Earlier this week I was pleasantly surprised to have been recognized by my school's administration for Exemplary Practices in the Classroom. At first I just thought to myself, "Oh, what a nice gesture to recognize the hard work of all of us teachers at the end of the school year!" I later discovered I had been only one of five teachers to achieve this award (even though our school is FULL of outstanding teachers)! As a second year educator I was shocked that this was something I could accomplish. I still feel like a total rookie! I literally looked to my Drawing & Painting class (filled with upperclassmen, but kids who are 8 years my junior) for guidance throughout the school year as I often had questions about the day-to-day operations within the school. This is also why I really enjoyed teaching so many freshman classes this year as we got to experience a new place together for the first time! This Exemplary Practices in the Classroom recognition by my school caused me to enter a state of self-reflection that I can't seem to come out of just yet!
As I enjoyed my last few days with my young artists this week, they constantly reminded me of how much fun we had this year (maybe too much fun sometimes?) and how much they're going to miss their art classes. Many of them told me I'm their favorite teacher and that they are going to come back and visit me all the time next year (while I just giggled to myself thinking, "they're just being polite so I will go easy on them when I grade their finals)!"
On Thursday night I sat down to review the course evaluations I had distributed to my students. It is very exciting to get a chance to hear from them! They love to critique ME because I spend most of my time critiquing THEIR work! Of course it still is a little bit nerve-racking when the kids finally have a chance to tell you what they really got out of your class when they can be anonymous. Eek!
As I curled up on the couch to read through six classes worth of reviews, this is what I found:
Some of their responses made me laugh, some made me cry, but mostly they just really made me think, "have I seriously created this kind of environment for these kids?! How did I manage that? Why do they enjoy my class so much? What makes them so comfortable around me?!"
This made me think back to all the incredible educators I had in my life (and I had numerous role models at all academic levels) from way back in elementary school right through grad school - they are probably the reasons I became a teacher myself. Why did I like these people so much? Why do I STILL think about them almost daily? How am I possibly becoming one of those people for my own students?!
I still don't know the answers to these questions, but I think I'm starting to figure it out! The kids are unknowingly defining these "exemplary classroom practices" for me. I don't know if I can choose a favorite from these responses, but I can say that creating a "safe space" for art making (and honestly just for living) is most important to me as an educator. You can tell from these snippets that these teenagers need a "break" in their everyday lives - and even during the school day. I am excited that I get to be that break! I know that there are people out there who do not appreciate the arts and that's okay. I know that there are people out there who do not feel that art is something we should "waste time" doing, especially during the short school day. I know that there are people out there who can't fit art into their lives, and I know that there are people who think art is only for people that are talented.
The first thing I do in my art classes is I get my students to by into the fact that art is a learnable skill. I honestly believe that if you cannot buy into that, then you cannot be successful (not just in art, but in anything really). If you practice, you will get better. If you open your mind to new things, you will be pleasantly surprised by the things you find. If you dare to be a risk-taker, you will be rewarded. If you listen to the ideas of others, they will listen to you too! If something gets tough, take a break and come back to it - then you'll be able to approach it differently and you will be more successful in your endeavors (if that's what I get to be for my students then I plan to embrace it and make it the best break they can possibly take).
How many of these things only apply to art? NONE OF THEM! These are ideas and thoughts that we can apply to all aspects of our lives (and by we I mean all humans, not just Miss Bingham's art students). They go way beyond the art room. Of course it is up to my students to decide if they want to apply these skills to their own lives, but if I can make them habits within our art classroom, hopefully the chances are greater!
MISS BINGHAM'S TIPS FOR A POSITIVE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT:
These habits I have created for myself may seem so basic, but clearly they mean something to my teenagers. The best part of all this is that half of them come into this class really having no interest in art... but look at how they feel now! So even if my class is just a break in the school day, maybe it is making their quality of life better - and that's a pretty big feat!