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Another Arts Teachers’ Story: Leah Olson

June 19, 2012

Featuring one teacher’s journey as an educator

This is the 14th in a series of blog posts telling arts teachers’ stories. This series contains a set of questions to provide the opportunity for you to read educators stories and to learn from others.

Leah Olson is has taught visual art for 16 years. Currently, she teaches five classes of visual art at Hampden Academy. This is her first year teaching high school and has about 100 students per semester. Her teaching assignment includes Art 1 and 2, Sculpture 1 and 2, Drawing and Painting and Advanced Art. She will be teaching a new course of Jewelry and Ceramics in the fall.

What do you like best about being a visual art educator?

Teaching art is like being able to assist people in self discovery. I love watching students learn in the creative process. This job allows me to have a degree of autonomy that allows me to make daily and long term decisions that will bring the best experience for the student.  I feel like an artist when I teach!

Tell me what you think are three keys to ANY successful arts ed program?

  1. Educate yourself about art education daily, weekly, etc., in whatever means possible.
  2. Be a clear communicator. Write about “art happenings” in school newsletters/emails. Schedule time to communicate with your colleagues about curriculum, assessment and make goals. Collaborate with colleagues other than in your content area because students get more out of it when they know others are on the bandwagon.
  3. Be involved with community arts events because public relations is crucial on so many levels.

What specific way(s) do your assessment practices tie into the success of your program?

  • Collaboration is key. My colleague, Bethany Hanson, has been a crucial part of ongoing improvements that correlate with Hampden Academy’s emphasis on curriculum development. She and I work together to develop quality assessments that will help our students meet the standards in the visual arts before students graduate.
  • Backward Planning – for example: Showing student work examples of the projects before students start a unit. Having a discussion about what quality work looks like is important to see before giving students the steps required to achieve and learn.
  • Checklists – Students use them to gauge their time, process and quality of work to meet and/or surpass the expectations. We all use checklists in our life for many different things. It holds us accountable for what we do. And don’t you feel good when you cross those things off your list?

What have been the benefits in becoming involved in the arts assessment initiative?

Arts teachers are very professionally isolated in school districts. Professional development is scarce, schedule is tight, and funds are not available.  Through this initiative, people are developing ways of communication through technology that can help arts teachers access information that is relevant and helpful to their skill levels. I have learned a great deal from other teacher leaders.  It has also been refreshing to meet other arts teachers who love what they do and have much to share with others.

What are you most proud of in your career?

After 16 years, I still love my career!  Students never cease to inspire me.  Teachers shape our perspective about education and little of that changes as the years pass. I hope students leave my classes believing that learning about art is important, it is fun and it is important to support it in their community. I am proud to encourage global thinking, to work hard, and to teach that creativity is being in the process!  Teaching students how to enjoy problem solving can be a tough business!

What gets in the way of being a better teacher or doing a better job as a teacher?

Many people have mentioned time.  Thats # 1 for me too.  When you begin to not take the time to make something better, the less effective you become.  This is not only tough to do individually, but tough to teach others those various problem solving skills using the time effectively.  How can I help students find their “spark” in the creative process? That “spark” fuels the power of the arts.

Apple or PC?

This is my first year being totally Apple!  So far, so good!

What have you accomplished through hard work and determination that might otherwise appear at first glance to be due to “luck” or circumstances?

This is my first year teaching art at Hampden Academy. I owe my accomplishments to having a positive outlook on things and that has pushed me forward towards my present career.  I don’t dwell on my failures – I try to learn from them.  The love of learning does appear to be “lucky” for me (and the self fulfilling prophecy thought pattern comes in handy…..).

Look into your crystal ball: what advice would you give to teachers?

  • “Oh Great Self Fulfilling Prophecy” = Thoughts – Words – Actions –  Habits – Character – Destiny
  • “Never underestimate the power of a small, dedicated group of people to change the world; indeed, that is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
  • My advice in general: Do the right thing when no one is looking.

If you were given a $500,000.00 to do with whatever you please, what would it be?

Add to the college fund for my two children. Buy a house on the water with a BIG space for a studio. (OMG, that sounds so responsible.)

Leah’s resources:

Thank you for sharing your story Leah!

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