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  • Writer's pictureJane McKenzie

My Art Teaching Career Thus Far...

I have been an artist since as far back as I can remember. When I make Art, the world gets easier and it also disappears. My worries go away, my daily to-do list is no longer...that's when I reach my zen. I can always fall back on Art to give a different spin to life. When I teach, I would like my students to feel that way too.

In my classroom, circa 2006

As a child, I would spend many hours drawing in my bedroom while lying on the floor. I work best in silence and with zero distractions, so this is where I spent hours with my paper, pencil and colored pencils. I would imagine and create whatever I felt.

Memories from elementary and middle school art are few and far between. What I do remember is that I loved exploring different mediums and felt at home whenever I created art. My teachers from high school and beyond each influenced my teaching pedagogy in different ways. I took general Art class all four years in high school and created work in the mediums of graphite, charcoal, and watercolor. My High School Art teacher was calm, open to our ideas and he fostered a very serene classroom. Everyone was relaxed but focused and we spent our time talking with friends while creating our art.

During high school, I mentored at a local art center in the ceramics department. This was my first taste of clay and I was hooked! The ceramics studio was in the basement of the art center and we listened to music, threw pots and fired kilns. The wheels were situated in a circular formation making the throwing experience communal. I even had an opportunity to bring my mother and brother into the studio to teach them how to throw and they caught on quickly! That's a deep memory that makes me smile to think about. I still have the pots they made!

My Mom and I throwing at my home studio in 2017

I majored in Art Education specializing in ceramics and sculpture at Ohio University. The serene campus was beautiful and I spent most of my time in the Art building. During my first few years at school is where I met a professor named Dwayne that changed the art ed game for me. I took his sculpture class in the foundry and he made art super fun. He would joke around and tell crazy stories from his days as an art student. In his class, we learned all about acetylene tanks, cutting and soldering metals as well as working with plaster. He was so passionate about art, he oozed enthusiasm each time I saw him teach. During the last week of his class, I told him that meeting him and watching him teach pushed me to declare my major in art education.

I also had another memorable professor in college. Diane was elegant, light and being around her just made you smile. While we created our art, she would urge us to dip our finger in a menthol based lip balm and smoosh it into a circle on our forehead so we could feel the air flow through our brains giving our art experience more oomph. Have you ever done that before? If you haven't, try it out. Weirdest feeling ever. She taught lessons that gave a nod to architecture and building structures that could withhold weight. It was very out of the box thinking for me. Function over aesthetic.

My Art History professors were great story tellers. My photography professor brought the class together and we told stories to each other verbally and visually through our photos. A different sculpture professor taught me all about environmental and land art where I swooned over Andy Goldsworthy's work. My education professors taught me how to speak about art to a class. All of these people that I met and spend time with influenced what happened down the road when I had my own classroom. I am happy that I was able to meet them and learn from them and incorporate their pedagogy in my class.

At the University, the ceramics department was on the bottom level and the outer wall had floor to ceiling windows. Directly outside of the windows were a group of kilns that the graduate students built out of bricks. They were salt and wood fired kilns that you had to stoke all night to complete the firing cycle. All of the wheels faced towards the windows and your mind would wander through the tetris of kiln bricks juxtaposed with nature when you took a glace up from your spinning wheel. I would work on the wheel until midnight with other students. We would listen to music for hours. This is where I learned how to throw and hand build with clay. We also mixed and bagged our own clay and IT WAS GRITTY. When I came home after throwing all night, the callous on my hand would get thicker and my back would hurt from bending forward over the wheel. I would fall asleep in pain but with a smile on my face. I loved it. Every second. Being around people while having a purpose of making art filled my cup. And that's why I went into Art Ed. I love being around other humans and creating art with them. It makes the time so enjoyable.

Outdoor Kilns at Ohio University

I volunteered a lot in college for after school programs. I would drive to an elementary school off campus and give the kids an after school snack and help with their homework. I also worked with Kids On Campus at the University and that's where a fifth grader said a quote that I never forgot. She and I were walking across campus to the next activity for her group and we were talking about how we loved to create art. She looked at me and said, "Art is free imagination." I couldn't have agreed more. When I had my own classroom, I had this saying on my wall throughout my tenure and always looked back at that moment with gratefulness.

