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Teaching Best Practices

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Student’s palette. Image courtesy of author

In the world of jobs that an artist can occupy while maintaining a steady career and studio practice, teaching is one of the best possibilities of employment. Educating is by far one of the most positive and enriching experiences an individual can have, in addition to the focused, self-employed role. As a professor of art, one has an opportunity to shape young adults who share a similar curiosity and passion for learning that most creative individuals have already. Like most artists, my methods and processes of how I arrived at where I am come from many sources: important influences, inventing a process, and the guidance I had from my teachers. In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to contribute my thoughts on artists by writing about them for the Art Savvy blog at One River School. The experience has been wonderful. The team at One River has allowed me to grow as a writer by endorsing me to pursue the thing I have the most interest in: art by artists. I imagine teaching at One River School may be somewhat similar in they allow their teachers to work with a curriculum they are comfortable with and grounded as practitioners themselves.

Teaching One River

Pratt Institute students and faculty members Riad Miah and Dominique Nahas and curator Eileen Jeng-Lynch at Mary Heilmann’s studio. Image courtesy of author

When I entered graduate school, I knew somewhere down the road that teaching would be the reasonable option of sustaining myself as an artist. Once I began teaching, I had to learn how to do it and then become successful within it. At the various places I worked, it has become clear to me that how one creates in the studio is very different to how students learn and what an institution expects. I’ve taught studio and seminar art classes at various institutions and what I’ve come to recognize is the subject may have the same titles from place to place; however, what the probability and definition of the focus can be different from one school to the next. Some universities and colleges may have a focus on Fine Arts and others on Design. Furthermore, other department may have a cross between the two disciplines while emphasizing issues such as sustainability and service as values to embrace within a curriculum. To the end degree, what one’s been hired to teach and what the outcomes look like does not even resemble the subject that you were appointed to teach. Rest assured, the job of teaching gets more comfortable to navigate; the more you do it and the more you understand the academy that has employed you. So, to better understand how to negotiate this terrific practice and service, here are some guides I follow:

– The students always come first. They are the reason one should want to teach. Learning how to make art can be difficult. The premise that everyone can be an artist is a bit misleading; however, teaching students skills that may later turn into a form that is considered art is possible. Students genuinely want to learn, and they want to be praised when they feel accomplished. Praise them when they have moved from one stage to the next. They will, in return, continue to seek your advice and want to learn more.

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Katherine Bradford in her studio with students. Image courtesy of author

– Motivate and be enthusiastic by the subject, and they will become excited. Excitement should be obvious, yet when going into a new situation, a new school, course, etc., the opposite of emotions may rear its ugly head.  If you have done as much preparing as possible, the rest is essentially an experiment, so have fun with it; enthusiasm is contagious. If students see how passionate you are about a subject, they will become excited too. Don’t get bogged down on what you don’t know or what is unfamiliar, you will learn to adapt as you go along.

– Know your subject. Understand what you do and how it fits into the context of what your employer is asking. As an artist, we cannot be everything within the field of art and design. If a syllabus or learning objective seems alien to you, it’s most likely not something you consciously practice on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, if one takes a closer look at what’s being asked, it is likely that what is being proposed is embedded within a process already and exist in your practice unconsciously.

arts education careers

Riad Miah with beginning Painting students at Kingsborough Community College. Image courtesy of author

– Teaching is an exchange. Listen to what they are saying; they have their own opinion and it may go on past your lifetime. A lot of students are unfamiliar with art and design skills and want to learn it, which is why they are in school. My experience with students is they tend to have an idea of what they want to learn, and the best way to provide it to them is to listen to what they are saying. The most exciting aspect of teaching is that we are contributing to the future generations of artists so listen to what they are saying and asking, provide them with some direction and then they will make it their own.

working at one river

New York Arts Program’s Summer Visual Arts Students in front of their mural project. Image courtesy of author.

– Know what the overarching goals are that you want your students to learn by the end of a class. Of course, the best part of teaching and a learning outcome is when students surprise you. This is exceptional, and it is the part of teaching art we all strive to achieve. A good practice is to know what your students’ deliverables should look like before they begin working on a project. Having a clear vision is the best method of planning assignments; knowing how to guide them and ultimately, they may go above and beyond expectations. This is the point where they have graduated from being a student and have become their own self as artists.

Finally, teaching is more than just dissemination of practice; it is a rewarding experience to be able to help shape the future of art and artist. Have fun with the students and teaching.

contemporary artists at One River

Mary Heilmann with students at her studio. Image courtesy of author


Riad Miah with Summer Visual Arts Intensive students at Storm King. Image courtesy of author