We’re all familiar with the term “emotional roller coaster.” But that’s not a very helpful metaphor is it? Roller coasters have operators, safety precautions, and typically don’t crash. Our emotions, let alone our lives, are anything but a roller coaster. We can go off the rails rather regularly.
My apologies for my delay in posting this! I’ve traveled to two conferences in the last three weeks and I’ve been struggling to keep up with my class as well as my own coursework. But both conferences were wonderful opportunities to connect with new people and ideas in two very different art education communities - one primarily research and the other practice. That was the product at least. The outcome. It all sounds rather tidy. The PROCESS on the other hand, was emotional and messy. A misheard name, an awkward conversation, a feeling of not fitting in, and having to make sacrifices like staying in and working rather than going out and socializing. These were some of the bits we tend to edit out of our stories. Sort of how textbooks edit out the ugly parts of history.
Am I the only one who when first arriving at a convention, needs about a half-a-day or so to acclimate emotionally? Before that it’s like that first day of school again. I’m in a strange place with strange people. Everyone except for you seems to be mingling and catching up with each other and bustling about. It’s like this predictable re-entry process I go through each time. But those feelings don’t last (usually) and in the end it’s all worth it. I made connections with folks I hope to continue to see and attended to already established connections and left inspired and feeling closer to others that value some of the things I do. By the time I have to leave I’m sad to go! (I had to leave both early for a class I take on a few Saturdays this semester). You feel acutely vulnerable at first but you put yourself out there, give it some time, make mistakes, but also gain a great deal. This the the process of connecting with other people. And that emotional journey relates to one of my recent classes.
The topic of the day was Artist as Storyteller so we were discussing narrative art and how art can tell stories. Simple enough, right? For this class I had prepared an in depth PowerPoint showing students some artwork and materials that could help connect to literature class. Mainly, how an artwork can be used as a writing prompt and help students learn about the parts of a story while creating their own artwork using collage and drawing. We were to look at artwork and interpret it narratively, imagining what story it might tell. Afterwards students would have time in class to create mixed media artworks that told a story. I hoped that by the end we could hold a mini-critique to talk about our collages AND our monoprints which we had still not had time to critique all together. I thought I had a fantastic presentation with interesting examples and images I had used in the past, and a great art experience planned for them.
Everything went wrong.
Most if not all of my students had a positive experience overall, as far as I could tell at the time and after reading their responses (which they complete every week). Some sensed that things were a bit off with the artmaking at least. A few made astute observations and provided constructive criticism. But I knew things had not worked out and shared as much in many of my responses back. I admitted my mistake and asked what they might’ve done in that situation. All teachers know that feeling when something you thought was going to be great falls flat. The ones that care do something about it.
It’s important that we acknowledge that learning and teaching is a largely emotional endeavor, no matter how often it seems that education stops at the neck. I’m constantly trying to improve my practice as a teacher. But the failures still hurt. Losing doesn’t feel good.
Is learning about “winning”? No. I said “losing” on purpose. Did you see a problem with that like I did? Because that is the closest analogy I can think of for the feeling of a lesson falling flat. I think this is a very American thing to say probably. I feel like there is a tendency towards binary in the U.S. Win & Lose. Good & Bad. Democrat & Republican. Our education system stigmatizes failure and making mistakes therefore discouraging the tremendous opportunity for learning that mistakes offer. There is that perfectionist tendency that strangles so many children with anxiety today. “Art is never finished. Only abandoned.” - Leonardo da Vinci. I also have serious complaints about our education system’s overall neglect of emotional education. When mistakes happen, I don’t believe we are adequately prepared to manage our response in healthier ways. We are a fixed mindset nation where a first grader might tell you they are not a math person. But we can improve. And I’m teaching my teachers in the hopes that they will be able to escape these mental shackles with which I’ve grown up - that they might live freer and healthier than I have. A guy can dream, can’t he?
