Healthy Art teaching

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I had lots of jobs before I went into teaching. I was a steeplejack’s labourer and I can tell you I’ve never been so physically tired in my whole life. The demands of doing a job like that are punishing on the body and there are many injuries and casualties, especially as the men get older. I’ve been a sales rep and those were long days with ever increasing targets to hit. Those were soul destroying times that affected my self confidence with the constant rejection. I’ve also worked in factories, shops and supermarkets. All had their different pleasures and pressures.

My route into art teaching wasn’t straight forward. I did my degree in art and also had three additional years at a dedicated art college, but my first year teaching was in Design Technology and my second in Maths. It wasn’t until I had completed my first year as an art teacher that I began to feel the effects of stress. By stress I mean excessive pressure that I felt unable to handle. Years later, when I had completed further spells teaching other subject areas I began to realise that my own pressures were caused purely by the teaching of art.

Creative subjects are extremely absorbing for both teacher and student. Unlike teaching other subjects I simply couldn’t switch off from art. Now maybe that’s my fault, as a creative person and I think that’s largely to blame, but I know lots of teachers of other subjects who aren’t nearly as obsessive as art teachers are. As a subject art and design is utterly absorbing. It is an unfathomable, untameable, beast of a lesson. A huge subject area containing a vast complexity of skill, knowledge, understanding and application that i am expected to be master of. Yet no one teaches you these art skills, you have to go away and learn them yourself. There is a never ending stream of new ways of thinking, seeing and doing coming from artists, painters, designers, craftspeople, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, ceramicists, textile artists, fashion designers, digital artists etc. So much so that I can barely scratch the surface of what has gone before without touching what is happening now. You can very easily and quickly live, eat and breath your subject.

I understand the pressures of marking in English, the breadth of knowledge, understanding and application in Science and Maths, the factual research, investigation and persuasive essay writing in History, the memory retention and oral command needed for languages and as a musician myself I know quite a bit about teaching music, but nothing, I repeat NOTHING compares to teaching art in my opinion. I know all curriculums evolve, but the Maths I taught in 1995 is still pretty much the same as it is now. Up until recently school kids still read Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird and whilst Science has seen considerable meddling, most other subjects remain similar and relatively unchanged when compared to art. They still make the same stuff in DT, play the same games in PE, study the battle of hastings in history, maps, weather and cultures in geography and French is still French!

Art is a very physically draining lesson and it requires considerable energy to enthuse others, motivate and generate that creative spark when it is lacking. You need to overcome so many barriers to learning, lack of confidence and reluctance to venture into the limelight of exposure that art brings. Add to that the chaotic mess of working with acrylic paint, plaster, clay, pva glue, chalk pastels etc etc and you quickly discover that you are working in a chaotic explosion of learning. If you haven’t been in charge of a full blown, practical art lesson then you simply cannot understand how much energy it requires. Multiply that by three or four times per day, five days a week and you begin to understand how it can be at once the most brilliant, exciting, amazing and completely knackering of subjects you will ever teach. Add to the mix the pressure of getting all the little blighters a GCSE pass when they themselves might be less than enthusiastic!

And then there is all that planning and preparation! Most subjects plan and prepare some new lessons on a yearly or termly basis, but in art it is an ever evolving myriad of change. There is so much amazing creativity out there, so many new, fresh exciting ideas, art forms, materials and mediums that you find yourself planning new lessons all the time. If you don’t you become stale and old fashioned very quickly. Most art teachers I know are planning all the time and don’t get me started about preparation. I had to prepare all my art materials myself before the day starts and that might mean anything from preparing printmaking for 25 pupils, followed by clay for 25, scrubbing all of the paint brushes and pallets properly, cutting paper and card, filling glue pots, emptying the kiln, sorting out the colours, fixing aprons, paper towels, getting pencils, charcoal, pastels, photocopying worksheets, printing out pictures and laminating them etc BEFORE I begin the usual pressures of the teaching day. Even though I am very strict about cleaning, the kids simply don’t clean properly and I spend another hour at the end of a day cleaning sinks and benches and putting art materials away and picking them up off the floor. And the cleaner still moans! Art teaching is a passion and also a compulsion that takes over your life, your brain, your wallet and anything else it can get it hands on.