I student taught in a high school and we created works in paper mache, watercolor, drawing and colored pencil. The classes were calm and the students were very involved in their art. This experience taught me independence and consistency in the classroom. After being in the classroom for a few weeks, my student teacher would leave me alone with the class for an hour at a time. While she was gone, I had to rely on myself to problem solve. I also learned consistency with my attitude, rules, humor and the way I conducted class as a teacher.

After I graduated with my BFA in Art Ed., I moved from Ohio to Illinois. I worked corporate jobs in financial aid in Chicago. I spent about 3 years doing that work but in the background, I got certified to teach in Illinois in case I wanted to teach there. Well one day, I decided to leave my corporate job. The very next day after I left my job, a very good family friend who was a principal in a suburb of Chicago called me and said, "there is an Art Teacher position open in my district, are you interested?" I said, "Yes! I just left my job!" I went for an interview the next week and was hired later that day. I started orientation a few days later. It all happened so quickly, so quick in fact that I knew it was fate.

This major life and career change brought me to the elementary school that would introduce me to students I would never forget, incredible adult friends and to exponential professional and personal growth. I loved the teaching schedule, the excitement the kids would exude about the holidays and the school activities. Students would walk into my classroom buzzing with energy and joy and ask "what are we making today?" I mean, how cool is that?! My students would make me belly laugh every single day. It took me a good five years to figure out what the heck was going on and how to organize my professional life as a teacher. I was single and lived alone so and spent most of my time in the library and at home creating lessons and teacher examples (back in 2006, the library was social media!).

I taught for 9 years at the elementary level. My first year, I was part-time art teacher and part-time education aide for students with autism and cerebral palsy. My second year and going forward, I was a full-time elementary art educator. In my art classroom, I taught an average of 22 classes per week. I taught regular ed., special needs, gifted and bilingual students. I created lessons that would build on their strength and prior knowledge. I would work with the classroom teachers to incorporate what they were learning into art lessons. I worked hard on my curriculum to give my students a well rounded art education that exposed them to a variety of mediums, artists and art styles. I graded each student by their individual skill level and since I had them for 6 years straight, I was able to give them helpful direction in their artwork. Every single spirit of the hundreds of students I taught has left an imprint on my soul. I loved all of my students. I loved their personalities, their humor, everything about them.

Trying out a new lesson, pinch pot monsters!

The coworker relationships I formed while teaching are some of the strongest ones I have. We would laugh and cry with each other, share stories and talk about class obstacles. We would spend our lunch hours chatting and oh man, did we laugh! We would dress up for Halloween as The Blue Man Group, The Wicked Witch of the West, and so many other fun costumes. We would drive across the street to my co-workers home and put our costumes on and then surprise the students. Since we were all specials teachers, we were free to roam the school on Halloween. (My apologies to classroom teachers, I know Halloween parties are rough.) Now that we have all left the school where we met, we still text, zoom and take vacations together.

PE teacher, Music teacher, Art teacher (me) on Halloween

Through my years teaching art, my growth was exponential. I would spend summers reflecting and reorganizing lessons and brainstormed better ways to run my classroom. I had one rule about each lesson before I taught it to my classes...if I didn't find the lesson fun, I wouldn't teach it. Easy peasy determination there! Teaching was a steep learning curve for 9 years that I am extremely proud of everything I learned and the work I put into it. You know those days when you're teaching and you step back, look at your students and say to yourself, dang, they really understand the concept of this lesson or wow, this class is running like clockwork? I felt that more and more everyday and it made me feel accomplished.

Looking back, it was a beautiful time. But it was also hard. I ultimately left teaching because I was frequently sick. I would get strep throat, colds or the flu many times throughout the year. I would be happy but utterly exhausted by the end of each day. The weekends were usually spent being sick and nursing myself back to health for Monday. It was hard, and I knew I had to pivot. After teaching for almost a decade, my health decline was too much to handle and I decided to leave the profession to focus on my own work, and with time, starting this platform called Your Threads.

My art education story continues on. I teach every so often at a local art center where the creativity blossoms and time ceases to exist. I also teach my elementary school lessons to my nieces that love art. It is exciting to see how Your Threads has developed and I am very passionate about creating this community and providing resources and inspiration to other art educators, artists and art entrepreneurs. I have knowledge from my experiences that I know can help others and so I will, very happily. I have met so many wonderful people through starting this community and enjoy telling others art stories and introducing creatives to our community. You bring me joy and you are the continuation of my art education career. My threads now run through this platform. Thank you for being here and I can't wait to continue on!

Take care and ART ON!


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