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How did you become an art teacher? What (or who) was your inspiration? In this episode, Cassie shares her own story and encourages other teachers to do the same. Listen as she discusses her own history as an artist, her experience in college, and her first job as a teacher. Full episode transcript below.
Cassie: Have you ever met those teachers that you just know probably were born wanting to be a teacher? To me, it’s always the kindergarten teachers. You can spot them a mile away, they love what they do. I mean, not to discredit any of the other grade levels, but you have to have a pretty big heart and a whole lot of patience to venture into kindergarten teacher land.
It’s always interesting to me to hear about how a teacher became a teacher, and I’ve been asked that a lot lately. “How did you become an art teacher? What made you decide to do that? You seem to really enjoy being a teacher. Is it something you always wanted to do?” And I realized, I don’t think I’ve ever shared my journey to becoming an art teacher with you all.
If you’ve heard me speak at fall conventions, I touch on it a little bit, but I thought I would kind of get into it here today, in this podcast because I think that it’s important to know somebody’s journey because then you can kind of also understand their perspective, where they’re coming from.
So what I would do is encourage you, the next time you find yourself in the teacher’s lounge, or just sharing a coffee with another teacher, or another art teacher, ask them, “How did you get here? How did you decide to become an art teacher?” I’ll share mine with you today.
I’m Cassie Stevens, and this is Everyday Art Room.
So I am definitely not one of those teachers that you spot across the teacher’s lounge, or at a faculty meeting and you think, “Yep, that person was born thinking I’m going to be a teacher someday.” No, teaching was probably the furthest from my mind when I was a kid.
I remember for a long time, I wanted to be a vet, there was a lawyer was in there for a while, which I find quite fascinating, definitely an artist was at the top of my list a lot of times. But a teacher, that was never something that was on my horizon, so to speak. So how did I get here?
It’s so strange because as a kid, I didn’t have art in elementary school. I excelled at penmanship because, and I loved it, probably because that was the closest thing that I could get to art class. And by the way, I do still have beautiful handwriting. But not until eighth grade did I have a single art class.
I always had a love for creating and arts. I mean, every summer, I was at every single church’s vacation Bible school. Didn’t matter to me what denomination it was, as long as there were crafts and barrel drink. If y’all know what barrel drink is, it actually goes by the name hugs, I recently looked it up. If you’re an ’80s kid, you know what it is. It’s half fructose corn syrup in a colorful little bottle of a drink.
My parents even knew that I had a love for art. In fact, they signed me up for an adult drawing class, which I remember as like a third and fourth grader, going to these classes with these older people. It was just so strange, but back in the day, in Joliet, Illinois, where I grew up, there weren’t opportunities for kids to take art classes. So I would sit there, nine years old, drawing a fruit still life, using my kneaded eraser, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. And all of my pencils that could make different colors of tints, and shades, and it was really a lot of fun.
But those kind of things and, of course, learning crafts from my grandma Rosie every summer. That was my exposure to the arts. So never did I have an art teacher until junior high in high school that really influenced me, and got me creating. So I didn’t fall in love with creating, really until high school. And I didn’t start doing it actively on my own in my spare time, always up in my room, with my headphones on, making weird little paintings or whatever.
So much so, that my parents were worried that I was becoming, how did they put it, goth wasn’t a thing at the time, neither was Emo, just withdrawn. I wasn’t, I honestly wasn’t. I just loved being alone and creating. And it was then in high school that I started to think that maybe I could do something with art. But I grew up in, after living in Joliet, we moved to rural Indiana. I grew up in rural Indiana, and it was hard enough to find a job at Pizza Hut, or detasseling corn. If you don’t know what that is, then you obviously didn’t grow up in rural Indiana or Illinois. So for me, in my mind, the idea of having a career in the arts was just not even a possibility.
So fast forward, I end up going to Indiana University. I begged and begged to go to an art college. I’d always wanted to go to Herron College of Art in Chicago. But my parents really were not into the idea of me pursuing an art career. They didn’t know the possibilities than an art career could have, and neither did I. So I went to IU, which actually is an awesome school, and has an amazing education, art education program, education program, and an art program. I might be a little biased, but it’s pretty close to the best stinking college on the planet. I loved going there, but I didn’t my freshman year.
