Our dynamic global society requires that its citizens are innovative problem solvers, creative thinkers, and adaptive workers. We need people who are able to see things from many perspectives and develop a vision for an unknown future. As artists, we foster all of these characteristics in our studio practices. I have sat through many professional development seminars for educators on how to teach these 21st-century skills, and thought, “Artists have done this for years.” In a world increasingly in need of authenticity, artists are in the best position to teach these skills to students and help them prepare for the future.
The prospect of teaching pre-K–12 art might be intimidating, and it should be. How we guide young people affects all of our futures, and it is not a task to undertake lightly. There are other reasons teaching is daunting, aside from this responsibility, such as the truly unreasonable and unfounded social stigma against teaching at the K–12 level, especially for those with graduate degrees in art. Though it is not always treated as such, especially considering ongoing budget and oversight issues, teaching children is of the utmost importance to society. This influence is the reason artists should consider taking on such a task. Teaching and maintaining a meaningful and rigorous studio practice is hard work. If this career path is one you’d like to explore, to help your journey, I’m sharing some strategies I learned from other seasoned educators and my own trial and error.
Choosing a School
My biggest piece of advice is to pick the school carefully. Where you work will have a direct effect on how much time and effort you can dedicate to your art. The climate of your school, support from administrators, additional duties, provisions for professional development, and available facilities are all important considerations. No position will be totally ideal, so you need to decide what conditions you need for a sustainable career and what conditions you can tolerate. Sometimes you can work to change a situation, but it can be hard to judge what can be changed until you are working in the school. When I started teaching, I thought public schools were my only option. Then I learned about charter schools and independent schools (independent schools include both private and parochial schools). There are pros and cons to all of them. For me, independent schools were the right choice. I found administrators who valued my artistic practice and supported it by allowing me to use the studio facilities and even awarded some professional development grants for workshops. I valued the smaller class sizes and the freedom to design my own curriculum. I was also able to pursue initiatives that are important to me like inclusion and mentoring student teachers. I was not paid as much as my peers in local public schools, and I was expected to do a lot more at the school in terms of additional duties and supervising extracurricular activities. These compromises were worth it for me though, as they allowed me time, facilities, and support to work on my art.
Documentation and Protecting Time
It is easy to be caught up in tides of paperwork, feel obligated to take that meeting, or feel the need to clean up that sink. An important lesson for me was to protect my time in the studio. You can do this through your studio location, having an accountability partner, or setting up deadlines for yourself. You might consider renting studio space from a local guild or art center, or setting up a room at home. It may also be helpful to find a buddy, another artist who can support your art making and keep you on target. I worked out of my classroom, and found a buddy in another art teacher at the school who was a gifted painter and illustrator. We would share our work with each other during lunch and have sketchbook hours after school. I would also keep a list of specific goals, which were mostly shows and opportunities, on my computer desktop. Sometimes there is nothing like a deadline to keep you on track.
Many artists are familiar with working in cycles of making, glazing, and documenting. Adhering to a cyclical schedule helped me stay on task and made my own setup and cleanup time faster. I made a rule for myself: when you finish something, start something new before you leave the studio. It can be the base of new piece, a bag of weighed and wedged clay, or a detailed sketch. That way, the next time you come into the studio, you already have something to jump right into and are less likely to waste any time getting back into that creative head space.
Do Something Creative
There will be many days when you are too tired—mentally, emotionally, and physically—to get yourself into the studio. That is okay, because teaching is hard. However, the some of the best advice I ever received about being an artist-educator is this: do something creative every day. Sometimes that means getting your hands in clay with the kind of full-steam studio session we all love. Sometimes that means drawing in your sketchbook, cooking dinner, writing a poem, or taking a photo. It is all creative, and it is all good for an artist. With this in mind, try to be open minded in terms of your work. It is probably going to change from your experience as an educator for a lot of reasons—time, space, resources, inspiration, etc. For me, I had to change my style of working for the first few years, until I had my feet under me as a teacher. Giving myself permission to loosen up and explore helped me stay engaged in both teaching and making. Time spent on teaching and time spent in the studio varies depending on the ebb and flow of the academic calendar. On an average week, my schedule allows for an hour or two in the studio in the evenings, while the vast majority of my time is spent on teaching work. I spend most Saturdays in the studio. During the busiest times at school, such as the last couple weeks of the semester, I do not have time (or energy) for studio work. I always treasure the large blocks of studio time during breaks and summer months.
