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We hear all the time about fostering authentic learning experiences for our students, but what does that really mean? Andrea Slusarski joins Tim on this episode to talk all things authenticity. Listen as they discuss why you need to open yourself up to your students (5:15), why kids want to see your personality (9:00), and how to develop a classroom culture that encourages authentic action (15:30). Full episode transcript below.
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.
I want to talk today about authenticity. More specifically authentic teaching and what it can do in your classroom. Because facilitating authentic experiences and my idea is that if we want to provide authentic experiences we need to create an authentic environment in our classroom. And what do I mean by that? I mean that we need to be ourselves and we need to build a classroom community that allows our students to be themselves as well. That’s when your kids feel like a part of something. And that’s when they feel like they belong. They want to be in your classroom and you want them to be there too and they know that.
But authentic teaching goes beyond just that glib advice. Like be cool and be yourself and do what comes naturally. There’s an element of that for sure but it also takes some reflection and it takes some putting yourself out there. You need to be genuine. You need to think about what you’re doing and you need to be vulnerable. Most importantly you need to reflect on what your kids need from you.
Hey it’s a lot to think about. It’s a lot to put into a two minute intro here but I think it works better in a little bit of a discussion. So Andrea Slusarski is here to go through all of these ideas with me and I always love talking to her. Even if we are going to go with a little bit bigger topic this week. Let’s go ahead and bring her on right now.
Tim: Alright Andrea Slusarski is here with me. How are you today?
Andrea: Good. How are you Tim?
Tim: I am doing really well. I’m excited to talk to you again.
Tim: We were dealt last time with super fun outdoorsy stuff and that was a really fun conversation.
Andrea: Oh yeah, it was.
Tim: But now we’re going a little more serious with just talking about authenticity, how we handle ourselves in the art room where it’s not necessarily a heavier topic but not quite as lighthearted as we did before. Let me just ask you, we talk a lot about facilitating these authentic experiences for our kids with their art making and personally I would say that a big part of that is fostering an authentic environment like in our own classroom. I guess the question for you is how do you present yourself to your student? How do you do that authentically to create the right type of environment in your classroom?
Andrea: Wow you’re coming right out of the gate on this one for me Tim. Authenticity is like art. There’s is no right or wrong. Which leaves giving advice about authenticity and environment in the classroom a very complex conversation.
Tim: True, true.
Andrea: So I’m going to do my best to share my thoughts and some stories that I’ve learned but I’m by no means an expert. I just love this part about being the art teacher so I’m really excited to talk about it. I think being an art teacher it eludes to you being more authentic in terms of your teaching. And yeah, and every time I’m chatting with a new teacher or an undergrad art education student, when they’re asking me about my classroom, they’re asking about my leadership or my classroom management, my largest focus to them is always what makes you you? What’s your strength? What makes you an art teacher? What’s your personality to your students because there’s always going to be things in your teaching that you will need experience and practice. That’s just how growing works. I have been teaching for like seven years now and I still can’t even like figure out wearing my ID everyday.
But what you can do is you can build from the base of what you naturally do or who you naturally are. And you’re going to find quicker successes in building your authentic classroom that way. So finding your confidence as a teacher and your style and your approach is what makes you authentic. And it’s from that authenticity where you can really see meaningful relationships start to happen in the classroom and it’s because you’re showing the students that you’re a real person. You’re real to them.
Tim: It makes building relationships so much easier. If you are constantly worried about we have to stick to the script. We have to teach this. We have to do it in this order in this way. It makes it really tough for kids to relate to you. But if you can spend some time telling stories. If you can sit down and chat with them. If you are approachable that makes things so much easier when you are trying to build relationships.
Andrea: It’s yeah.
Tim: Go ahead, go ahead.
Andrea: And I was just going to say it’s I really, like I said, going back to what makes you you I really strive for other art teachers to kind of look at themselves and see what their voice is because my teaching style is not the same as your teaching style but what’s going to make you authentic? And if you’re trying to have my style or if I’m trying to have someone else’s style, high schoolers are going to see that right away and they’re going to call you out. You’re trying to be someone that you’re not. High schoolers see that so easy.
Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s a good I don’t know, a set of advice that you need to be yourself. Let me ask you this though, for a lot of teachers being themselves is not as comfortable for them. They’re afraid to put themselves out there and I think a lot of people are afraid to be vulnerable. What would you say to them as far as presenting themselves and their honest personality? Why do you need to do that? How does that help you in your classroom?