In fact, I absolutely hated college my freshman year. You see, when I was in high school, my graduating class had about 70 kids in it, that’s seven-zero. And I remember, that was a little bit on the high side for our grade level. And in that small, little setting, I was known as the weird artsy kid. I only wore clothes from the thrift store. A lot of times, that meant it was polyester plaid, men’s golf pants from the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t even know why, I just loved to stand out, and I loved to be different.
I also was pretty artsy and I was very involved in the plays and the programs, and even on the speech team in school. These were the things that I loved, and in that small, little pond, I became this, the fish that was known as the weird artsy kid. I became this big fish in a little pond, not that I was cool by any means because, trust me, I wasn’t. But at least I knew who I was. I knew I was the weird artsy kid, and I was proud of it.
But I remember going to Indiana University, where I went from 70 kids in my graduating class to 30,000 people on that campus. And I remember when my parents left me there that first night, I was so afraid. All of a sudden, this identity that I had, really prided myself on, I felt like it had vanished. My parents had left, and they almost like symbolically took it with them somehow. Suddenly, I was around all these other kids were also artsy, also really great on their speech teams, and went to bigger schools, so had bigger play productions, and I just felt really very small.
And my parents, when I signed-up for classes, strongly encouraged me not to take any art classes. So here I was, stuck in school, not knowing a single soul, very afraid, feeling insecure, and I didn’t have my favorite creative outlet. I was taking my math classes, Spanish classes, and I was just plain miserable. That feeling of insecurity that I felt, kind of morphed into this, now I know it’s a social anxiety disorder. But it morphed into a stutter. I have never stuttered, had never stuttered in my life. But suddenly, with all of this insecurity, and this feeling of not knowing who I was, I developed a social anxiety stutter.
Whenever I was in a situation where I felt like people, I perceived them as being cooler than me, better than me, smarter than me, more artistic, whatever. And trust me when I say, I felt this way about everybody that I was around. I would either not talk for fear of stuttering, or I would start to speak, and it’s like I could see the words floating out of my mouth, and not making any sense. And it was amazing, because I would see people looking at me like, “Is this girl okay because she’s talking really strangely.” And even today, it doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but even today, when I’m in a situation where I feel a little bit insecure, or uncomfortable, I will start to mince my words. I’ll start to mix them up, and I’ll start to stutter.
And I just have to take a deep breath, and I think, “Geez, I still have this insecurity?” Things like that, they seem to never quite go away. Mine started to though, my sophomore year when I took my very first oil painting class. It was the summer of my sophomore year. I’d been taking a couple of drawing and sculpture classes, and they were fine. But painting that summer, I found something that I felt like I was truly good at. Trust me, I was not good at sculpture. I don’t know if your college had you do this, but in my school, they told us that we could use as much cardboard as we wanted to, but we had to build a chair, an artistic chair that had to be able to withstand the weight of our instructor.
The true test would be when our instructor sat in a chair, if it supported his or her weight, and it didn’t collapse, well, then you would get a decent grade, and then they would start to grade you on the artistic value of it. Wow. I was all about the artistic value, and as soon as my professor sat in it, the thing collapsed. I was mortified, so was she, by the way, because she was not a heavy person. Tiny as could be, but all that to say, I was taking art classes, and whoa, I just wasn’t doing so hot, until that oil painting class.
I found the thing that I became confident in, and felt really good about. I became really great friends with the people in the class, I opened up, I started becoming my, I guess, normal kind of friendly-ish … I say friendly-ish, depends on the day self. And I remember my painting professor pulling me aside and saying, “You know what? You’re pretty good at this. You should probably apply for our Bachelor of Fine Arts Painting Program. It’s a two-year painting program. You’ll have your own studio. You can still take your other courses, but you’ll be critiqued on a show, and you’ll have your artwork hung in a gallery at the end of each semester.
Sounded amazing. Suddenly, I started dreaming of living in a loft in New York City, and being an artist, and now, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was so pumped, I could not wait to apply for this program, until I told my parents. They immediately put the brakes on the situation. And if you’re wondering why my parents had such a say in all of this, well, thankfully, my parents paid for my college education. So, of course, they got a pretty strong say in what I was doing with their money. They said to me, “Look. We are not going to pay for you to spend the next two years, hanging out and painting in a studio, unless you also pursue an education degree.”