So it hurts when things don’t work out and there’s no do-over. So what do you do? Well, at first there is the sticky business of pushing through in the moment. The old “show must go on." You adjust and adapt and slog your way through less confidently than normal. You salvage it the best you can. You do your best to save the patient but it’s already DoA - not an unusual outcome when you relying on lesson plans. Anything that doesn’t go “according to plan” means you’re off track. I’ve been a bit off-track most of this semester on this journey. You try to shrug off the dissatisfaction as best as you can. But you screwed up and you feel like everyone saw you being a bonehead. There are many ways to react, some requiring more self-control than others. Some just require some deep breathing. But you get through it. After, I was not looking forward to their feedback on my lesson. In the end, they went pretty easy on me. They are sweet. And maybe, sadly, I wonder about their expectations of their professors. Was this still exceeding their expectations?
Next you perform the autopsy. What happened? Wrong content, wrong images, and wrong project. One artwork was not as age-appropriate (or maybe interest appropriate) as I thought it might’ve been. It didn’t engage them on the early Monday morning. Unlike Garfield, I don’t get to blame the day of the week. I knew exactly what day it was going to be and went ahead anyway. Another artwork was too complex to be adequately unpacked. It was a rich, layered, in some ways difficult work, and I treated it poorly by shoehorning it in to prove a minor point - that even a non-objective work could be read like a story...sort of. The hubris! While my own art example I shared was a mixed media collage, neither of the examples we discussed was a collage, despite the fact that we would be making them and could benefit from seeing various approaches. Additionally, my example was a very detailed, carefully rendered piece and there was no way they could do similar work in the allotted time. I wasn’t really showing them what was possible or worse, giving them an unreasonable point of comparison. It was closer to showing-off, it felt. Look what I can do under ideal circumstances with unlimited time and many years of drawing experience! Now you try! I had gotten my students started the class before cutting out images to collage but let their ultimate purpose remain a mystery in the hope that they would have to think on their feet an adapt. But that turned out not to work out. Because of the limited time, almost no one was able to finish in class. That’s not a very satisfying experience. Nor were they able to make many meaningful connections. To make it up to my students, I told them they could submit a picture of their collages rather than submitting written feedback. Not much, but something. I already knew that I would be making dramatic changes to the way I would present this topic in the future so their feedback would be somewhat redundant for me.
We also had to talk about some artwork before the end of class. So we saved twenty plus minutes to share our monoprints we had created a few weeks before. We “had to” have a mini-critique that day because we would not have another chance the rest of the semester. We also “had to” because I had assigned a reading discussing talking about student artwork and felt that my students would be mad if we didn’t apply the reading in class. And because of the short amount of time, I felt like our conversation lacked depth and several pieces worth acknowledgment went undiscussed. There were some thoughtful comments although we mostly got a lot of “that reminds me of.” And, of course, we even went slightly over time, which I hate, because I work hard to respect my students’ time. That of course is the danger of teaching (or doing anything in the classroom) because you think you “have to.” So all in all, a roller coaster wreck.
I know what you might be saying. It wasn’t THAT bad. And I get that. I’m not trying to paint this class as some kind of catastrophe. There were no fires or getting fired involved. But this was my first real bad day of teaching this semester. Teachers know how important modeling is for learning. Just imagine how extra important it is when teaching teachers! Modelling can be a double-edged sword because this was one of those days where I hope they DON’T do as I do...but they probably will :) But in all seriousness, it is important that our students see us make mistakes and that we own them. I know as a young teacher, I would have wanted to hide my mistakes. That’s what near constant overemphasis of “craftsmanship” in high school and college art courses taught me perhaps. Our students need to see us as fallible (not that they don’t already know well enough). But they can learn a tremendous amount from seeing us sitting in the hot seat. Watching HOW we deal. We should let our students see behind the curtain, rather than pretending to be wizards and witches of Oz or magicians as Nan Hathaway has said. We’re showing students how to be in the world, not how to be a good audience member, watching as the world goes by before them.
