Relationship Building

The Mindful Art Teacher (Ep. 219)

In her second episode as guest host, Jessica Madenford explores the idea of being a mindful art teacher. She is joined by Dr. Andrea McDonough to talk about how mindfulness can aid in both personal and professional development. Listen as they discuss the power of meditation, the important connections between mindfulness and art, and the benefits of these ideas for both teachers and students alike. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Jessica: In a previous episode of the everyday art room, Nic Hahn invited art teachers from all over, to share their expert tips and techniques for incorporating mindfulness into the art room. If you listen to that episode, your ears were full of wonderful stories. And my guess is that you began implementing mindfulness strategies in your art room with your students right away. Ask for myself, it sparked the inspiration to explore mindfulness for my own personal development, so that I can show up as the best art teacher that I can be. Today, we will chat with Dr. Andrea McDonough, who will share how she practices mindfulness as an art teacher and how she incorporates mindfulness into our professional development for her team of art teachers. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Jessica Madenford.

Andrea, welcome to Everyday Art Room. It is a pleasure to visit with you again.

Andrea: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Jessica: All right. So just to give our listeners some background, Andrea and I attended our undergraduate together at Lycoming college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and we shared a number of art classes together at that time. Later, we connected through social media as art educators. So before we really dive into mindfulness practices for art teachers, can you introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your background and, anything that you want our listeners to hear?

Andrea: Sure. So, yes, as you mentioned, my undergrad started at Lycoming college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and I’m a native of the Baltimore, Maryland area. So I’ve been here in Pennsylvania since undergrad, love my art and education experience there, went on to get a master’s degree from Mansfield University, some supervision training at Bloomsburg University, and then my doctoral degree from Drexel. And all the while I’ve been teaching, I’ve been an art educator in the Williamsport area, school district, beginning as an elementary art educator, and then moving into the secondary level, gosh, about 10, 11 years ago. So I have been here ever since.

Jessica: Wow.

Andrea: Just learning and growing and, continuing to professionally develop.

Jessica: I love it. I didn’t realize how closely aligned our paths are, as far as experience in the classroom. I also started out as elementary went into secondary, but now I’m back at elementary again.

Andrea: Yeah. The beauty of having the K3-12 certification, the flexibility.

Jessica: Exactly.

Andrea: Yeah.

Jessica: All right. So I know that you are a department leader and you’re also a professor of art at the collegiate level. Can you tell us a little bit about how you have created some community connections through art and art education, because I know that has been so important to you and I’d love for our listeners to hear a little bit about that.

Andrea: Sure. So yes, I’ve been blessed to be able to lead this beautiful department in the Williamsport area, really, since I began. So it’s been about 15, 16 years. So community connections are essential in advocating for a healthy art program. So bringing our teachers in to the community, we participate regularly in First Friday events. So the First Friday of each month, there are a host of gallery openings. So our students are actively involved in normal times, in these gallery openings and events. And also I’m a huge proponent of public art. So being able to engage with our community members through public art projects, displays installations is something that I’m just passionate about.

And at the college level, one of my goals in teaching art education, so I teach industrial design and I teach art education. And for those future art educators, the only way that I see, to gain a holistic training is to engage in the community and to connect with students. So we do a series usually of Saturday morning art classes that allows those future art educators to get their hands dirty and to teach, the children of community members.

Jessica: That sounds really fun. Now, this kind of goes off script a little bit.

Andrea: Sure.

Jessica: I didn’t ask you this, in the preview questions, but I was wondering once you started talking about this, can you tell us a little bit about one of your favorite experiences getting out into the community?

Andrea: Sure, absolutely. So I recently wrapped up a project and I’ll try, to summarize this quickly. It’s just, there’s so many complex parts to it. So at the end of the 2020 school year, I was approached by a local community advocate or activist, who wanted to paint Black Lives Matter down our main street, our fourth street. And we connected with the mayor. I was, kind of connected with our public relations department through the school district. And we realized that the Pennsylvania department of transportation own that street. So we couldn’t paint on it. Right? So out of that, we wanted to create a piece of public art that involved, the entire community with a message of just equity diversity, Black Lives Matter. And so we pulled together a bunch of different organizations. My students, my chapter of the national art honor society chapter 1900 in Williamsport, they sort of took the lead and throughout the pandemic, we were able to be supported financially through the first community foundation partnership of Pennsylvania, which is a local nonprofit.

