That time a 17-year-old showed me I was an ineffective teacher

It’s an old but true statement: we learn more from our students than they learn from us. But what this one student taught me changed my entire approach to teaching.

For ease of conversation and to protect my former student’s identity, I will refer to this young artist as “Logan.” Now, Logan transferred into my AP Studio Drawing class well into the first semester. I received the automated notification informing me of my new student and was instantly hit with a wave of panic. I was a pretty new teacher still, and this was a curveball I wasn’t expecting. I called the counselors and they told me she was a transfer from another school. I contacted her previous teacher, and what she said to me amounted to something along the lines of, “Good luck with that one.” She was joining my class with approximately 4 works, not all of which were completely finished. My first thought was, “How do I stop this from happening? This student obviously doesn’t want to work or she’d be working already.”

See, I was an ineffective teacher. I saw this student as a problem, not the beautifully unique snowflake that she actually was. To best understand the situation, you need to know more about Logan. She was openly homosexual in a very conservative community. She was boldly herself in a way that made her an outsider in many situations. She didn’t have an automatic respect for authority. Her trust had to be earned. Luckily, it was clear when she joined that my room was a place she wouldn’t be judged or harassed for who she was as a person. Sadly, she would be judged and harassed for who she was as an artist.

The work Logan brought to the class was large-scale, highly finished pencil drawings. Most of them were self-portraits. They would take forever. I kept pleading with her to work faster. That was my pedagogical approach. As if all she needed was to move her hand faster. Time fell off the calendar, and I got desperate. I would use grades as punishment for her slow production. “If you don’t turn in artwork, I will put another ‘0’ in the grade book.” Let me tell you, that is an approach that doesn’t work. A student that has a confrontational relationship with her education is not concerned with another “0.” I became another one of “those teachers” in her life, a teacher that didn’t like her. It wasn’t true. I thought Logan was great, but that’s not what she perceived.

So, now that you understand the situation, let’s talk about the “Aha!” moment. We were coming to the close of a grading period, and Logan was failing. Her grade book was full of zeros. In a moment of desperation, I blurted out, “Just give me art—I’ll take any art.” I grabbed her sketchbook and desperately flipped through the pages looking for anything I could take as a grade. And there it was. Pages filled with incredibly beautiful, expressive, personal, experimental art. “Why haven’t you shown me any of this,” I exclaimed with a tone of accusation. “I didn’t know I could,” she said, “I didn’t think this was ‘school art.’”

Let that sink in for a moment. “I didn’t think this was ‘school art.’” The sentence hit me so hard I felt in in my stomach. At some point, this student was told there was only one way to make art. In her mind, the only thing valid in the academic setting was highly realistic pencil drawing. And I created a space that allowed that narrative to be reinforced. Logan desperately wanted to be an artist. She desperately wanted me to validate her as an artist. She thought the only way to do that was to make the art she thought I wanted. She hated doing it, but she tried anyway. Unfortunately, there is no way to maintain a marathon pace of art making when your only motivation is making someone else happy. I instantly saw my mistake and my entire pedagogical kingdom crashed down around me.

“This is art,” I stated. “This is amazing art!” “It is?” she questioned. “It is,” I reassured. “From now on, this is the art I want you to make.” And with that, Logan exploded in a frenzied state of artistic productivity the likes of which I had never seen. I went back and changed all her missing grades to A’s. I helped Logan make her art better. I became a supportive force helping Logan be the artist she wanted to be. It was amazing. I was changed. She was changed. Everything from then on would have to change.

What I figured out was, Logan had a motivational force propelling her to express all the things she had going on inside her, and her mode of expression was art. It was a rocket-fueled engine of intrinsic motivation. But, when she entered the art classroom, she had to check that at the door. She felt she had to hide herself to be successful in my classroom or in any classroom. I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk around every day feeling like you have to hide who you are to be accepted. Never again would I allow a student to believe that the purpose of their art making should be to make me happy.

And the uptight teacher in me who was worried about the “score” was rewarded, too. Logan submitted a completed portfolio and received a 4. It was a portfolio full of her art. A student who was nearly written off as hopeless at the semester submitted an AP Studio Drawing Portfolio and received a 4! She didn’t need highly crafted assignments, or grids, or a tightly rendered, colored pencil still life. All she needed was a teacher who validated who she was and helped her achieve her goals. So now ask yourself, whose goals are you pushing your students to achieve?

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3 thoughts on “That time a 17-year-old showed me I was an ineffective teacher

  1. aaah this is such a lovely article, so glad to see teachers like yourself seeing their pupils as the unique individuals they are instead of just worrying about grades. I hope more teachers start to feel this way

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ll thank you very much. Feel free to share. I find I keep bumping into teachers that have not considered these issues, which is the main reason I started this blog.

      Like

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