As many of you know I was laid off at the end of October from my part-time job teaching pre-k art and dance. This happened one week before my wedding. What with the wedding craziness and then going to Thailand for a two week honeymoon, I decided to just start my job search mid-December after I got back home.
I used jet lag to my benefit and when I would wake up at midnight, as wide awake as if it were mid-day, I would apply for jobs. I searched the internet high and low for art teacher positions not only in Austin, where I love living, but also in other places around Texas (Note: My husband had also recently been layed off so it was a perfect time for us to relocate if we had to).
I had received an email from my graduate art education alumni list about a job opportunity for a full time travelling art educator position in Austin so I applied for it. The day after Christmas I was contacted about interviewing for this position and ended up starting a week later.
Though I had done a very similar job for the past year and a half, I quickly found that there were quite a few significant differences between this new job and my past jobs.
Every morning I teach art lessons in underprivileged schools, mostly daycares. Even though in the afternoons I teach at fancy private schools, I have found that the underprivileged schools are my favorite places to teach. The kids throw a lot of fits, feel bad about themselves and their school-mates, and often think they don’t know how to make art. But I feel very strongly that it’s my job to help them realize that they are actually very creative artists and my greatest hope is for them to find empowerment through art and that is why I’ve been hired to go to these schools in the first place. To help.
I Can’t Even…
The only downside about going to these schools is classroom teacher interference.
Here is a list of my least favorite things that have happened:
-A teacher took a little girl’s painting and paintbrush away from her because instead of following the directions and painting inside her drawing she was painting all over her entire paper.
-Another teacher took a crayon out of a kid’s hand and started doing the coloring for them since the kid “wasn’t doing it right” (this has happened a few times).
-Kids get very excited during our circle time when we look at art together and talk about what they think it means. The teachers always get involved and tell them to be quiet and sit down.
-A little boy (3 years old) didn’t like his art so he put down his crayon and started crying. I walked over to him and asked him what was wrong. The teacher didn’t let him talk; she started telling me this is how he behaves, if he doesn’t like his work he has to start a new piece. I started talking to him pointing out the things I liked about what he’d done so far and the teacher interrupted me to say “no, you don’t understand, this is just the way he is.” (I would just like to point out that a 3 year old is not the way anyone is, they will change, hopefully for the better if encouraged), I ignored the teacher and eventually the little boy kept working.
-At one of the schools the kids are mean to each other. One little boy (4 years old) started being rude to a little girl (3 years old) and demanding she leave him alone. I intervened and explained the expectations I had of being nice to each other. He refused to apologize so I took his markers away so we could chat without him being distracted. He began to cry. His teacher walked in and started shouting at him to come back to the classroom because he was causing a lot of trouble. I spoke up and said he could stay and that he was doing a good job. Eventually he told me he was ready to apologize and I praised him heavily for it. I think it was important for him to come to this conclusion instead of being removed from the environment. He later started crying because he didn’t know how to draw a triangle. The teacher walked out again and started shouting at him to come back to the classroom. I told her he was staying in the class and that he was doing a good job. I proceeded to walk him through drawing a triangle. Eventually he had drawn several successful shapes, felt much better, and even liked his picture.
Why I Teach
I didn’t become a teacher because I love kids. In fact, I usually think kids are jerks (because they don’t know any better yet).
The main reason I want to be a teacher is because I want to show people, at a very early age, that they are already artists; that they are creative; that they can figure out how to make art and it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s art in order to be good. I want people to learn that art is a process of learning and figuring out and then doing it over again in a new way using what you learned. I want to make the world a more creative and colorful place. I want people to think compassionately and know how to problem solve and innovate and I truly think that strong arts education programs will help with this vision.
That being said for the first time since I’ve been a teacher, I find myself really liking the kids that I teach. My anger at the teachers for interfering and making the children favor following directions over exploring their own creativity has made me feel a camaraderie with the kids. These teachers are the reason that people grow up to be afraid of making art and think they don’t know how to be creative. It feels like I’m banding together with the kids to protect them from the enemy, to protect them from growing up to be scared of their own creativity and only know how to follow directions instead of following their creative spark into the unknown where there are no directions yet.
How I Handled the Problem
I’ve tried to handle it in a few different ways. I wrote a letter explaining my background and credentials and also a few rules that I have for myself that they may find helpful:
“Hello teachers! Taking over the Wee Little Arts classes mid-year has been an amazing experience for me and it’s been great getting to know you and your kids over the last few weeks. We haven’t really had much of an opportunity to chat so I wanted to introduce myself to you. My name is Samantha Gaw and I hold a BA in art history from the University of Houston and my masters in art education from UT. I’ve taught art in a variety of grade levels from pre-k all the way through high school but my favorite age group is pre-k and elementary.
I also wanted to let you know a little bit about how I like to teach and what is important to me about art education so that we can work together. In this way the kids not only get consistent messages from us; they also get the most out of these classes. As a Wee Little Arts travelling art educator I am coming into many classrooms and all of them are a little bit different regarding rules and procedures. Through my studies and personal experiences in teaching I have found that because of these small differences from classroom to classroom it is important for me as a teacher to have rules and procedures for myself to guide me through confusing moments and to maintain better control of the class. I wanted to share some of these personal expectations with you so that you know what I need as your students’ art educator.
