Thoughts on learning and teaching.

In the last couple of years I have wound up doing a number of small-ish teaching gigs. It hasn't by any means been full-time and really wasn't something I had ever though I would do.

I started going taking art classes at university because it seemed like the only logical thing for me to take. No one really talked to me about the purpose of a degree programme or even what a degree programme was. I just knew I liked making things and seemed to be reasonably good at it. Eventually people started to expect me to take certain classes in order to fulfill degree requirements. I never really questioned any of this since I mostly enjoyed my classes.

In "practical" terms I found art school to be pretty useless since there was no real information on how to live in the world as an artist. Nothing about approaching galleries, about selling work, having dealers, applying for grants or anything really. Most of my classes were a bit like play time for me. We were always encouraged to experiment with different things and had a few technical hints thrown in here and there. Going to art school was really valuable to my growth as a person. It was really reassuring to work with a community of artists in a creative environment and not having to try and justify the value of art to people who didn't seem to get it.

As my undergraduate degree came closer to being finished one prof I worked quite closely with began to suggest I go to grad school. He was very encouraging of the work I made and told me that grad school would be really good for my development as an artist. I guess that was enough information to convince me to look into it since I was soon applying to a few different schools. If nothing else, grad school seemed like a great excuse to get away from my parents.

Out of three schools I got into one and jumped at the opportunity to move here to Toronto. Shortly after I got accepted to school I found out I was going to be a Teaching Assistant. Upon getting to school I realized that being a TA could mean a lot of different things depending on who I was working with. All of the other people in my programme were in a similar position as me with regard to teaching. None of us had any previous experience and weren't really sure how everything would work out in the end. We were all quite nervous about teaching, but were assured that we would have training prior to classes. To my dismay, most of the training sessions we had were completely inapplicable to teaching visual arts classes or doing studio demonstrations. All of the instructional sessions we wound up in were quite general and talked a lot about marking essays and how to approach humanities classes. This was good if we were going to be leading discussions on a novel, but didn't help me to figure out how to mark someone's art or run a critique, or even really an effective way to keep people's attention.

By the time classes started I didn't actually feel any more prepared than I did before our "training" began. Lucky for me, I had some help from a very experienced studio assistant during the first few classes. I was really shocked that people were so willing to throw us in front of a class with so little support. I felt as though this went against a lot of the things I thought teaching was supposed to be about. I always thought teaching needed a lot of work, a lot of dedication and a lot of study. Maybe it was assumed we had all of these skills already though. From my grad school experience I found out that more or less anyone can teach if they are thrown into it. Unfortunately, being in front of a class doesn't ensure anyone you are a good teacher.

When I taught my university classes I was always aware to ask the students what they wanted from the class or to let me know if something wasn't working. I would also continually ask if things made sense or were clear to my students. Overwhelmingly the response to ANY question I asked my classes was silence. Nothing. I really had to prod in order to get any kind of response from them. Such reactions really made me wonder about my effectiveness as a teacher. Then I started to talk to other people about their classes and everyone seemed to have the same experience. It didn't make sense that all of us were poor teachers, but it also seemed odd that students seemed so disinterested.

Most of the people in my programme were teaching introductory courses which meant that most of the students were right out of high school. It seemed as though these people came from a place that didn't welcome questions, a place where they did what they were told and were after marks rather than real learning. When I had older or more experienced students they were generally more likely to ask questions and engage in dialogue about the work we were doing than the younger or more inexperienced ones.

When I taught a theory class and had to mark papers people's inexperience showed through more than ever. Most of my students, again fresh out of high school, had no real idea how to write an essay, how to engage in critical discussion or how to use grammar. This really made me feel like I had no clue what I was doing and made me feel like I was an awful teacher. When people didn't "get" what I was going over in class I felt like a failure as a teacher. I really didn't have anything to dispute this feeling since the students were not willing to give feedback on how I taught or how the class was run.

I just finished teaching another class at a local art studio that in some ways left me with a similar feeling of failure. It was a small class and the attendance was low. I couldn't seem to shake the feeling that the low attendance was from my poor teaching ability even though the students who attended regularly assured me it wasn't. The people who were at the class seemed quite interested in learning and experimenting with new techniques which was great for me. From experience I have found that having people engaged in their work and being inquisitive makes teaching worthwhile and makes me feel like I am being understood. When people seem to be paying attention and genuinely interested I feel as though I have been successful and am encouraged to keep teaching, but when things seem to go wrong I tend to feel humiliated and like my students will find out that I don't know what I'm doing.

Through all of this I seem to have lost the ability to determine any real way to evaluate my teaching skills. Since I have wound up teaching a number of classes it appears that some people believe in my skills, but at the same time I feel like studying teaching would be a great asset to me. I don't really know how much of these feelings come from lack of experience as a teacher, poor self-esteem or just plain old not having any answers.

As I mentioned before, I never had any real intention of becoming a teacher. I always knew I wanted to "be an artist," but that desire always seemed to be completely aside from any "career" that makes money. That's one thing I quite like about art, but unfortunately we live in a society where pretty much everything is based on capital. As a result, a lot of artists wind up teaching as a way to live. This really makes me question the value of art. I mean is the only practical application of our skills to teach other people those same skills? I sure hope not.

I have seen a lot of university art teachers who hardly make any art since their teaching has taken over their lives. This is a big problem since I feel that being a productive artist is really valuable as an art teacher. If you aren't productive yourself you will not be able to motivate anyone to make art or to take it seriously. As we get tired of poverty and instability we look for sustainable jobs and our art takes on a secondary role in our lives. Combine full-time jobs, with family and there isn't time for much else. It's frustrating to see art and academia get so tangled up together. While there are obvious assets in taking art classes, I have always thought that art was not about rules. I guess in a sense I liken making art to making zines or having a punk band, it's something basically everyone can do, but that doesn't always mean everyone should do it. The very same thing that makes art exciting and important also makes it problematic. And just as there are bad bands and zines there is bad art.

While I do find teaching to be an interesting challenge and often a noble pursuit sometimes it's little more than a way to make rent. I often wonder if I have the level of commitment I need to be a good teacher, to take my abilities to the next level and to learn more actual teaching skills. It's a difficult balance because both teaching art and making art require a great deal of commitment. Despite the fact that all of the people in my grad school class were thrown into the classroom as teachers I maintain that not all of us should have been. Maybe I won't ever know if I was one of the people who shouldn't have been, maybe I won't let myself know. What I do know though, is that more than anything teaching has helped me learn a lot about myself. The thing I have found most rewarding about teaching art classes is seeing just how much I have learned from my students. I feel as much like a student as I do a teacher when I'm in the classroom and I think that's good since we all have so much to learn from each other.

I'm not sure if anyone out there is in the same boat, or teaches art, but if you are, I'd sure love to hear from you and talk about your experiences.