Andrea: That’s good. And in this we’re not saying to go tell your students everything about you but being authentically yourself and sharing with students that. It will help them respect and look up to you so much quicker and so much more. But again, you should be striving to do you. If you don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable about your personal life, you should listen to that. Just fly your own freak flag and let students see an adult being excited and creative about something personal to them.
I had a group of guys that we first connected on our mutual love for the Marvel Universe. At that time they were still unsure about how they felt about being in an art class. They had never taken one before and they thought it was probably not for them. Who’s this weirdo, crazy, energetic art teacher lady that we have to be at now? But by creating the environment of my classroom that allowed for those nerdy conversations and interactions to take place they actually realized that they were great at art and they really loved creating. But without me opening the door about like hey, cool Star Wars shirt, have you seen the new movie? You can relate on pop culture and that’s not really being too vulnerable or open yourself out. It’s just showing to students that you care about other things in their life too and that maybe we have some similarities that we can bond with.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I think if you try hard enough you can create that connection with any of your kids.
Tim: It can be as simple as hey, I like your shoes. You know what? I don’t care about their shoes.
Tim: I literally could not care less but that shows that you care. It shows that you’re open to conversation. It shows that you really want to get to know your kids and they appreciate that because so often they go through their school day without getting noticed. If you can take 30 seconds to talk about their shoes or their shirt or their haircut or whatever, kids so appreciate that. And I think that’s something that is huge. It creates this environment where kids feel welcome, they feel comfortable and then that allows them to excel.
Tim: So I like that advice. If I can also ask you about classroom management too because I feel like the other thing that people are afraid of is they’re going to lose their classroom management if they show any kind of vulnerability or they show too much personality. But I’ve always found that to be exactly the opposite. Can you talk about your experience and kind of what effects you see on classroom management with that?
Andrea: I completely agree with you Tim. I actually believe that my students work that they create is much deeper. And their experience in my classroom is much more positive. That I’m hardly worried about the classroom management because of my vulnerability and my personality. Of course there’s always going to be some knuckleheads that you need to be more serious with. Those knuckleheads maybe need it. They appreciate it all the same. But communicating with your high expectations and making students enjoy your classroom environment together, those are the fun classes for student and teacher. My favorite part about my job is the relationships I build with my students.
I joke about this often but sometimes I feel like my students don’t even need me in there. I make my classroom super studio feely where all the kids walk in, they grab their supplies and they want to get started. I just stand in the front. Am in the way? What’s going on you guys?
Tim: So let me follow up on that ’cause this is kind of a point that my colleagues never really appreciated but I’ll get your take on, especially teaching high school we have these 17 and 18 year old kids who are literally going to be living on their own next year. In fact some of them living on their own already. They don’t need a pass to go to the bathroom. If you just think about how different their worlds are inside and outside of school. And I guess that’s a long way of me making my point which is these kids appreciate being treated like the adults that they are or are almost and yeah, they’re going to be dumb sometimes. They’re going to be knuckleheads, they’re going to do stupid things but for the most part they are close to being an adult, you can treat them as such. You can show them some respect. And when you do that you get so much respect back.
Andrea: You know they’ll do all the crazy things I ask them to do. They challenge themselves because they trust me. And I operate my classroom management a lot on just honesty. Of you do you honestly need to go to the bathroom or you do want to just go walk around the hallways? We have that kind of communication and by me sharing myself and my personality I hope that it helps encourage them to share that with me as well. And I think that helps me connect with them even more. I know more about their lives and let’s face it, being someone’s art teacher’s a really big deal. You can ask any adult walking down the street about their high school art teacher and they’re going to remember them. Focus on building on those too. And having that authenticity in your conversations. Making them feel welcome.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s take that a little bit further. Let’s talk about those connections a little bit more. Why do you think that that authenticity helps so much with developing relationships? How do those connections and those relationship help you with your teaching?
Andrea: A majority of my authenticity comes from my experiences as an artist outside of school. My students and I all have artist Instagram accounts and we follow each other and comment on each others’ works because I want my students to feel so confident in themselves. And that’s what keeps them excited to be learning and challenging themselves. Yeah, gosh it’s such a fun, I just thinking of all these students that I have relationships with and it’s so meaningful. It really brings in that meaning to art. Even though you’re developing those relationships, I’m also there for those knuckleheads and the tough kids that really just need someone to believe in them, to barely pass a class.
So my authenticity and how it helps my relationships, it helps me focus on the student and it helps me focus on how they are experiencing my classroom which I believe is a tool that really helps my teaching practice.
Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s a really valid point because there’s a lot of kids where it’s easy to develop relationships with them. They are nice, they’re outgoing, they are talkative, it’s fun to hang out with them in your classroom. At the same time as teachers we are responsible for every single kid who comes through our door. You do need to be there for the knuckleheads and the tough kids.
Andrea: And they’re my favorite.
Tim: No, they absolutely can be. And I think it just goes back to that point where there is some kind of a connection that you can have with every single kid and it’s just kind of up to you to find it. And I think that really is something that does make us better as teachers if we can focus on that. So I think that’s some good advice from you.
Tim: One last thing, before we wrap it up here. Let’s talk specifically about what are some concrete steps? If you’re to give our listeners some advice. How do you share more about yourself? Do you tell stories? Do you make art? Do you just sit down and engage in conversation? What gets those relationships started for you?
Andrea: Well storytelling, oh man do I love a good story. It’s talk about funny things from art school. Or I love to talk about all the silly stuff that I did in high school. The mistakes. I did this and this is what I learned. What my first iPod looked like. A connection that you, yeah, that kids, it blows kid’s minds my iPad, my iPod that had four buttons and I begged my mom for. Or a connection you have with what you’re teaching them because we have as artists and art teachers and we’re all lumped in the same thing, we have a lot of connections that we felt with what we’re teaching. And that is a powerful thing about being an art teacher to me because I can share those stories.
When I’m teaching life drawing I talk about my college lift art drawing class and how awesome it was and the friends that I made and what you learned and when you see your class kind of slipping away or they’re getting a little bored with the demo, tell a funny story, tell a meaningful story ’cause that emotion that you get through storytelling, that’s just going to kickstart their brain again and then you’re kind of tricking them into learning more ’cause they’re going to remember the story. It’s good teaching.
And individual conversations happen while I’m walking around my classroom. I love stopping and seeing kids in the hallway just to show I’m here because I care about you and I’m going to talk with you whenever you want. And it can be anywhere from how their day is going to what sort of project I’m working on, the next Star Wars movie or sometimes I’ll just say a random Harry Potter quote just to catch them off guard.
Tim: I love it. Hey, I don’t want to interrupt your answer so I’m going to let you finish but then I have a Harry Potter story that I think everybody needs to hear. But anyway, go ahead, finish.
Andrea: Yes, please. I can’t wait to hear it ’cause literally they’ll be like, “Did Dumbledore say that?” I’m like, “Yeah, Dumbledore said that.” Do you think I just came up with that response to your question, no.
And then the advice it always comes back to what is the most you? I’m a storyteller. However my favorite teacher in high school was super into music. And he always found a way to bring that in. I burnt CDs in high school for my AP US history projects. And still to this day I get excited hearing Marvin Gaye on the radio and thinking about the civil rights movement and what I learned in AP US history when I was 17. It doesn’t have to be a storytelling if that’s not you. Kind of look at yourself as a teacher and as a person and what things bring you joy? And what things are you super excited to talk about? Because then it’s just going to make it easy to be super excited to talk about it with your students. And they’re going to see that and they’re going to know that this person is sharing their passions with me. This person is real. This person wants to have a conversation with me. And they’re just going to respect you all the more for that.
So figure out you, that’s why we’re art teachers.
Tim: Exactly. And I think when you show that passion it becomes contagious.
Andrea: And they want to be that way.
Tim: Yes, yes. And so when you can transfer that into art as well, the more excited you are about a project or about a material, the more excited your kids are going to be as well. And so I think that’s really, really worthwhile. Cool. All right now it’s time for Harry Potter story.
Andrea: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Tim: Everybody who’s listening and doesn’t care about Harry Potter just fast forward through the next couple minutes but if you love Harry Potter …
Andrea: Or start to care about Harry Potter.
Tim: That would be even better.
Andrea: That’s an option too.
Tim: Okay. My son just turned eight and it’s exciting around here because when you turn eight you get your first Harry Potter book. And so I know, it’s exciting. And the thing I love about Harry Potter which I can’t quite recreate for my kids but I’m trying to is the anticipation that always came with new books coming out. You can’t wait. You find the release date et cetera, et cetera. And the waiting and the suspense and like I said that anticipation is what made it such a great experience to live through all those coming out. And so I can’t recreate that exactly with my kids but what we’re trying to do is come close and so my daughter’s 10 and so you get your first Harry Potter book when you turn eight and your second one when you turn nine and your third one when you turn 10. So every year you’re waiting for this brand new book and while you’re waiting for number three you can read number one and number two as many times as you want. But you don’t get number three until your 10th birthday.