The autopsy, while intellectually satisfying, did not alleviate my emotions. I felt down. I could tell that I was feeling vulnerable. I like to brood. Like many others, I have a tendency to ‘protect’ my vulnerability with defensiveness. I related to this during my attendance at the conferences. Do you ever go to a presentation where you realize that you have been doing something wrong in your teaching? Headed in the wrong direction for a while? How do you react to that news? Despite presenting to teachers many times over the years, I only came to appreciate this nuance recently. When someone points out a better way of doing something that you have been doing or otherwise makes it clear that something you have been doing is unhelpful or even counterproductive, our logical side can appreciate the new information. Let’s implement that. On the other hand, our emotions kick in as well, don’t they? We’re halfway through the semester/year/course! I’ve been doing x wrong all this time! What have I done to my poor students! It’s not like a single mistake, but a mistake exponentially multiplied with compound interest. We feel bad. Maybe shame, the flip-side of vulnerability. Rather than appreciating the new information, part of us feels threatened. Rather than engaging with the path forward a part of us remains trapped in the loss behind us - in the mistake. We might not be ready for that info yet. Everyone reacts a little differently. For me, it takes a little time to resolve this conflict and while I know rationally that everyone makes mistakes because I have said it to students a thousand million times, I still, perhaps irrationally, feel that pain acutely. How many times, I wonder, has someone saying, “Get over it!” actually helped. We know it’s not that simple. But maybe you, like me, say this to yourself more than you would like. I simmer and stew but eventually move forward. We can’t let ourselves become the kind of teacher that doesn’t admit mistakes. I feel like I’ve made every mistake in the book. I want to own them.
Whenever I give teachers advice, I want teachers to know that I’m never shaming them. I’m not coming from a place of judgment. As I like to say, the only way I’ve ever learned anything is the hard way. I’m never better than anyone, rather just a little farther down the path. When I offer advice to teachers, it’s because I have been where they are and have and have found a way to try again. I don’t want to judge them anymore than I want to judge my students. Instead, like Craig Roland always says, I want my students to “amaze me.”
I see so many professors and teachers forget what it was like to be in their students’ shoes and forget what it was like before they knew what they know. To hold students hostage to their own impossible standards. We need to create space for our students to make mistakes. We have to address those mistakes coming from a place of caring and acknowledging the tremendous emotions involved. Just like we have to acknowledge our own emotions in our own practice and give ourselves permission to make mistakes. The best-laid plans of mice and men…
It’s just not always easy. We need constant reminding. The more aware we are of our own emotional roller coaster ride we go on when we make mistakes or things don’t go as expected, the better able we are to care for ourselves and help our students when they experience similar feelings. We have to develop healthy strategies for managing our emotions and help our students do the same. How can we care for others if we are unable to care for ourselves? I’m reminded of that famous song by Fred Rogers, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” I’m working on it, Mr. Rogers. I’m trying.
When we dedicate ourselves to teaching, we all choose the hard way. We don’t choose the path with gold and shiny things at the end. We don’t choose the path of least resistance, because we know that resistance is something we will come face-to-face with every day, not least of which in our own mirror. There is nothing easy about working - doing authentic, meaningful, life-affirming work - with people. People can be difficult. Feelings can be difficult. Difficulty is assured. But change is possible. What is heartbreaking is the teachers who look at the world, a world that seems like a scary, inhumane place to them, where they feel powerless perhaps, and decide, intentionally or not, that the best thing they can do is to get their students used to it by making their classroom a miserable place. Those teachers who like to repeat “Well in the real world...” as a bludgeon attacking resistance and potential. I choose instead a humanizing approach, to try to help my students realize how powerful they really are. That their power comes from who they are and their experiences and the people they connect with. It comes from their ability to learn from their mistakes and to try again. It comes most of all from them caring. We wouldn’t get upset if we didn’t care. So we give it some time, make changes, and get back to it.
Does this ring true for you? No two people experience anything exactly the same way. I’d love to hear about your own emotional roller coasters and crashes and how you get out of them!
Here is a link to my day 8 outline & day 9 outline
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.