Y’all, I had never, ever put any thought into becoming a teacher. There’s teachers in my family, my aunt Lottie was my English teacher for two years, both in eighth grade and my senior year. She was the meanest, probably one of the best teachers I ever had, but that thought had never crossed my mind. However, if it meant that I was going to be able to spend two years painting, then I was just about willing to sell my soul. And that sounds terrible. Becoming a teacher, PS an art teacher, is not akin to selling your soul.
So I did it. And in last week’s podcast, I was chatting with you about how if you don’t feel as though you were good at art, or you don’t feel as though you’re a quote, “Artist,” that you should take classes, and learn to feel more confident in yourself, and all of that’s relative anyway. But I also spoke about the biggest lie that I ever told in college. And I hate to repeat myself because I actually do have an entire podcast all about this topic, but I’m going to touch on it for just a second.
When I decided to get a BFA in Painting, and an Ed degree, and I would attend my ed classes, and then I would go to the painting studios, I felt this really interesting negative vibe. The vibe was, when I was in my ed classes, “Oh, well, you’re also getting an art degree, a painting degree. So that means you are not as dedicated to the education of your students. You’re never going to be, as the rest of us.”
And when I would go to my painting classes, my professors, and sometimes even my classmates would kind of roll their eyes if I mentioned my ed classes because I was never going to make it as an artist if I was just going to also be a teacher. That side of it was really the most demeaning, and I was led to believe that I had to either pick a side, that I had to become either a teacher, or an artist because I couldn’t be both. Again, I have an entire podcast all about this topic. And if that’s something that you were led to believe in college, well then, you already know that I call BS on that big time.
Fast forward to I got my painting degree, which I have done little to nothing with, and I also have my ed degree. I did my student teaching in both Indiana and in Ireland, which was a great experience. I would encourage you if you’re pursuing your ed degree, and you’re thinking about teaching in a different place, a different country, different location, do it. You will not regret it.
My brother is also a teacher, he’s an English teacher, actually, and he did his student teaching on a Native American reservation, where he still teaches today. I did mine in Ireland, and it was the best experience ever. Maybe a little bit too fun, because when I came home from my student teaching experience, this was in the year 1998, my mom’s desk was a mountain of envelopes.
And I remember saying, “Mom, what’s up with all the mail?” She said, “Your father has sent out 52 job applications for you to schools all over the United States.” Y’all, he sent out job applications as far away as Alaska. My parents were not fooling around. They were determined that I was going to be employed. I was determined to just like, you know, live with my mom and use her garage as my studio, but they had other plans for me. So I decided to start applying. And I remember applying, and I’ve recently been asked by several friends on Instagram, “How did I get hired as an art teacher?” So I’m going to tap on that a little bit.
I remember going to some of these job interviews. Back in those days, you didn’t apply online. You actually filled out a paper application, mailed it back in, and then you would get a phone call. And I got a couple of phone calls from schools in Indiana. One that I drove to, and I was exactly 30 minutes late, and I didn’t get the job. No surprise there. That’s thing number one I learned really fast, on how to get hired as becoming an art teacher, don’t be late for your job interview.
I remember going to a couple of interviews, where I could have easily just lived with my mom, and taught, and that would have been great. I could have saved money, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. One of those job applications that I got a phone call back from, was in Nashville. I’d only ever been to Nashville, Tennessee, one other time and I thought it would be a fun little, a trip for me, and my crafty grandma Rosie. We drove there, and long story super short, I got the job. Now long story long, here’s how it went down.
Oh, first of all, my grandmother and I, my grandmother had never been to Nashville. So it was a little bit of a vacation for us. And I remember the moment that we arrived in Nashville, we saw the most amazing restaurant. A restaurant that we just had to go into. One that we didn’t, at the time, have in Indiana, so we were so stoked to see it in Nashville. Do you want to know what it was? Sometimes we like to get fancy and call it La Cracker Barrel.
That’s right, the Cracker Barrel. We’d never been before, well, only on the rare occasion. So we were stoked, and I remember, the night before my job interview, we had a great big breakfast for dinner, and as we’re walking out, you know how you exit through the gift shop, we took our time and admired all the chotskies before my grandmother, who smoked a lot of cigarettes turned to me said, “Cassandra Lane,” that’s my name, by the way. It’s Cassandra Lane.