1. I never do the art for the student.
This includes holding the hand of the student so that they can feel how to do it through my hands. Even if they just aren’t “getting it right” and even if they are doing something different from what we discussed, this is their time to explore the media and use their curiosity to figure out how to make art their own way.
Sometimes students ask me to help them when what they mean is do it for them. Working in pre-schools I’ve seen my share of “I can’t do it” fits from kids. Doing the art work myself will not allow them to learn how to problem solve. It teaches the idea that there is a “right way” to do art and the “right way” is the teacher’s way. It doesn’t allow them to develop their own creative voice when they’re trying to copy mine or abandon their artistic ideas in favor of following directions. Also, any part of the work of art that I make will LOOK like I made it—one of my favorite things about children’s art is that it LOOKS like it was made by a creative little artist.
I do have a few go-to answers when they tell me “I can’t do it” or “I don’t know how to do that” that you may find helpful:
-A lot of times they’re already in the process of doing it and I let them know that they have either already done it or that they have already started and to keep going.
-Another favorite is to say “that’s not the point of being in art class.” They aren’t in class to only do things that they already know how to do. The point of art class is to figure out how to do it.
-If nothing is working and they are inconsolable I ask if they need to take a break. I don’t want to punish them for feeling inadequate when it comes to art so taking a break lets them take a step back and lets their curiosity build again when they see that their classmates are capable of figuring it out and are having fun.
2. I always start every class with discussion and allow students a lot of freedom during this discussion time to talk about their own experiences and ideas.
This helps me tie the lesson to the students’ personal experiences and make it relevant to them. They will have more take-away if they can think of it in terms of something familiar to them. Something they already know. So I let them talk and decide how to relate to it. This is why I don’t mind when the students talk about personal experiences that are seemingly unrelated to the art lesson. This is just re-enforcing meaning making and furthering their connection to the lesson.
Sometimes the conversation does get a little too far off track, in which case I have experience bringing the focus back to the main topic in this type of open conversation. I find that when other authority figures get involved to try to help regain focus it can disrupt the open atmosphere and make students nervous about sharing their thoughts. Of course, if things get too out of control, I appreciate the option of asking for assistance, but in most instances it’s best if I’m given the freedom to use the management techniques that I’ve learned and developed in my studies and in my work.
One of my teaching goals is to show students that there is no exact way to create art and that they can make their own sense of it. These two rules further that goal. I encourage creative decision making and learning. Making sure I start every class with a discussion adds depth to this goal. I encourage students to discover and embrace their own style, aesthetic sense, and creativity and do this not only through the discussions in class, but also by not doing the art for the student because the interpretation of the lesson needs to be totally up to them. I let the kids discover how they like to make art instead of focusing on how I and other adults make art.
A great way to help me out during class is to ask the students questions about what they’re making. When they say they don’t know how to do something, encouraging them to make the art themselves. Another help would be answering questions they have or telling them that they’re doing a great job and complimenting them on their artistic choices. So much of art education is encouragement and letting them know that their ideas are valid and worth exploring.
Thank you again for your help. I’m excited to work together to help our students become confident artists with strong, unique voices. If you ever want to discuss class with me—or art education in general—please feel free to email me at XXXX@gmail.com. I love what I do and I am always open to chatting about my work.”
I have started going into the classrooms and asking the teachers if they’ve had a chance to read the letter. Regardless of their answer I tell them that the major point I’d like to address is allowing me to have control of classroom management during the art lesson. One of the teachers has started making art with the kids while I’m teaching. I think this has so far been the best solution to this problem. She sits and talks to the kids while she works on her art. Another teacher who I felt I was actually fighting with during class actually dropped her kids off with me and left the room after being given the letter. I was over joyed. She and I ended up both shouting over each other. “Sit Criss Cross Apple Sauce! Juliana! What did I say? This is lesson time! Sit flat and be quiet!” Pretty much the whole time I kept saying “no its ok, they’re fine” or “its ok I’ve got it.” So in the end I just kept teaching over her shouting. It was a nasty experience and I wish I would have handled it differently but at least it seems to be getting better.
Another teacher began barking directions at the kids and I merely put my hand up and said “its ok, I’ve got it” and she left the room.
It hasn’t all gone as smoothly as I hoped. I asked one of the teachers if she’d read the letter and she said yes. I said “the main issue I’m having right now is that I need to be given more control over discipline while I’m teaching because a lot of times I don’t mind what the kids are doing and its distracting to have their attention going between the two of us.” She said ok and walked away and then the class proceeded to blow raspberries, pick on each other, and shout. I feel like this is mostly a product of her never letting me have control over the class and they don’t know how to act with me yet since I haven’t had a chance to teach them. I eventually gained control of the class and they became very interested in what we were working on.
On the one hand I do not want to step on any toes. I know preschool is really demanding and these teachers work very hard. On the other hand its impossible for me to come to these classrooms and have the teachers be in control of something as significant as discipline and classroom management. What is the point of me coming to their classrooms if I’m just going to be treated like a youtube instructional video that can be started and stopped when the teacher needs to shout at the kids for getting too excited?