Ahhh. September. There's a crisp breeze in the air, the leaves start turning lovely colours, and the sales on 5-packs of highlighters are plentiful. I love September - it brings with it a new hope. A new chance to work with new kids.
Much like (I imagine) someone might feel when moving to a new city, September is our chance to 'recreate' ourselves as educators. Who will I be this year? Or more importantly, How will I be? A whole new cluster of kids comes rolling in and you realize that you get to (have to?!) start ALL OVER. Finding balance has always been a struggle for me - from a young age, my parents instilled in me the drive to 'work hard' and contribute.
MY REQUEST FOR MY ARTIST-TEACHER FRIENDS
This year, set a goal for yourself to become an ARTIST-teacher, rather than an artist-TEACHER. Make art-making a priority. Set time limits for yourself, in order to stop work and marking and prepping and planning and supervisory duties and coaching and clubs (and all that other school-stuff) from taking over your existence. For me, I am setting a general limit of 5:00 PM. This year, my feet need to be out the door of the school by 5:30 - no excuses. Whatever I can fit into my prep period(s), my lunch hour, and the couple of hours after school is all I am willing to do.
Since I am a (recovering) work-a-holic, I have to set hard constraints on work time consumption or I can somehow fill my nights (and weekends) with school-related business. I have always been extremely organized, motivated, and goal-oriented, and try my best to be the best Art Teacher (hell yeah, that's purposefully capitalized!) that I can possibly be. Unfortunately, this means that for 17 years, I have managed to fill my "personal" time with everything from filling in purchase orders for art-supplies, to reading the latest blogs on contemporary teaching strategies, to laminating visuals for upcoming lessons, to researching adolescent creative development, and crafting together killer Powerpoint slideshows.
Do the kids in my class notice? Oh helllll no.
Does my boss? As great as she is, likely not.
I am doing it all just because I love what I do and I want to give kids the best experience possible when they're in my room.
But after doing this since I graduated from the faculty of Education 2000 and feeling (on multiple occasions) that I am verrrry close to total burnout, I am starting to learn that my own art-making - my own ability to ponder and process my experiences in the best way I know how (by making art) - is just as important as theirs.
GLASS HALF FULL?
I always think back to that phrase, "you can't pour from an empty cup". I am the living proof. And not just because when I'm exhausted and overworked and (slightly) resentful that I've spent from 6:30 - 11:15 PM on the internet trying to find the most engaging, teenage-friendly, "perfect" images to demonstrate the myriad of compositional techniques that artists use to create an interesting area of emphasis, it's hard to then have patience for a kid who would rather lay his head on his desk and watch a Drake video on his iPhone than talk to me about his next art project.
It's also because - as I've learned - when you don't take time to fill yourself up (with whatever your spirit needs most - family time, coffee with a good friend, an engrossing novel, working on a new painting, snuggling up in a onesie to watch the latest episode of Stranger Things, going for a strenuous and rewarding jog in the park (LOL) - or whatever - you don't have much spirit left in you to be fully there for that kid who comes to you for comfort first thing in the morning in a terrible mood because she's been kept up all night by her parents yelling at each other.
The fact is, I am going to have to let A LOT of things go in order to get my life back.
BUT WHAT ABOUT "BEING A RESPONSIBLE TEACHER"?
I have come to realize that I am a good teacher not because I know a lot about contemporary art, or because I try my best to make really fun exemplars, or because I have put on a lot of professional development workshops, or because I am always up-to-date on my marking. I am not a good teacher because I have read the latest literature on pedagogical technique, or because I have a Masters' Degree (I don't!) or because for a few years, all of my handouts were hand-drawn for each particular group of kids (what in the hell was I thinking?!).
I am a good teacher because I connect with kids. I authentically love their company, appreciate their sense of humour, and I am tough enough to be willing to be vulnerable and 'human' in front of them.
I am a good teacher because I let them see me screw up (more frequently than planned, actually) - and because I make myself personally and authentically available to them every day.
I am a good teacher because I noticed when Miriam's smile wasn't as bright as it usually is (she failed a Chem test yesterday and still hasn't told her parents) and because I let Jonah know how much his nerdiness is (seriously) the most fantastic thing about him, and that even if none of the girls at school think that playing the violin and building model airplanes and reading books on philosophy is cool right now, he is going to be a major HIT when he's an adult.