We engaged with the YWCA local churches thrive international, which is a program that supports international English language learners in the area. Oh my goodness. I’m trying to think of the other organizations off the top of my head. So we engaged in all these different… STEP AmeriCorps was another one. So, we had these after school painting activities or events, we went to downtown brought the mural panels downtown. So these eight, 10 foot by five foot panels went all over the community. The artists who designed the work was a former student Kennedy Englert, who is, now a designer at the University of Missouri. So bringing alumni into the picture, connecting with the mayor, local organizations, my students were able to go all over the community lead in painting. And, so I shared this as my favorite because we…

Of course, it’s my favorite, because we just finished it. We just installed this 40 foot by 10 foot mural on the exterior wall of a local community… Oh my goodness, what’s the word I’m looking for? Just community center. Yeah. So [fire tree place 00:07:45] a local community center. So we installed on the exterior wall just this past… Not this past Saturday, but the Saturday before. So yeah, it’s so exciting, that’s to me to have a message. And so the text of the mural says only love can do that. And that’s just derived directly from a Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon. So just promoting the idea of love and healing through words, through art, through connecting. So if that’s not just like kind of a symbol of what I believe like art should be, can be and the way it connects community, that’s exactly it. So I just feel so fortunate to be able to be in a place where organizations trust me enough to be able to carry that out, to be able to connect in a loving way in a creative way and to give students the chance to lead.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: Yeah. That’s huge. So yeah. Thanks for going off script because that’s a project that I love talking about.

Jessica: Absolutely. I’m impressed with how many moving parts there are or there were to make this happen.

Andrea: Yeah. It’s great. Yeah, and like I said, to be trusted with that is huge.

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so earlier when you were giving your introduction, you talked about studying at Drexel University and I know that your dissertation focused on mindfulness. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to that topic. Why is mindfulness important to you?

Andrea: Sure. So I think I just need to say I’m a pretty passionate person when it comes to public art and mindfulness. When I was studying at Drexel, there was the timeline my life, and in my professional life, we were just going through a year at the high school that I was teaching at, where we lost several students who died by suicide. We had one student who had died in a car accident and, and multiple student suicides. It was, certainly something that forced me, to really look at what was happening, to take a step above and to see the pain that was experienced, not just by students, but by the adults in the community. It was, really startling. So I was fortunate, I had a group of AP students probably about 15 that year, almost all seniors, I think I had one junior and those students, I just watched them sort of fall apart.

I was watching them come to class and sometimes we just needed to cry. And the only thing I could think to, promote the healing was to put it into art, to use their art as a tool, to heal them. Now, at the same time, I came across, a recording of a webinar through an AEA and the author of… Oh gosh, drawing and the art of mindfulness, Wendy Ann Greenhalgh, that book ended up being on my desk. And I ended up listening to her webinar, which involved, a guided drawing meditate, which I found on SoundCloud, and I listened to. And I found that when I listened to this meditation, now I’ve been practicing yoga and meditation just gently, lightly, since I was a teenager and listening to this meditation and maybe it was her voice and maybe it was the timing, but really, it led me to a place where I was able to slow down and I was able to breathe.

And when I had done this meditation, this guided drawing meditation through a recording, I just felt like it was powerful. It helps me. Right. So I shared that with my students and, we’re all very, very close and I shared that with them. I said, “I wonder if you guys would want to try this”. And so we talked about it for a bit and we decided on a day that we were going to do this guided meditation. Closed the doors, we actually played it through the speaker. I kind of set the stage. Everyone had their supplies ready and listening to this lovely, this woman with this lovely English accent guide us through closing our eyes, connecting with our breath, doing a body scan and letting that body scan kind of flow through and drawing with our eyes closed.

It was the first time, these kids had gone through weeks months just of pain, everything in the room was silent. You could hear pin drop, to be cliche. And that, in that moment I realized how powerful meditation was, how powerful presence was. And also the safety and security of having a cohort that you would, be comfortable doing that with. I of course, asked the students afterwards how they felt about it. What were the reactions, the immediate responses. And some of them just said, “Oh my goodness, I can breathe”. It washed away.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: For a moment, washed away some of the pain that they were feeling. And so realizing how powerful that was… That’s a story that I tell, but, when I was deciding on what to research for my dissertation, some of my professors, so Dr. Grant was one of them who, I spoke with on the phone many times in deciding on what the topic was going to be. And of course I wanted to collect some quantitative data and impress the administrators with the numbers.

