I’ve been reflecting on my first year as an art teacher in a public school. While I have already taught art for a few years there was nothing that could have prepared me for public school teaching. I’m going to skip talking about the obvious adjustments that needed to be made such as getting used to having six groups of kids a day with a 5 minute turn around between classes; learning roughly 500 new names of students, teachers administration, and parents; figuring out what to teach to which age group and when to teach it; having a full time job instead of a bunch of contract work; how answering the same question over and over again (sometimes to the same children) began to wear on me; how undervalued the profession of teaching is by society even though its probably one of the most important… Here are a few of the many things I’ve been thinking about:
- I got better at making art
- I became very territorial and protective of my free time and sleep
- My focus shifted from only focusing on student empowerment to more of a mind for classroom management
- I thought my self esteem took a dive but it actually didn’t
I got Better at Making Art
There’s something about showing the same technique several times a day that made me gain confidence and an instinct for how to better do what I was teaching. Quick gesture drawings and paintings, drawing a still life, mixing a great shade of paint, drawing a tiger, cutting shapes out of paper for collage… I loved getting to make art every day with my students and the repetition made me more in control of my skills.
I became very territorial and protective of my free time and sleep
At first I resisted the total lifestyle change of being an elementary school teacher who had to be at work at 7 am. I still went out dancing and stayed out late. But eventually I got wise to the energy needed to keep this schedule up day in and day out. I think the most exhausting thing about it is that it’s every day. Had an exhausting day? Well you still have to be at work at 7 am tomorrow anyway. My least favorite part of this job is how unforgiving the schedule is.
By the second semester I was asleep by 10 pm at the latest most nights. I hated this and the fear of being tired dragged me into an anxious depression. I would anticipate being tired in the future even if I was not tired at the moment.
This caused me to say no to going out more often than not so I severely neglected friends and social activities which made me feel depressed in other ways and like I was letting people down that I care about. If it weren’t for the Hot Damn Damsels and our weekly practices I would not have hung out with anyone except my husband.
I slowly emerged from my anxiety. Once I started leaving work as early as possible I began to feel less anxious. I often had time to work out and nap before going out to do anything else in the evenings. Refusing to stay at work past 4 pm and trying to leave at 3:30 pm at least a few days a week was a huge help.
It was difficult to get to a place where I realized that leaving earlier was a necessary piece of the puzzle to feeling like I owned my own time. I like being at work. I like my classroom. I like my coworkers and administration and I just generally like being an art teacher. I feel like I was born to do this job. Its an important job to do. But, interestingly enough, it was still possible to work too much, but harder to diagnose since I like my job.
My focus shifted from only focusing on student empowerment to classroom management
This is my most regrettable realization. I lost sight of my idealistic grad-school vision of teaching art and gave into administration pleasing, iron-fisted classroom management (for me, some would say it was still lenient), and even a bit of micro-management. This was not a constant for me but it was harder to hold on to my idealistic view of making sure each child was only spoken to positively so they associate the arts with positivity and encouragement.
I think this happened for a few reasons.
1: I’m a first year teacher
2: I was used to more intimately sized groups of 10 students or less that really facilitated discussion and they were less likely to chat with each other or shout out when I was talking because we were all part of a smaller group conversation.
3: I didn’t know how to manage my exhaustion and it had negative effects on the implementation of my education philosophy
4: A lot of times specials got treated as kind of an after thought and it was easy to feel like a baby sitter instead of an empowering and important influence in the lives of these kids. Of course, I know the importance of arts education, and in general a lot of teachers stopped by my room to compliment the student work, but the focus of the school climate on everything else made me feel trivial at times.
By the end of the school year I was feeling crappy about myself. I’d gained weight because of all my low-energy-weak-moment food choices I’d been making (well HEB is just down the street, I think I’ll get sushi and a slice of cake… and a Dr. Pepper), I felt like I didn’t have time to look nice because I had to get up so early and was so exhausted I didn’t care what I looked like. And the most troubling blow was being told by administration that they loved the creativity I encouraged in the students but they weren’t “wowed” by the art work. This really brought me low and made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough or that I just wasn’t a good fit for what I want to do with my life. I imagine it is a feeling similar to what children feel when they are first starting to feel like their art is not good enough. I think observations such as these is what makes “non-art” people, because they’ve been told they aren’t actually making anything worthwhile. That the journey and the idea doesn’t matter as much.
As soon as summer started I realized I actually feel extremely proud of myself for doing exactly what I set out to do. I got my masters in art education and got a job teaching elementary school art which is exactly what I wanted to do. I have a career that inspires me and I worked really hard to get it. That is a powerful thing. I am well taken care of in life. So I actually feel very empowered and lucky.
I have never valued cookie cutter “wow” projects that make adults say “oh my gosh that is so amazing I could never do that you’re such an amazing artist!” These are elementary school students and they need to be allowed to make art that suits them more than art that suits me. I don’t want to suggest to the students that what they make isn’t art. I don’t want to force all students in a class to make exactly the same work of art because not all students have the same ideas or skill set. I don’t want to teach the students that the way I make art is the only way to create (or even the preferred way) so they must make things precisely and perfectly. I don’t want to teach to impress the adults. I want to teach to empower the students. This was my goal all through grad school. This was the driving force behind what interested me in my thesis topic, and this is what I have always held as the most important thing to me about art education. I was very upfront about this in my interview and spoke very openly about my views of art education. I made it very clear through my words and my portfolio that product wasn’t important to me. Student empowerment and process are the things that I would be bringing to the table.
In conclusion, these reflections have been important to come back to. This is what makes me passionate about what I do. It’s so easy to get caught up in so many other aspects of the job such as the rigid schedule, the meetings, the long hours, the high volume of students continually coming in and leaving my classroom. But right now I’m feeling energized about getting back to advocating for the arts.