Teaching Your Passion to Others Will Improve Your Own Skills.
I took my first teaching job because I couldn’t pay my rent as a freelance illustrator. At the time I thought of it as a fall back position — something I was a little embarrassed to reveal. I’m just an art teacher. I’d bought into the adage those who teach can’t do. I didn’t feel like a real artist by teaching. I didn’t see it as making money off my own art. It seemed like a dead end instead of a means to one, but I was wrong.
The “perfect” art career never materialized. Eighteen years later and it took me half as long to realize that teaching art not only pays my bills but it’s really me doing art as well. So, maybe the art is sometimes only demos and little sketches in the margins of a kid’s sketchbook, but the ways I’ve improved as an artist in my own right are beyond measure.
What teaching art does for me is what it could do for you. Whether volunteering on a one-time basis, doing a part time gig or making it your career, try teaching what you love to someone as a way to reignite your own passion.
Here are the 5 ways teaching art has made me a better artist.
Teaching art forces me to break down a skill to its universal elements. By doing so, I see art everywhere in everything.
As a new teacher I suffered the curse of knowledge. Straight from art school, I was estranged from the basics, informed instead by higher-level thinking that kept me in the realm of the intellect, distanced from art at the gut level. Instead of being in love with art, by the time I graduated art school, art and I were like an old married couple.
I remember in those first years trying to explain the difference between shape and space to a group of second graders by giving them a simple coloring exercise. Yet in spite of its simplicity, I couldn’t get them to differentiate the circles they’d drawn from the background space behind until one day a savvy kiddo raised his hand and said, “the background is like the cheese on a pizza and the circles are pepperoni. So you want us to color the pepperoni, right?” When I responded, “Yes, color the pepperoni!” it was like some great revelation to all of us. Suddenly they knew what I meant.
Seeing art from a “kid” perspective really forces me to imagine a new and inventive way of seeing the world around me. Art is everywhere, even in the pizza shapes. Remembering this simple fact gives me a fresh look at the world and enhances my life daily.
Teaching art reignites my love for learning and creates “Aha!” moments.
Sometimes my hard drive is completely full and as a consequence the little details fall away. It could be a child’s name (embarrassing!) but often it’s the minutiae of facts impossible to remember.
Whenever I teach van Gogh I always teach Postman (Portrait of Joseph Roulin) and read from a book called Art in Story. Every year I reread the story first to refresh my memory, and when I get to the little gem about how van Gogh used to place candles in his hat so he could paint at night, I’m delighted all over again — the way I was the first time I heard it. Somehow that little detail always escapes me, and reading it anew is like hearing it for the first time. Painting by candlelight, I think. Maybe I should try that!
Besides old stories I like to keep up with current events. A few years back there was a wonderful article in the Atlantic called The Marble of Michelangelo’s Dreams detailing how Michelangelo described his ideal marble as “reminiscent of sugar.” Reading this nugget gives me immense pleasure and imparting it to the kiddos is
like falling in love with the idea that art is delicious. If it weren’t for teaching, I don’t know that I would keep up with the latest in the art world, but I’m glad I do.
Teaching art reveals my weaknesses and strengths.
Whenever I teach one point perspective to my 5th graders, I think of my hard-won B+ in the topic. Perspective isn’t my strong suit, and it’s humbling to remember where I have room to grow. There have been years when a student has more talent in her thumbnail than I have in my whole body, and that’s humbling as well; but, there’s a certain high from bearing witness to the greatness of others.
Conversely, I love teaching the things I excel at. I can shade a mean apple, for instance and I love imparting tricks to kids that make them feel special and takes their art to a new level. If not for teaching I might not spend time shading an apple, and, as a consequence, I might not get a spark from remembering how good it feels to demonstrate a simple skill.
Teaching art forces me to do art daily.
This is a biggie. I spent a lot of years feeling like an imposter for all of the time I was “teaching” instead of doing — until I realized that at least as an art teacher I am doing art everyday in a myriad ways. Exercising that muscle has made me so much better over the years.
Teaching art inspires me to defend the arts.
After teaching art for eighteen years I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about what art means for kids. I’ve done a lot of research to defend my budget and my profession against cuts. As a result I am knowledgeable about the science of why art matters. I’ve seen standardized test scores at my school climb as a result of my program. I’ve born witness to the difference the arts makes for kids who don’t feel academically confident anywhere but in art.
But by far my greatest argument for art hasn’t been to create a generation of artists — by far I think my greatest accomplishment is to have taught the audience to appreciate the arts. My students have always been my greatest audience, and even the ones who won’t ever pick up a paintbrush again after leaving my class have learned to love the look of paint on a canvas.