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MALI Teacher Leader Story: Laura Manchester

May 1, 2018

Visual Art Educator

This is one of several blog posts in 2018 that include stories of the Maine Arts Leadership Initiative (MALI) Phase 7 Teacher Leaders and Teaching Artist Leaders. This series includes a set of questions so you can learn a little bit about each leader. CLICK HERE  for more information on MALI. CLICK HERE  for more information on the 93 Teacher Leaders and 8 Teaching Artist Leaders.  CLICK HERE  for Arts education resources. CLICK HERE  for the MALI Resource Bank. Search in the “search archives” box on the bottom right side of this post for past teacher leader stories.  Thank you Laura for sharing your story!

Laura Manchester teaches visual art at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston. She has been teaching the entire school population of just over 750 children, 32 classes a week for 7 years. Laura also teaches the after school art club, 4 days a week for an hour. Each session runs for 6 weeks which includes a rotation of 15 students from grades 1-2 and 15 students from grades 3-6.

What do you like best about being an art educator?

The best part of my job is when teachers bring their classes back to me in a week and tell me that their students made connections between what they’ve learned in my room and what they’ve been learning in their general classrooms. Seeing that art is influential and valid throughout a student’s day is integral to keeping art alive and relevant. It’s very rewarding when the kids can make their own connections, independently.

What do you believe are three keys to ANY successful visual and performing arts education?

  1. Relevance. Keeping what students learn relevant to their world keeps them engaged and excited. It’s natural to want to know WHY you are learning something or how it connects to you.
  2. Consistency in routine. When students know where things are and what to expect, they can focus their energy on learning new things. This doesn’t have to be boring. By having clear, positive expectations you allow students to “own” their experiences and be more adventurous when learning new ideas and processes in the art room.
  3. Get excited. If you’re excited about what you’re teaching, the students will be as well.

How have you found assessment to be helpful to you in your classroom?

Assessment helps me to check what students know and need to learn. By using a variety of summative and formative assessments throughout the year, I can see how close students are to meeting specific overarching curriculum goals and where they need practice or support. I use a lot of student self-assessments to help kids make connections between lessons and curriculum goals.

What have been the benefits in becoming involved in the Maine Arts Leadership initiative?

As the only visual arts teacher in such a large school, it has been difficult to get connected with other arts teachers. By joining MALI, I’ve opened so many more opportunities to collaborate and celebrate my craft. MALI inspired me to try new things in the classroom, refreshed my approach to assessment and overall given me the chance to approach this school year with my best foot forward.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of the connections I have made with the school’s community during my time here in my current teaching position. Attendance in after school events is quite low at our school- with only 4 parents participating in our parent-teacher organization and typically less than 50 attendees at any given event. Several years ago I joined our parent-teacher organization and have consistently made calls and had conferences with parents to engage them in what their child is doing in my classroom. I think it is because of this, and because of the genuine interest and excitement that art can bring to people that our annual art show is the best attended event of the year. As I mentioned earlier, many events are not well attended after school. The art show has consistently brought in over 500 attendees for the last 6 years. Those numbers alone are something to brag about- let alone the enthusiasm that parents have when they see the incredible work their children have done. While my work here is exhausting, the connections and results of those connections with families are priceless.

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

Laura works with Jen Nash at the MALI summer institute, August 2017

The number one challenge for me is that our school simply does not have enough arts staff to appropriately accommodate its high volume of students. My schedule is packed at 32 classes a week, some of those classes having students from multiple classrooms crammed in for a single 40 minute block. With this tight schedule, I have limited planning time at school- which is never used for planning but usually a time to catch up on grading, hanging artwork, providing additional time for students to finish their work, etc. This schedule is so exhausting that it truly inhibits what I can do outside of school to continue my own education or continue as an artist. I rarely have time to plan additional fun activities and because of limited staffing elsewhere in the building, I am very limited in the amount of professional development time I can take.

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

In my classroom students are absolutely a joy. I run a tight ship with a lot of student responsibility with materials and procedures. Although many might say it is because I teach a fun subject that students are so responsible and receptive, I believe that it is just as much (if not more) due to the idea that I set high expectations for students and reinforce positive behaviors. Allowing students to “own” the room by providing access to material shelves and student-led responsibilities as well as facilitating student choice is imperative to giving kids a chance at finding a sense of self in a classroom that they only get to visit for 40 minutes, once a week.

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

Take the time to reflect on what is truly important about your role in your students’ lives. Messes can be cleaned up, rough days come to an end and eventually all that’s left is the impact of the experiences you gave and allowed to happen while you were there teaching. If nothing else, be able to say that you were kind and allowed something special to happen while you were together.

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

If I was given $500,000.00, I would pay off my student loans and then buy a few groceries. Haha! Just kidding… I would invest in an unused building- probably one with some cool history to it- and design the interior to accommodate a bunch of arts-based classrooms and studios. There would be a gallery and performance space on the main floor. I would run the building to have classes throughout the year for students of all ages to explore and experience different art forms. Classes would be facilitated by local artists, musicians who would teach their craft to the public in exchange for having a free space to showcase their personal works. There would be some sort of annual fundraiser that would help sustain funds to keep the project running and progressing. Oh, the possibilities!!

Imagine you are 94 years old. You’re looking back. Do you have any regrets?

Most definitely: If I live to be 94 years old, I’ll regret not having dessert every day. That’s a lot of wasted ice cream and cake.

2 comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Laura’s answers to the questions. She makes one want to be a student in her class. She sounds like a dynamite teacher.


  2. Yes, Laura is a gem! Thanks for your comment Gay!



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