Jessica: Of course.

Andrea: But what I kept coming back to was the power of mindfulness in secondary art education, specifically creative mindfulness. And, so the story of those students led that research and, I took a qualitative, method and, it was really a narrative inquiry and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but that was when I realized how powerful and how important mindfulness is, not just to students, but to teachers as well, to all individuals for that sake. Yeah.

Jessica: I am so glad that you talked about how important it is for educators, for us as well. So I am curious then, I know that you integrate some mindfulness strategies as an art teacher leader, as a leader in your department. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your mindfulness practices as an art educator, maybe a little bit, for yourself, how you practice, but then also, how do you introduce this to, your teachers, your art team?

Andrea: Sure. Well, and it’s a pretty touchy feely sort of, hippie sort of topic, oftentimes, and this is what, I dealt with shortly after I had completed the research. When you say mindfulness and that’s a buzz word, some people shy away from it. It feels a little bit abstract and that can be difficult. So we’ve actually approached it a couple different ways through professional development. One session that we led in conjunction with the gallery at Penn college was slow art. So I created just like a workbook essentially for teachers to explore a gallery exhibit with a mindfulness. Now I didn’t call it mindfulness. We called it slow art. So pointing out how quickly sometimes we scroll through and our students scroll through and just look at images, that just keep on sliding by, and we don’t really stop and give them our attention.

So in talking about slow art, looking really, the art criticism, really slowing down, observing, labeling, taking it all in responding to the work that’s in front of you, talking about aesthetics, talking about, what the artist’s intention is. So what we did in the gallery is we stopped, busy, busy art teachers on their countywide inservice day. We stopped and, the request was to spend 10 or 15 minutes in front of one piece, just park, so we had some art tools and materials. I had these workbooks that were created, where there was space for note taking, there was space for drawing and painting. So it was just stop and look. And in that sense, stopping, looking, breathing, creating, that is mindfulness. It’s paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgment to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn.

So without calling it mindfulness, it gave teachers the opportunity to experience it. Right? So some of the other PD sessions that we’ve done, we did do a teacher self care session. And that was in conjunction with the health and physical education department that talked a lot about anxiety reducing strategies, and it’s meaningful, and it’s research based. And, the whole idea that, teachers, educators cannot pour from an empty cup.

Jessica: Right.

Andrea: So, and this was pre-pandemic, so we did some teacher self-care, which also involved movement and yoga. So that was again, another approach. We did talk about, again, stress reduction, anxiety reduction in the benefits of mindfulness, but we didn’t meditate that day. We did, some breathing, some pranayama, and some moving meditation, but not necessarily, mindful meditation. Just recently, I collaborated with our trauma and mental health specialist here, in the Williamsport district and at the teacher’s request. So this is interesting, once you get to a certain point and you’ve planted all the seeds.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: Teachers start to request that. So at the teacher’s request, we did a session on SEL in the art room specifically, and we looked at the SEL lens and the national core art standards and how they align and, talked about emotion regulation to some degree and, the different zones that our students might be in. And when they’re ready to receive information and if their basic needs aren’t being met, we’re not going to be able to ask them to create, in the same way. So again, that’s just providing the information, it’s planting the seeds. I have done some PD that was explicitly based on mindfulness.

So we invited Patricia Broderick, who has developed the learning to breathe. That’s her method, where she works specifically with adolescents and bringing mindfulness into classrooms for educators. And she provided us with, some neuroscience background, some research background information. And also we did, a mindful eating meditation, and a bit of just like breathing space meditation.

Jessica: Wow.

Andrea: And that was with teachers from different departments, world languages and music and health and physical education and art. So, right. This is for everybody.

Jessica: Yeah. I love that.

Andrea: You’re connecting with so many of the teachers in your school and district. Yeah. Right. So it’s not compartmentalized. And some teachers walk away asking more questions, some teachers walk away putting up walls and that’s okay. Right. We all have a different experience and we all bring different baggage to any type of professional development.

