve got a personal network right now. I just retired from teaching, but I am consulting now. There’s a list of probably 30 art teachers from across the nation and then a big group in Georgia that’s somebody’s struggling with, “What’s my student need to do with this?” That’s been really great too, is that we’ve all met through these conferences and now we can all network and share ideas. Sometimes it takes that other creative brain to go, “Ah. That’s exactly what this piece needs!” That’s been kind of exciting too. Yeah, I think we all grow. We all become more confident.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really cool. Then I think we’ll probably need to wrap it up here. Let me just ask you one last question that I guess ties everything that we’ve been talking about here together. What advice would you have for teachers as far as going to conferences, doing professional development, making connections, finding new ideas, maybe all of the above? What are the very best ways that they can do that and help themselves develop as a teacher?

Debi: That’s a great question too. Advice? Attend, with lots of exclamation points after that. I know for some people that’s a scary thought, “I got to leave my family. It’s going to be an expense”, but professional development is really necessary in any career. Start saving now. I kind of already mentioned this. Maybe sell some of your art or figure out a way that you could do miniatures of your art and hold a show. Ask your PTA. Maybe sitting down with your PTA and talking to them about why you feel that it’s so important that you join or become a part of your state association and attend that conference or national or Art of Education online conference. Do a fundraiser. Continuously, this is another big one, continuously remind your administration why it matters so much. It matters so much because our kids matter so much. When we become better teachers and we can network, then our kids are … I keep saying it. I feel like I’m repeating myself now, but they are the ones that are going to benefit the most.

The advice really is that that networking matters. If this year you can’t attend NAEA, maybe put it on your bucket list that next year you want to attend NAEA, you want to attend your state fall. I know some states are now doing spring conferences that are a little less money and a little bit smaller, but start out there. Definitely, definitely very affordable and you don’t have to leave your family, consider The Art of Education online conference. That’s 2500 art teachers during the day working together because that networking matters. One creative brain is great, 10 creative brains is awesome. Imagine what happens when you put hundreds and thousands of creative brains together. Springboarding from those cool ideas, it just really matters. It makes us better teachers. It makes us better thinkers. It makes us better people. Together we art better. I’m going to end it with that.

Tim: That’s perfect. I think that’s a lot of really good advice. I think it gives people a good course of action. Whether they are coming now, whether they want to work towards something in the fall or next year, I think that gives them some good advice and some good inspiration. We’ll go ahead and wrap it up there. Debi, thank you so much for joining me. As always, it is great to talk to you.

Debi: Tim, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. See you at NAEA!

Tim: Sounds good. We’ll see you soon. Bye.

Alright. A big thank you to Debi for coming on. Like I said in the intro, she has so much experience when it comes to making and developing those connections. I’m really looking forward to getting together with her this week at NAEA. First off, just because she’s awesome, but secondly, because she is going to be able to introduce me to a lot of new people. I can therefore make those connections myself and build from there, which really should be one of our biggest goals with any of our professional development.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention The Art of Ed Conference that I always put together, Art Ed Now. It’s coming up this summer on August 2. We have a long list of presenters on the site, We’re going to add a couple more on Thursday. We’re going to have a lot of focus this time around on new ideas, on hands-on projects, and giving you a chance to make some of your own art. You also have a chance to interact with the other art teachers that attend. It’s an awesome community to see, again, a few thousand teachers get together online and make those connections that we’ve been talking about. You have a little over a week to get the best price available for the conference, just $99 if you sign up before the end of March. You can check out all the details and register at

To close the show, just let me say this. There are a lot of reasons to make professional connections, maybe even attend an Art Ed conference, but none as important as this. It will make you a better teacher. Whether you’re going looking for information or looking for inspiration, you’re going to find what you need when you are together with other art teachers. Whether it’s a local workshop, a state conference, a national convention, or an amazing Art Ed Now online conference, make sure you make it a priority to attend one of those soon. You will thank yourself for doing so.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. If you’re going to be at NAEA this week, make sure you stop by the Art of Ed booth and say hello. I will be there off and on throughout the week, recording interviews, maybe doing some Facebook Live stuff, and hopefully just saying hi and trying to make some more connections. We are also having a meetup Saturday morning from 10:00 to 11:00 at the Art of Ed booth with Cassie Stephens, the host of Everyday Art Room, and, if I can talk him into it, Mr. Andrew McCormick. Make sure you stop by. Thank you for listening. We will talk to 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.