My kids are, they half love it and half hate it but they’re super excited about it which is what I want. And so anyway my daughter just got the third book and her friends are just like apoplectic that I won’t let her read the other ones yet. And so they’re like, but we’re on number five. We’re on number six and can’t believe you’re not there yet. And so anyway she’s opening her birthday gifts this year and she had just gotten number three from us the night before and then her birthday party the next day one of her friends buys her four and five. Like they just have number four and number five wrapped up. And just like I was heartbroken.
Andrea: You can’t mess with magic like that.
Tim: I know. My plan is messed up. I was telling my wife, I was like, “Oh Lynn, what are we going to do? This just messed up everything.” And she’s like, “It’s not that big of a deal just let her read them.” And I was like, “Okay.” And I cried a little bit but I accepted it.
Andrea: But like parenting win. Like your daughter’s wanting to read books.
Tim: Yes but hang on, it gets better. And so I’ve come to accept this fact that my brilliant plan has been ruined and that’s okay ’cause then we talk about the next books but then the next day my daughter comes to me with those two books and she hands them to me and she says, “I don’t want these yet.” I was like, yes. And so that just made me like so, just validated this whole plan is working and that she is experiencing them in the same way that a lot of older kids have gotten to do. So number four and number five …
Andrea: My whole heart is full.
Tim: I know.
Andrea: And I’m not even a parent. It’s like my mom crying over this story. A Harry Potter story made me cry.
Tim: I love it. They’ll be waiting for her the next year and the year after so that’s pretty exciting.
Andrea: That’s really special. I was such a dorky child that I would tell my parents that they’d even drive to me to the Barnes and Noble an hour away from our small, our home in the middle of nowhere Illinois. And my mom would be like, “We have to go to Barnes and Noble?” I’d be like, “Well yeah, I have the fifth Harry Potter book on reserve,” and this is coming from your fifth grade daughter who’s like, “Oh yeah, at the library I looked up the phone number and called and got one booked. So do you think Saturday we can drive there and you can buy that for me?” It’s like, “What?” So I’m really, really excited to hear that you’re making that special Tim. That sounds really good.
Tim: It’s awesome. Anything that gets kids passionate about reading I’m all for. So cool.
Andrea: So good.
Tim: Well I hope everybody enjoyed that random three minute tangent about Harry Potter. We definitely need to wrap it up so maybe you can come back on another time we’ll just talk about Harry Potter for 20 minutes and call it good.
Andrea: I think we might need to schedule a whole block of time to talk about Harry Potter.
Tim: Let’s do it. Cool.
Andrea: This is you being authentic. This is what you could do with your students.
Andrea: These are things that students want, they want to see. They want to feel and just even silly stuff like this. This is the important thing with building that connection with your students.
Andrea: So it’s good.
Tim: Nope, that’s the perfect way to wrap it up and I couldn’t have said it any better. So we’re going to end it right there. So thanks for coming on.
Tim: And hopefully we’ll talk to you again soon.
Andrea: Sounds great Tim. Thank you.
Tim: Alright. A big thank you to Andrea for coming on and talking about all of these ideas about authenticity with me. Now before we go if you missed the announcement, we are excited to tell you that contemporary artist Jen Stark will be the featured presenter at the Art Ed Now Summer Online Conference on August 2nd. You can learn more about her presentation and see all of the other presentations at artednow.com. You can also listen to the interview that Abby did with Jen Stark at artedradio.com. I’m really excited to have Jen present, she has been awesome to work with and I think you’re going to absolutely love her presentation. I’m really looking forward to it and again if you’re not registered yet, go do so at artednow.com.
To wrap things up, like Andrea said when she is chatting with a new teacher or with undergrad students she always focuses on the question of what makes you who you are? And I think that’s what we need to focus on ourselves. We can think about our personality, our passions and we need to not be afraid to share those parts of ourselves. ‘Cause that sharing helps build your relationships and those relationships help you create a climate in the classroom where kids want to be. Because that’s one of your strengths. That’s part of what makes you a good teacher. Showing your personality to your students. You always need to continue to develop as a teacher. You always need to grow in what you’re doing but if you can build from what you naturally do and who you naturally are you’re going to find success in being your authentic self and building a classroom community where students feel as though they can be their authentic selves as well.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Our weekly emails keep you updated on the latest episodes and a few things that are going on in the world of art ed. Make sure you go sign up at artedradio.com. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.