I have been thinking lately about my first years in education. I graduated from college (in 1976) and landed my first teaching job before I graduated. I bought the departing art teachers yellow Toyota Corolla that had 2,600 miles on it and it cost $2,600. I kept that car until it rusted out and had racked up 125,000 miles on it. I moved into my first apartment on my own.
I taught in two buildings in a school district that was a suburb of Philadelphia. One school housed K-6 with 250 students, the other K-8 with 500 students. The K-6 school students went to the other school when they reached grade 7.
I had a closet in each building where the art supplies and the art cart lived. I went from classroom to classroom. I had no set schedule except for all day Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon when I taught grade 7 and 8.
I created my schedule every other Friday when I went from classroom to classroom to learn what the learning plan was for the other subjects. I collaborated with teachers to come up with a multi-disciplinary lesson that would work with the art curriculum and the other content curriculum.
I took my students to the Philadelphia Art Museum each year for fabulous field trips.
I look back on those days (almost 40 years ago) and I realized that my biggest challenge was learning to collaborate. And, I continue to learn how to collaborate. I think it is one of the keys to being an educator! As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine NOT collaborating. It is who I am.
What did I learn during that first teaching job?
- ADVOCACY – I learned the importance of making sure the ARTS were everywhere. Working off a cart taught me that. I didn’t have a room to hide in. I didn’t have “my own” walls to put the student artwork. It went everywhere – in their classrooms and the halls outside their classrooms, beside and inside the library, in the cafeteria (which also served as the gym), at the entrance to the school, in the principals office. (Art was not ignored nor marginalized).
- COOPERATION – At first I struggled with pushing the art cart from classroom to classroom but now I realize that because of that cart I learned how to work with others in their space. The school was my classroom.
- INTEGRATION – Art became the heart of each lesson and consequently it was often the heart of student learning.
- COLLABORATION – The two music and two physical education teachers and me became buddies about almost everything. We collaborated because we know it enriched the curriculum for all students. We had strength in numbers and our voices continuously supported each other and each discipline. It became apparent that if we didn’t, that students learning and opportunities would suffer.
- NO ONE EVER DIED FROM LACK OF SLEEP – I’d arrive at school at 6 in the morning and stay until 9 at night about 4 days a week. And, I loved every minute of it.
- NOTHING IS BLACK AND WHITE – From my first years of teaching I learned from my students that nothing is black and white. Just because something worked for one student, doesn’t mean it worked for the next. I loved those kids; the incredible artwork they created and the fun of hanging out on Friday night at the local roller skating rink with them. Mostly, what good teachers they were, I learned so much from them about teaching and life!
- TOLERANCE, UNDERSTANDING, PATIENCE – Without these three I would never have survived 34 years in the art room mostly at the middle level – not just survived, but really LIVED and LOVED (almost) every single minute of it!
I miss those days (and that car) but know in my heart that so much of who I am today is because of those first years of teaching! I’ve carried those lessons with me, they came out while I taught for 34 years, they served me well at the Maine Department of Education as the Visual and Performing Arts Specialist, and they strengthen each day as I travel my pathway as the Director of Arts Education at the Maine Arts Commission. I am so fortunate to love the work that I do and have been able to carry with me the learning from my first years as an art educator.