So after all that, I get to the point of my diatribe. How to stay healthy and happy as an art teacher:

  1. Keep an ‘ideas for lessons scrapbook’ where you can register good ideas without having to have them churning in your head. I find I have a paper version and a digital online one using Evernote. It gets them out of my head and I can relax, knowing I won’t forget them. Having one at home helps you to get the idea out of your head instead of mulling it around when you need to be relaxing.
  2. Don’t get weighed down by assessment. Build your assessment into lessons as AFL, peer assessment and self assessment. Learn the many ways of assessing in class and with new technologies so that you don’t have to stay behind night after night. Books can be marked in this way too!
  3. Make your art materials easy to manage. Have your art materials arranged in easily accessible trolleys, trays or drawers. Make an island in the middle of the room where they are kept and have pupils monitor its upkeep for treats and rewards.
  4. Don’t make too many changes to schemes. Don’t be tempted to change your plans too readily. Keep your sanity! Make small changes regularly. Make big changes long term.
  5. Stagger your practical lessons. Put them against ‘calmer’ lessons such as observational drawing so that you aren’t doing too much practical at the same time in a term or a day.
  6. Chill out at work! Make break times, break times! Don’t be tempted to have kids in every lunchtime because you need a break and they can go out and play! Don’t feel guilty about having a natter with a colleague at work too. If someone moans, tell them to mind their own!
  7. Plan less, make the kids work harder. Write courses that are based around self-directed learning. Teach your students these skills as early as possible. If you don’t know about it, you should! It will save you tons of time printing and preparing resources if nothing else.
  8. Don’t allow your pupils to drain you with constant badgering and neediness! Be disciplined and tough. Make a three questions rule.
  9. Accept that you cannot be brilliant all the time. You will have some good lessons and some awful ones. There are some brilliant art teachers who make you sick with their endless brilliance. Don’t try to be one of them, be someone who is healthy when they are 65 not brilliant and dead at 45!
  10. Learn to chill out at home. Do NOT bring work home on an evening. EVER. This is your time to relax. Interestingly, you should be quite bored by relaxing. I found it very hard to relax and asked someone what I had to do. “Empty your mind and think of nothing.” Relaxing is dull, get used to it! Fight off those urges to do a bit more work.
  11. Be positive, be happy! Make a list of all the things you love doing for fun, pleasure and relaxation. Do at least one of them every day. Learn to enjoy your life.
  12. Demand good quality CPD from the school. They have a duty to keep you up-skilled and you need to be if you are to keep on top of your job.
  13. Join an art network of local schools who meet to share ideas. Even having a moan will help. Look on the NSEAD website for regional networks.
  14. Get a technician! Write a job description for an art technician and include all the responsibilities they would have. Then look for ways in which the school might fund this position; from grants, PTA, savings in other areas etc. Finally, try to write a letter of justification for the role that could persuade even your most bitter opponent. Find a good time to pitch it to the SLT (Friday nights is good.) If this doesn’t work, make a plea for volunteers who might come in, governors, parents or students. Would the school pay one of the support staff to help you on a morning before school?
  15. Use natural ways of relaxing. Holistic therapies, massages, exercise and good food instead of wine, wine and more wine!
  16. Bear in mind that everyone, including the leadership team, think art is the easiest, loveliest lesson in the school. How lucky you are to teach colouring-in lessons! So it’s worth starting a stealth campaign to educate them! Doing cross-curricular work in the art room helps as does inviting the Head in to see a particular lesson that you know is tough. Ask your head of science or english, maths to show you how they assess in their subject, then casually remark that you do this already too! Take every opportunity to show your colleagues that you work just as hard as them.
  17. Say no to people. Stall people, put them off for a while, tell them you will get back to them, then think about if you have time to do it or even that you want to do it. You’re too nice, don’t be too quick to say yes.
  18. Have a daily task planner. Begin each day by writing down everything you have to do, then make them long term, mid or short term tasks. If new tasks come in, priorities them. Don’t respond to other’s demands to do things instantly, tell them when you will do them by. Work on the basis that people will ask for things twice if they are really important.
  19. Be organised; keep a tidy desk. I used to have a big cardboard box in my cupboard and I’d empty my desk into it on a regular basis. That way my desk looked organised and I looked professional. If I needed anything I’d look in the box. Once a term I’d go through it and chuck stuff out.
  20. Creative minds bend easily but are rarely broken. PE teachers seem always in control and assertive. Maths teachers composed and logical, English teachers intellectually superior. Creative people on the other hand are often scatter brained, illogical, forgetful and emotional. People will try to make you feel that this is weakness, that you are stressed out, always complaining. You aren’t. They can have whatever opinion of you they like, that’s their business, but what you are is creative and creative people are responsible for all the greatness mankind has ever achieved. It is only when man becomes creative that they can make anything. Laugh at them, but don’t agree with them and certainly don’t start believing they are right.

One thought on “Healthy Art teaching

    Neela Sineai Haywood said:
    13/07/2014 at 12:04 am

    Thank you so much for articulating the truth I’ve always known!

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