Artist as Teacher V. Teacher as Artist

I like art more than I like teaching art.  This is something that I have known my whole life.  But this weekend I said this to a group of art teachers, and the room went silent.

Art teachers should have a wide knowledge of art techniques, art practice, and art history, but their primary focus should be on the child and education.  I think this is a well believed, and probably correct assumption about art teachers. 

But I don't fit that mold.  I like art more than I like kids.  In all fairness I like art more than just about anything, including food.  I fell into teaching art by necessity.  I had just come out of the Peace Corps.  The economy had just tanked.  I could not find any type of work for months, and even before that, I had been scraping by with admin jobs, barely making enough money to pay the rent, much less enough money to make the art I wanted to make. 

So I decided to teach.  I enrolled in an "alternative" license program, with the idea that I would be teaching high school photo within a year.  And I remember that first day in the classroom- I knew I liked teaching.  But I still knew I liked making art more.

For the first 5 years I taught, I taught like every other art teacher I'd ever known.  I'd find the main concept in the curriculum.  Then I'd find a project that matched that concept.  Then we'd all make identical projects and hang all our identical work up in the hallway.  This is what everyone was doing.  This must be how you teach art.

But after five years of teaching art this way, I began to think.  What am I actually teaching these kids?  And I began to notice that at the end of most projects students still could not name the skill we had just learned, much less apply it to their own work independently.  But the projects were beautiful.  Shouldn't this count for something? 

Two years ago, I decided to scrap this method of teaching.  And when the kids came in after winter break, I told them, "Hey, we're trying something new.  Today you can draw whatever you want to draw.  And I'm going to help you."  This evolved into "Today you can collage anything you want... today you can paint anything you want... today I'm going to teach you about this, but you don't actually have to do it.  You are the artist and you get to choose." 

The kids were shocked at first.  "Is this ok?  Can I do this?"  was a question I heard 100 times a day. Yes.  It's awesome.  And you can do it, you are the artist and you call the shots.  It's been a little over two years since I started using this teaching method  (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) in my classroom.  Now kids come to me, bringing me the work they made at home, competing to get something in the hallway.  Their artwork is  rarely the beautiful work that I used to have in the hallway.  Now it looks like artwork made by kids.  It's artwork that is important to them. And they own the skills, they own the technique and they own the idea.

Which is not to say that I haven't been filled with self doubt for the last two years.  I'll go to our district art shows, and see this beautiful teacher led artwork on display, and I still get jealous.  My kids can make art like that, because my kids can follow directions.  In fact, following directions is what they do all day long.  And I don't want to be the person who makes them do that, in an class that is supposed to be about self discovery and self expression.

I bring all of this up because I just sat through 16 hours of professional development in TAB.  The conference was comprised of people who had been doing TAB for years.  People who had just heard about it and wanted more information.  And a few people like me, who just threw themselves into this pedagogy head first, and were wondering if they were doing it right.  I expected to walk away from this conference with tons of new information and ideas.  But what really hit me, was how many teachers wanted this step by step by step way to introduce and implement TAB.  (Am I doing this right, Ms?) Other teachers had binders upon binders of ways to track student progress, to teach students how to plan out their artwork.  So many presenters warned not to jump head first into TAB, to ease your students into it.  I jumped, and we turned out just fine.  There was one teacher who shared his ten step planning worksheet that kids had to complete for each project they wanted to do.  I would have an student lead riot if I tried to pull that shit on my students. 

The joy of TAB, and the joy of loving art more than you love teaching, is that teaching kids to be artists, is just like the process of making art.  You have some crazy idea.  You plan this idea.  You implement this idea.  You reflect on this idea.  Then you do it over again.  Things will fail.  Things will amaze you.  This is just how it goes.  The best "professional development" that I've ever received was from the retired PE teacher.  "If you're happy and the kids are happy, then you're doing it right." 

I snuck out of the conference early on Saturday, so that I could go work on my own art.  No surprise there.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published