I consider myself to be quite fortunate that I was able to teach art at the high school level for three and a half years. I’m fact, I’d still be doing it today of it weren’t for…well, let’s just leave it as “politics” for now. When I think about my former students, and I do quite often, my one hope is that they remember me as being someone who genuinely cared about each and every one of them. I’m not saying I was always good at showing it or that I was always oh so happy to see each and every one of them, because, let’s face it, some of them could be headaches (and you probably know who you are, too). What I’m saying is that I always looked at them as being more than just a student in my class, they were people.
High school is a tough time for everyone, in some way or another, and the success of one student doesn’t always look the same as the success of another. Every student that passed through my door brought with them a unique set of experience, problems, desires, and self identity. Sure, you can break them down into groups, rich kids, goth kids, kids who play on rocks, but that doesn’t mean one goth is the same as the next. Being an art teacher, I had a distinct advantage to get to know the kids as individuals a bit more than, say, a by-the-book math teacher. Getting to know the students, in fact, was the best part of my job, it’s also the hardest thing to part with at the end of the school year or, in my case, the premature end of a career.
I often started out the school year giving my classes what I referred to as “the Ferrari speech”. This is where I told them how I gave up my ambition of ever owning a Ferrari in order to be an underpaid teacher. It was mostly true, with the exception of me never having a plan in place to afford a Ferrari otherwise. My first experience teaching was the most personally rewarding experience I had ever had up to that point in my life. I took far greater satisfaction in the success of my students than in any personal accomplishments I had ever had. I was just subbing at the time, but it led me to becoming a fully licensed high school teacher. I didn’t do it for the money, benefits, title, retirement package, power, or the glamour. I was in need of a steady paycheck, sure, but I wasn’t concerned with the amount. It was about the kids. It was always about the kids.
I think back to how many times I made my ceramics students wait in the hall because someone in 6th period had some problem or issue they just needed to talk to an adult about. I’m not a trained counselor, far from it, but it didn’t matter. You don’t need training to know how to listen, to know how to care. This brings me back to the success issue. For some of these kids, just overcoming their home lives and personal baggage enough to come to school is a success in itself. Some kids come to school for the academic achievements, others come because it’s they only way they will get a meal that day. Regardless, life changes dramatically when their time in high school is over, and there is no test that can prepare them for that.
Do I miss teaching? Absolutely. Will I ever go back? I don’t know. It seems there is less and less of a place for teachers like me. Art? Bah, who needs it, it won’t help ISTEP scores. If that’s what I thought was important, I never would have made it for as long as I did. Yes, I did have to give my students tests, but did it really matter to me if they knew how to spell Oldenburg’s first name? No, not really. Would I consider myself a success if everyone of my students could adequately describe cubism? No, absolutely not. Teaching art, to me, was an opportunity for students to look for ways to do things they didn’t know they could, whether it be discovering new abilities or a finding a new way to think creatively. I can’t count how many times a student surprised me with what they were able to accomplished based on where they began, even more so how many times they surprised themselves.
Many teenagers are their own worst enemy. They are so convinced they can’t do anything, that they just try to bide their time until they are old enough to drop out. Why shouldn’t they feel this way when they have a trail of test scores to back this up? Sometimes they just need to have an opportunity for a little bit of success to realize they aren’t worthless. “Hey look, I made that with my own hands!” That little bit of success can then lead to a little bit more effort, which can lead to more success. Once they realize they can succeed in one thing, they decide to try putting a little effort into something else, like math, science, English, etc. Don’t believe me? I’ve see it in my students and I’ve experience it in my own life, just compare my high schools grades with my college transcripts (I’m not afraid, I’ll release them).
Do kids need art in school? Will art help them become better people? Will art boost ISTEP scores or help the graduation rate? I’m not going to answer that. I have a moment, however, that is burned in my mind. Graduation day after my first year teaching at New Castle. After the ceremony, a graduating senior walked up to me and handed me an invitation to his open house. This was not my best student, by any means, not my worse, either…but remember those “headaches” I mentioned earlier? I asked him, “Are you sure you want me hanging around your open house”
To which he replied “sure, you’re the only reason I graduated”. I then remembered talking to him when he was having a bad day and was thinking about dropping out. I don’t remember everything I said to him on that day, but he did. It made a difference to him. He has a diploma thanks to a few words by his little bald underpaid art teacher. I’m not sure if that’s enough for me, maybe it should be, but I know their are other kids out their like him and there always will be.