But especially when you’re talking about some tough stuff. So, yeah. And I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share some of my research and pilot studies, with folks at the Pennsylvania Art Education Association conferences. So I’ve led some little baby meditations and drawing meditations through those. So yeah, that’s kind of, a grand overview of just some of the approaches that we’ve taken, and for myself, again, I am so fortunate, I teach a class entitled, mindful art. So I tap into that zone, three times a day at minimum for myself. And, I share this with my students too. Well, I also teach yoga two nights a week, so I teach yoga, but I also, I practice yoga with other teachers as well. So yoga is my mindful moving meditation for sure. And I do take driving every day.

So whenever I’m in the car, on my own, by myself, my mindful moment is always just hands on this steering wheel. So, when I drive, I do listen to music. I love listening to music when I’m driving, but I always make an effort to connect with my breath, to notice my body, to notice what my hands feel like on the steering wheel, to notice what my feet are doing, how my body is connected to my seat. And so if I don’t get to my yoga mat and my mindful art classes, aren’t as mindful, then I use that driving, as a meditation moment.

Jessica: That is so interesting. I never would have thought about using that. And for some of us, that’s the perfect opportunity. Because after a hectic day or busy day where, there’s so much of other people’s energy, aiming for us, or we’re taking it in just to get into your car, or maybe you’re taking a walk home, however you get back to your family or your home.

Andrea: Right.

Jessica: Just taking that time for yourself, just quiet your mind, quiet yourself.

Andrea: Yeah. And, this might be controversial, but something like doing the dishes or doing laundry, I know it doesn’t sound like a pleasant thing, but what if, you take that as your moment that… Right, If you have a family at home, the rest of the family is doing their thing and you’re at the sink with the dishes and what does the water feel like on your hands and what are the smells and what are the sounds and, using that opportunity. Right? So maybe it’s something that might not be as enjoyable. Maybe you don’t love doing laundry, but taking that moment, to feel the temperature and, just to be in that space, where you’re breathing and you’re folding and you’re…

So yeah. If it’s not driving, I think that’s important to find those moments and, it can be brief, it can be one minute, two minutes, three minutes of just connecting with yourself, giving yourself that attention. And, just once throughout your day, if that’s all you have is one minute, “Okay. And here I am sitting at my desk and I’m breathing and it feels good. And whatever happened before right now, doesn’t matter. Whatever’s going to happen immediately after when the next class comes in, doesn’t matter. I can be here right now and I can be connected to my breath and use it as a reset”.

Jessica: Yeah. I love this. I love this.

Andrea: Me too.

Jessica: All right. So I have a couple of more questions before we finish up.

Andrea: Sure.

Jessica: You’ve talked a little bit about this, I think already, but can you take a deeper dive into why you think mindfulness is beneficial for art teachers, especially now while we are in our second year of the pandemic?

Andrea: Oh my goodness. So I think it goes without saying that teachers as… Again, and not just art teachers, but teachers in general are under a great deal of pressure. Our whole mode of operation has been flipped upside downturned inside out and eight different things have been added to everyone’s plate, right? So there are teachers who are burning out.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: At a rapid pace, teachers who are going into early retirement. So that is real, that’s facts. And, while it is so easy to get to judge and to get upset and, to be defensive and to shut down, there’s lots of ways that we cope with those stressors in unhealthy ways, right. And maybe you drink right, to drink alcohol, to cope with those stressors of a teacher’s daily grind.

And that’s not unusual, but using something like mindfulness as a practice to develop healthy coping strategies. So mindfulness is not prescriptive. It’s not, “I’m under stress and here go do this”. Mindfulness really is a way of being, and it’s not for everyone. Right? I do think that art educators specifically can tap into those more abstract… Mindfulness can be more accessible for our educators because we’re more open, generally, right? We tolerate the ambiguity. And of course the endurance of tolerating that ambiguity throughout this entire pandemic period of our lives. So finding the thing that works for you can help. So the benefits of mindfulness from a research standpoint are just, the list is quite long. So, your immune system is going to benefit from it. Your stress levels are going to decrease. Your heart is going to be healthier. You might just be happier.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: So that laundry list based on research, it matters, but also it’s, how does it feel in your body? So for an art educator who can, be present with their students and create a safe space for me, that’s it, so if I can be here and I can create this space, all of the extra stuff, it’ll be waiting.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: They might be waiting super long if I’m going to protect myself and not, stress myself over it. I do think little things like leaving your work at the door. So when you value your own time and you’re caring for yourself and you’re allowing yourself the time and the space to be mindful, to act mindful, to live mindful. Yeah. You’re just creating a different vibration really. And, that’s contagious.

