So You Want to Be An Art Teacher?

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This week I saw a question in an online art teacher forum from a principal who was asking about becoming an art teacher. The person was certified yet admitted they had little art making experience, didn’t have a stash of art lessons, or feel able to put a portfolio together. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest this person is not ready yet to become an art teacher. 

A common response when a person hears you are an art teacher is, “Oh, that must be so much fun!” It is. And it isn’t. It’s nothing like the person thinks but it’s usually not the moment to educate them. If you are REALLY interested in becoming an art teacher though, let’s talk. Right now. Lean in. 

Maybe you are a student of mine thinking about college and asking me this question. Maybe you were always artistic but majored in something else and are now thinking of getting a master’s degree in art education. Maybe you were an art major and considering working as an art teacher at a private school where you don’t need certification. Or maybe you are a principal who hasn’t a clue how to make art and somehow received a license through some back door. Whoever you are, you probably have at least some misconceptions about becoming an art teacher. Let’s clear some of those up.

It’s fun! It can be fun. But that’s not the first word I would use. Students aren’t always well behaved and don’t come to school prepared to learn. Teachers don’t always have access to the best equipment or supplies. Scratch that, it should read, “You don’t always have access to equipment or supplies needed to teach.” Remind me to tell you how I managed teaching about 120 students for 185 days (not one snow day my first year) with a budget of zero dollars. Fun isn’t the word I would reach for. 

“But. compared to Math and Science and “hard” subjects like that it must be…fun!” That word again, fun. Well, I think art is fun but that’s because I love art. A math teacher thinks math is fun. A science teacher thinks science is fun. But, not every student feels the same. Some students resent art because they feel inadequate with their skills, vulnerable because of the expressive nature of art, self conscious around their peers, and some students struggle to behave properly in a studio style classroom. Getting up and getting one’s own supplies can just be a dizzying amount of freedom for some teens or tweens. I’m not joking here. And I am not even touching the students who might be headed to jail, rehab, or a psychiatric ward. I am also not joking here. 

Students are complicated. I grew up in a house where we didn’t talk back without consequences. School wasn’t an optional event. And grades mattered. I was floored to find out that this is not the case in many homes in America. Maybe I was ignorant. Maybe I was sheltered. My first year teaching was eye opening. Children can experience a lot of trauma and disfunction in their young lives and it is all baggage they bring with them. 

Students also have their own personalities. Not always good ones. Sometimes it’s the teenage attitude and immaturity which a child will grow out of but sometimes, your personality may simply not jive with a student’s. A wise person told me, “It’s OK to not like a student.” You do need to show up daily and not let that show. 

Ditto with the adults in the building. Educators are, on a whole, a great bunch of people. Are there some bad apples? Yes. There are also administrators who don’t support the arts. There are teachers who felt entitled to use the art room as their personal supply cabinet. And there will be parents who you dread to see their name in your inbox. 

Art doesn’t matter?! I know, what? Where do they get this? You can face this attitude in subtle and not so subtle ways from all the players including the students, the parents, your fellow teachers, and even your administration. You will face this daily, all year, for your entire career. It doesn’t matter how many students you churn out who go to art school and get jobs. It doesn’t matter how many career explorations units you do. Or how many guidance people you invite to your college admission representative visits. Art isn’t seen as necessary and we are the first subject on the cutting board. Art educators certainly know better. Yet, to be an art teacher is to be needed desperately to make a poster, flyer, bulletin board, mural, etc for your school. At the same time. your job security is always in question. 

It’s Easy. Teaching is surprisingly complex with a lot of moving parts. As an art teacher, the creative part of you thinks, “I want to do a Calder style mobile!” and the logical part of you is asking, “Where could I possibly store 100 Art I 3d projects in a classroom the size of some people’s living room? How can I teach perspective when I have 20 rulers and 25 students and make sure it doesn’t devolve into a sword fight? What are you going to do with the paint palettes of 25 students when there is a fire alarm toward the end of the block and the school sends them to their next period class.

Art teachers may not have the papers to correct that an English teacher may. Conversely, that English teacher will never have a sore thumb from tacking hundreds of art works up for the annual spring art show.  You will not likely find any other teacher asked to create a mural, write calligraphy for award certificates, etc. Our talents aren’t limited to the classroom for sure! We also have materials to order, unpack, sort, store, maintain and inventory. Our science lab teachers can relate!

Still want to be an art teacher? Great. We’ve dispelled some common myths and prepared you for some realities. I will mention that there are many really wonderful and rewarding aspects to being an art educator, some you can anticipate and some you can’t. The truth is, they aren’t the reasons people leave the field. They are reasons people stay and will be the topic of a future post. So, what is your best path to becoming an art teacher? 

Love art and make art  There should be a lot of time making art under your belt. Take a wide variety of media while in school. Take art history as well. If you haven’t done those things, you will never be a good art teacher. Ms. Principal who wanted to take a sudden sharp turn and become an art teacher will likely not be a good art teacher even if she can somehow land a job. She may be certified, she may know a lot about education but she has not been an art maker and an art lover. You have to put in the practice of making art in the same way an athlete needs to train or a violin player needs to practice on the violin to become accomplished. 

Become certified.  Not everyone teaching art is certified but it will help you in most instances. Some art teachers work in private schools without certification but often they are encouraged or mandate a certification. Having certification will open up possibilities of working in a variety of levels and settings. Teaching skills can certainly be picked up along the way, but it is much harder to learn on the job.

You need some experience. I worked at a summer art camp to try it out. I am not sure why Ms. Principal wasn’t knocking on her school’s art teacher’s door asking to observe. Most art education college programs require you to spend time in classroom observing and later, in student teaching or practicum.  

Have an art education portfolio. While student teaching you should take lots and lots of photographs. Of projects, of displays, of you teaching, etc. Keep rubrics, handouts, etc. All this can be included in your art education portfolio that you will bring to interviews. Have a website in addition. Have a resume. Have an interview outfit. I have separate blog posts for just about every aspect of landing the art education job. 

Is art education a career for you? If you made it to the end of this post and you are not put off yet, congratulations! This may be a career path for you! Like anyone embarking on a new career, only time will tell. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published a study from 2015 that looked at the number of jobs a person held between the ages of 18 and 50. It turns out that the average person has 12 jobs! And from 3-7 different career paths is estimated. I have loved being an art teacher but like every career, there exists both parts we love and parts that are frustrating. It is after all called “work” for a reason.

Related articles:

Lessons and the Art Education Portfolio

Resume Advice for Art Teachers | Part I: Content

Resume Advice for Art Teachers | Part II: Design

 

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