You might find it helpful to share what you are doing with your students. Some teachers have strong feelings against this. Sharing work with students does run the risk of being overly influential on them, but at appropriate times, it can be helpful in building trust. Your students are learning from you in many ways. They retain much more than just what you say. They also learn from who you are with them and what you do. Occasionally, talk about and even show them your age-appropriate work. Younger students will be amazed and older students will respect your expertise. You are showing them that art is important through your example as a working artist. Keeping an active studio practice keeps you in touch with the questions your students will encounter. Sometimes I would notice strategies I used in my own process that could be really helpful to a particular student.
Feedback and Assessments
Grading is a very time-consuming part of teaching. As artists, we all know how important meaningful feedback can be, and I spend a significant amount of time working to give my students thorough assessments. A well-designed rubric can clarify and unite expectations while leaving room to be adaptable to student needs. Ask colleagues to see their rubrics and look at other rubrics you can find (National Art Education Association, Art of Ed, Dick Blick, and Amaco all have resources for rubrics on their websites). If you are in a public school, you will need to refer to the state standards. A lot of your design will depend on the objectives outlined for students at each grade level. Your rubric should be organized and understandable to you and your students. There is a fine line between a rubric being convoluted and suffocating and it being clarifying and efficient. This will streamline your grading and eliminate most disputes or concerns. Additionally, pay attention to how you schedule your grading load. Try to stagger major and minor personal art projects and deadlines. I found it helpful to plan around the academic schedule whenever possible, so that I could avoid any issues such as having a big project due during busy school events.
In an effort to teach students about all aspects of art making, I worked to involve the students in studio behaviors. I set up the studio so that students could access tools and supplies and clean up independently, and then held them to that. Establishing clear expectations and routines for the students enabled them to take on more responsibilities. I even suggest having students help you label and install the hallway displays of their work. When the students know what to expect and what their roles are, you can often avoid tedious discipline issues. Giving them responsibilities in setup and cleaning helps reduce your prep time and creates a sense of ownership and an authentic studio experience for them. Creating authentic artistic experience for students is a core principle in my teaching practice that helps me ensure skills like problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking are conveyed to students. Like a professional artist, students work through their own ideas from conception, to execution, to assessment. Throughout the process, they are learning these important skills both on conceptual and technical levels. They learn about art historical context, materials, and techniques, as well as studio behaviors like cooperation and stewardship. By framing this within an authentic artistic experience, students see the relevance and interconnectedness of each element.
In the field of education, battles come in many forms, and it is important not to fight them all. It is easy to feel the need to do things like push art advocacy with your principal or address institutional concerns like grading policies. Also, teachers are often asked to do much more than just their classroom duties, whether their contract says so or not. Sometimes you have to decide when you want to take something up and when you want to bow out so you can put that time and energy into your art. Maybe your reputation as a team player will take a hit in the moment, but your art career is worth it.
My last bit of advice is the one thing I wish I knew about teaching when I first started. There is a very steep learning curve for new teachers, but each year becomes significantly easier as you get to know the school culture and students’ names, and as you build your bank of techniques and lesson plans. Teaching and art are both long-term endeavors, so keep your sights on the big picture. This is an important and entirely possible undertaking. Your work with children through art and education will help make this world a better place.
the author Kourtney Stone is an artist and educator living in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned a BFA in ceramics and a MA in teaching from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, and is currently working toward her MFA at Georgia State University. To learn more, visit www.kourtneystone.com.