In a lot of that, if you’re a parent or a partner that energy that you carry, you vibrate that through your home space as well and into your relationships, not just your professional relationships, but also, your family and your friends and everything like your entire circle.

Jessica: Right.

Andrea: So I think to aunt the question, it’s hard to say, “What are the benefits or why should you do this?”. You should do it if you feel like it’s right. You should explore, you should practice, take an MBSR course. There’s so many, and again, like without being prescriptive, there’s so many different, little trainings that you could go to, to see if it’s something that makes sense to you. That feels good.

Jessica: Mm-hmm.

Andrea: Going to a yoga class. And of course, right. As a yoga teacher, I think everybody should. And I do share yoga with students as well. But, seeing if that, not necessarily for an exercise of physical movement, but for a space in your brain. So when I go to a yoga class and I roll out my mat, my computer’s not on the mat. My phone isn’t on the mat. And maybe my child who always needs me, isn’t on the mat. My principal’s not there with me either.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: So when I have that sacred space, and whether that’s in a public class or a space that you create in your home, making that space for yourself, again, just increases your ability to cope and your ability to be present and to enjoy each moment, without the judgment of saying, “Oh, this is good”, “this is bad”. This is here and we’re here and we’re here together and it’s safe. So yeah. That’s yeah, the benefits, the list goes on and on and on, but you know, if it’s right for you and you haven’t explored it yet, do it, and you’ll know right away and you’ll keep doing it and you’ll keep practicing it. So as artists, right. So we’re so used to that. If I want to be a better drawer, I will draw every day. If I want to be a better mindfulness practitioner, I will practice it every day.

Jessica: Yeah.

Andrea: And you’ll strengthen those neural connections. You, and you’ll deepen those grooves in the brain and… Yeah, and the benefits, they’ll be different for everyone, but they’re there.

Jessica: Excellent. So now I’m curious, this is going to be like the final thing. I know you are on your prep period right now. So I don’t want you to end up having kids come in. So if you could give art teachers one tool that they could put into place to help improve their wellbeing, any mindful strategies that you absolutely love, what would be a quick go-to?

Andrea: Yeah. Oh, I want to give a list. But, so the first thing is just breathe, take time to notice your breath and the three-minute breathing space, you can find recordings of the three-minute breathing space or scripted three-minute breathing space meditations. If you’re curious about it. Yeah, check out three-minute breathing space and you’ll know. Yeah. If it’s something that seems accessible. Wendy Ann Greenhalgh, “Stop Look Breathe Create” is a book that I recommend to just about everyone. So it’s a way to bring in three-minute chunks of mindfulness for creative individuals, or folks who want to explore through writing, photography and drawing. So number one, I think just like an excellent book to, and I’m not employed by her or like sponsored in any way, but I love her and she’s fantastic and we’ve connected and I just love what she does.

So “Stop Look Breathe Create” again, you can just, I did it actually. So I did that as, a book study for, my department. And again, not everyone loves it, but those that love it, get it. Another is, oh gosh… “Conscious Creativity”, Stanton, is the author’s last name. Philippa Stanton. So again, there’s a workbook that goes along with, the book, but exploring different techniques and strategies and mindful ways. So, add that, not to your Amazon cart, but to your local bookstores book list. And, so those two books are, great springboards like to jump into, those concepts. Take a yoga class, just breathe.

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. I love this. I love it. I am so thankful that you were able to spend time with me and share with our listeners all of your expertise with mindfulness. You have given us so much to let sink in and think about, and we can pick and choose what we can take with us to practice for ourselves, so that we can show up a better version of our art teacher selves before we head into the classroom. So thank you, Andrea. I am very grateful that you are here with me today, and I hope that we can visit again and not just on social media.

Andrea: Absolutely. Jessica, thank you so much for inviting me in for having me here today. It’s an honor to be able to share this with anyone and everyone who will listen. So, thank you.

Jessica: Thank you to Dr. Andrea McDonough for coming on and sharing her expertise and creative mindfulness. Andrea had so much to offer when it comes to slowing down and finding moments in your day to pay attention to your body, mind and spirit. If you would like to learn more about mindfulness, there are so many resources on the AOU website that you can check out. Thank you for listening today. And I hope that you tune in next week for another episode of Everyday Art Room.

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.