“Cassandra Lane, are you ready to go?” And I said, “Sure, grandma. Let’s go. I should probably get some sleep before my job interview tomorrow.” We’re in the car, we’re driving away, when she turns to me in a panic and says, “Oh, Cassandra Lane, I still have the ticket. We didn’t pay for the bill.” Y’all we had totally dined and dodged. And I was determined not for us to go back. I wanted to be like a thumb on ceiling experience. I’d never done such a thing before. Gosh, am I like outing myself? Are the police going to be knocking on my door any moment?
My grandmother was so fearful watching the news for the rest of the time, thinking that our little faces were going to be on the news, they were out looking for us. The next day, I had three job interviews. All over different schools in Nashville. I remember the first one I went to, the administrator, the principal asked me if I wouldn’t mind also coaching soccer, volleyball, and teaching English. I let him know that, yeah, sports really isn’t my thing. I’m not athletic at all. In fact, I hate volleyball. How do people hit those things with their wrists? It is so painful, and I’m not certified to teach English. He was still willing to hire me though, which led me to believe that the man was desperate, and I did not want that gig.
The second interview went just as well, but the third one, I got a really good vibe. The guy’s name was Dr. Wolfgang, and how could you not love a guy with that name? And I remember, he after the interview, asked me if I would like to see the portable. In his words, “Hey, Miss Stevens, we have a brand new portable. That’s what you’ll be teaching art in. Would you like to see this portable? It’s a very nice portable. It’s brand new, we just got it. It’s right outside. I can show you this portable.”
Y’all, I did not know what a portable was. I’d never heard that word before, but the way he was chalking it up, it sounded amazing. And I didn’t want to be rude or put him out, or anything, so I just I said, “No, it sounds lovely. I don’t need to see it.” Y’all, I did not know that a portable was code for trailer, which my grandmother Rosie lived in. If I’d have known that, I definitely would have second thought that job, or at least taken a look see around said portable.
I didn’t, I took that job though, when he called me back. And I couldn’t have been more excited. I moved to Nashville in 1998, and I didn’t know anybody. It was so scary to be doing a job that I knew nothing about. That first day when I walked into that portable with those kids, it was the first day that I’d ever taught children. My student teaching experience had only ever been with middle school and high school kids. I remember looking at them, and them looking at me, like a deer in headlights, wondering who was going to make the first move.
I did not sleep a wink the night before. I had so many questions about, “How am I supposed to do this? What am I supposed to do with kids who are five, for an hour?” I had kindergartners for an hour, y’all, in a portable. Away from the school, no teachers ever did I see, not did they ever speak to me. They would just wave their kids on from the school building door, and then just turn their back and go into the school. Like I said, it was scary, it was lonely. I love it, I hated it, but I learned so much.
I learned so much by reading about it nonstop. I would go to the library every weekend, and in 1998, the only books you could find on like creating, and projects, there weren’t books for art teachers back then. They were books written in like the ’60s and ’70s on how to make, I don’t know, how to make your own plant holders out of hemp, and all this weird hippy stuff, that I wasn’t going to be doing with my students, but I would find the resources wherever I could.
And I would go to any of the classes that I could find, and I just tried to learn as much as I possibly could. In fact, I poured myself into it so much, that I flat out just stopped creating. I was determined to at least not mess this up. And so that’s my story. I spent probably about the first seven years doing nothing but working on becoming a teacher, working on becoming an art teacher, trying to do the best job that I could.
And it wasn’t until about that seventh year that I realized that I was so resentful because I wasn’t creating anymore. And I know I’ve talked to you all before about burnout. It might be due time to talk about it again. But that’s what I went through, was a burnout, which brings me back to last week’s podcast of you have to also be creating in order to teach creating, and teach creatively. And I learned that, but sadly it took me so many years to figure that out.
So hopefully, by me sharing this story with you, that you’ll remember what brought you to, or put the little kernel of thought of becoming an art teacher in your mind. It’s the creating, it’s the making, it’s the love that you feel when you’re doing that, and sharing that. And I learned that, and when I finally did, I really felt as thought I became a much better teacher. I became a teacher that was a lot more compassionate also, about what my students were creating.
So 20 years later, here I am, sharing that very long-winded, hopefully not so boring, I don’t know, could be, maybe I just talked all of you would-be teacher, art teachers out of it, but hopefully not. And I want to encourage you to share your story with other teachers. It’d be worth having a whole PD about how you guys, like when you’re sitting down with art teacher buddies, how did you become a teacher, and sharing your story because hearing it spoken out loud, might really enlighten you to things that you want to work on, want to improve. Or, just maybe bring you back to that joy that you originally felt.