I am a good teacher because when I found out that Michelle was an amazing storyteller, I forced her to meet me one noon hour a week and we wrote together until she had a whole book of writing to publish.
I am a good teacher because when Kristin came to me, upset, at the end of her graduating year, worried because she felt like she maybe didn't "know enough information or have enough experience" to manage life after high school, I told her that I wasn't worried about her at all - and that just the fact that she was self-reflective and concerned enough to actually be worried and ASK that question meant that she was waaaaay more prepared than most.
I am a good teacher because when YaYah challenged me to a dance-off, I stopped my class mid-lesson to give him a chance to show his classmates how aggressively he could kick my unskilled and uncoordinated ass.
I am a good teacher because when Jiaxin privately mentioned that she couldn't afford to bring a gift to exchange for our class Xmas Party, I changed the theme to CRAPTASTIC GIFT EXTRAVAGANZA and it was everyone's job to look for (or make!) the crappiest, most broken-up, useless, ugly thing they could find to exchange with another kid in the room. We laughed so hard a few of us cried. And I still have the turd-shaped jewellery box that one kid sculpted out of papier-mache for me.
I am a good teacher because I still know the secret handshake that Brian and I made up in 2001... and proved it to him when he dropped in last year to visit me over a lunch hour.
I am a good teacher because when my old Buick (The Knightrider) died in the school parking lot, and my homeroom class asked if they could hold a funeral for it, I gave them markers and cardstock and tissue-paper to make flowers. I gave them a microphone and an amplifier and we held the most moving celebration-of-life that has ever existed for a piece of rusted metal.
I am a good teacher because when I spent time with Graham, who was gay (but who definitely did not feel safe enough in our school community to be "out" at school), it really bothered me that not all kids in our school community felt welcome and able to be entirely themselves. And instead of just being like, "Well, at least he's got me... my classroom is a safe space," I cared about him being safe everywhere, so I started our school's first ever Gay-Straight Alliance and pushed the administration to ensure that all of our staff went through professional development around gender identity, sexual orientation, and creating safe spaces for our GLBTTQIA* kids.
I am a good teacher because I wouldn't let Kevin (who is an incredibly sensitive writer and happens to have cerebral palsy) back out of performing his original slam poem in front of the 300 kids that had showed up to our Poetry Slam (he said he was terrified he might literally piss his pants on stage). While he was waiting with the other kids to perform, I passed him a note that said, "You're not giving up on this. You're talented and incredible and I want these people to see it for themselves. Get up on the damn stage and kick some ass. I brought a towel."
I am a good teacher because I don't let someone's lateness or their grumpiness or the fact that they never EVER bring their supplies to class change the fact that they are valuable and interesting and capable of amazing things. And because I start each day fresh, letting go of any former wrongdoings (even when a kid once told me he would kill my mom, we started the next day with a high-five and a 'good morning', as if nothing happened).
NONE of these things are things I can put on my CV. These moments I have had, which have meant a great deal to me (and have made me feel like I am doing what I should be doing in my life) have NOT required any prep time outside of school. They aren't a check-box on an application form, and they aren't even something that anyone (other than me and a few kids) will ever see. These things have required that I be present, and open up my ears and my heart and my arms , and that am able to be responsive to what kids need, in the moment.
SO: This year will be my YEAR OF NO. When I get asked to organize my art students to volunteer their lunch hours to make sets for the new musical, I will say NO. When someone wants me to sew a banner for a retirement party for some lady I have never even met, I will say NO. When another teacher asks me to make a costume for her, I will say NO. When an educational assistant asks me to paint a large picture of a horse on a blanket for her brother's birthday, I will say NO. (Yes. That happened. Don't get me started on the whole "artists always getting asked to work for free" issue.)
It's not like I am going to become "selfish" or a lazy teacher. I'll do my job and I will do it well. I am just going to refuse to take on more than is realistic for a person who wants to have an "outside life"! I will say YES to things that (1) are educationally valuable / relevant / fun for my art students and (2) do not consume more of my time outside of work.
Sound good? I hope you're on board too... to commit to yourself, to your own fun and play and experimentation (and hard work) as an ARTIST-teacher. Have a great year, folks!
* All student names have been altered to protect the innocent. (And, you know, um... my job.)