Thank you, guys, for letting me share that with you. It really means a lot to me.
Tim: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. Last week we announced the Art of Education University’s newest course starting in March called Studio: Photography.
In this course, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own personal studio practice in photography, and your instructional decisions in the art classroom, as well.
In the eight-week course, you’ll learn the basics of photography, as you capture moments and create visual stories. You’ll also consider implications for the classroom, as you explore best practices and meaningful strategies for approaching photography with your students. You’ll walk away from the course with a comprehensive portfolio of studio work, and practical tools for the classroom.
The first second of the course will be running March 1st, and you have just about a week to register. Make sure you do that soon. You can find more details about the course and a full description at the courses page at www.theartofeducation.edu/courses.
Now let it turn it back over to Cassie, as she finishes up the episode.
Cassie: Since I was so long-winded with that little tale, I’m going to take one question from my mail bag, and I’m going to use this question because I think it ties in with what we’re chatting about.
The question comes from my friend Susie on Instagram, and she was asking, “Do you have any advice on having a student teacher?”
Well, I think that it’s always important to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Think about what your student teaching experience was, and make a little list. The pros and the cons, what did you love about your student teaching experience? And what did you not love about it?
Me, I learned really quickly from my student teaching experience in Indiana, that I did not want to teach high schoolers. I learned that real fast. I think one reason I learned it was because I could tell that the teacher I was working under, she didn’t love it either. And I could also sense that the kids, they didn’t love being in there.
I mean, they were fine, but there wasn’t a passion, there wasn’t an excitement, there wasn’t an energy that was happening on any side of it. And your student teacher is just like your students, in that he or she is going to mirror you. If you have a passion, and a love, and a thrill for teaching, then that’s going to rub off on them. They’re going to embrace that, and they’re going to teach in that same style.
Perhaps if I’d done my student teaching in a different situation, maybe I would have had a different perspective on teaching high schoolers. And nothing negative to say about that teacher. Perhaps she was just going through a burnout. It wasn’t her, it was me, I guess, in what I took away from it. And what I took away was, “This is not for me.”
I mean, y’all, when I got out of my student teaching experience, I had no intention of becoming a teacher. None whatsoever, not until I got the call back from said portable classroom. So I think that thinking about what you enjoyed about your experience, and maybe what you didn’t, can really help you think about what you want to do, and be for your student teacher.
And I think it’s also important to sit that person down and just have an open conversation on the frontend. “What are you confident about? What do you feel good about in this student teaching situation? What are you hoping to get out of becoming my student teacher? What are you afraid of, because let’s tackle that, are you fearful of teaching clay? Are you afraid of reprimanding a student? Are you not sure how to do X, Y, Z? Let me help you work on that.”
I think having those open conversations constantly with a student teacher is going to help them tremendously. And be gentle with a student teacher. Bless their heart, they don’t know. They don’t know a thing. I say that, and yet, maybe they do. Maybe they know more than you think, and maybe you can learn so much from them. So go in it with an open mind and a whole lot of communication, and I think that it will end up being a really great experience for both of y’all.
Thanks for the question, it was awesome. And if you have a question for me, you should sent it to me. You can find me at the Everyday Art Room at the artofed.com.
This will give you an idea how long ago I had my first year of teaching. Amazon was only selling books, just books. And I remember my first year teaching, discovering Amazon on my boyfriend, who is now my husband’s computer. And just like, “What? There’s all these resources that I haven’t been finding at the library. This is amazing.”
So I quickly ordered two of the just about the only books that I could find on art education. And shipping them to my apartment, only to have them stolen off my doorstep. Can you imagine how disappointed that poor schlep was, who tore into that box, only to find two art teacher books? I’m sure they immediately went in the trash.
Thankfully, I got a new set of books, and poured over them as much as I could, but that just gives you a little bit into how different things were back in the quote, “Day.” And how much far we’ve come, as art teachers. Thank goodness, we now have all these resources where we can share and learn from one another. And you should.
And like I said, you should totally throw that question out there. “How did you become an art teacher?” Maybe don’t word it like that. That sounded kind of condescending, “How did you become an art teacher?”
Thank you, guys, so much for letting me share.
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.