The vast majority of the time, I love teaching and I savor my time in the classroom with my students. A student once wrote in my course evaluations that I was “born to teach.” I even enjoy nerdy tasks like writing student progress reports and making spreadsheets and assembling slideshows and course materials that a lot of other teachers find tedious. My students are endlessly fascinating and frequently entertaining. The second I think I’ve seen it all, something will happen in my classroom that takes me by surprise. There is literally never a dull moment when you teach.
On the other hand, I have to admit that one of the toughest parts of teaching is that at times it can feel like a thankless job. One of my former teachers told me that she viewed her students as leeches who latched on and sucked her blood all day long until she had nothing left. I’m not sure it’s that dramatic for me, but the honest truth is that most of the time teachers give much more than they get back.
When I was a recent college graduate, one of my first jobs was teaching art at the Learning Project Elementary school. One of the unique aspects of teaching grades 1-6 was that you always got immediate feedback from the students. The kids told you exactly what they were thinking right in the moment. If they thought the activity was boring, they would not hesitate to declare outright, “This is boring, I want to do something else.” If they were having a blast, you would hear immediate comments like “This is SO FUN! I love drawing TREES!!”As the teacher, the students’ enthusiasm was infectious and energizing. I found it incredibly satisfying to have instant, concrete validation that you were doing something right.
Teaching college is a totally different ball game. College students wear poker faces most of the time, and the majority of them would rather die a thousand deaths before they let me know what they were really thinking. I remember the very first college class I taught, I was mortified that I had done a terrible job with the class because the students barely said a word to me all semester. (although looking back, that really was an exceptionally quiet class by comparison) So I was pleasantly surprised, when a student who hardly spoke a whole sentence the whole semester described my class as “her favorite art class ever,” in my course evaluation. The other extreme is I’ve also had students who were fine during class, but who lashed out at me with angry, aggressive emails explicitly describing how I directly caused them to develop mental illness and destroyed their lives. Teaching college students can be a constant guessing game that you can’t ever win.
During my lectures and demonstrations, sometimes I look at my class and see a sea of dead pan, sleep deprived facial expressions, (I have concrete evidence, see the photo below) wondering if any shred of information I’m teaching is being retained. Then a year later, I’ll run into a student and they’ll repeat back to me verbatim something I said to them during that class. So I guess they are paying attention?
As a professor, there are so few moments when you know absolutely for sure, without a doubt that you’ve made a positive impact on a student. So that’s why when I received this lovely email below from a former student, it was a rare moment for me to hear a student be so honest, direct, and reflective of her experience in my class. These are the gems I get from my students once in a while, that tell me that yes, my students are indeed listening.
“I just want you to know how much of an impression you made on me in your drawing class. I’ve been taking art in school since sixth grade. I’m fortunate that I go to a school where art is taken seriously, and the curriculum is really great. I’ve done other summer programs with plenty of one-on-one time with art teachers who took the time to sit down with me and teach me techniques I was curious about. Despite all of that though, I think that you’ve had more influence on my art and my attitude towards art than any other teacher.
For the first few weeks, I’ll admit your critiques terrified me a little. I wasn’t used to hearing anything truly and purely constructive about my work. Critiques before then were always fluffed up with compliments and apologies. But your critiques were straight to the point, and I appreciate that more than I can say. Not only did it make me a better artist at the time, but it also made me able to grow more as an artist in the long run.
I remember during the critique for our chiaroscuro self-portrait drawings, you said that I managed to take my drawing to a level beyond that of “just a homework assignment.” I’m not sure why that’s the thing that stuck in my mind, but I felt so ridiculously proud when you said that. I think it was just the past several weeks of instruction finally coming together to allow me to make a work of art that I was really proud of. I poured everything into that drawing, and I had so much fun with it (even as I was crouched under my bed with an aching back for 10 hours), and for you to recognize that meant so much to me.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the impostor syndrome, but it’s a term for people who feel that they don’t deserve their accomplishments -that whatever they’ve achieved is due to luck, timing, or deceit, rather than their own hard work. I feel that way so often. When people compliment my art, some part of me thinks that I don’t deserve the praise I get. I just don’t feel like a “real” artist, and the fact that some people view me as such irks me for some reason. Looking back at the work I created in your class, though, I can almost shake that feeling, especially with the one self-portrait I talked about above.
To this day, that self-portrait is still one of my favorite pieces that I’ve created. I attribute that to the fact that in your class I felt like I was actually learning, and making visible and tangible progress, whereas so many of my other art projects in school until that point felt like they weren’t truly mine. Up until that point, art in school felt like no more than following an instruction manual-that’s how specific our assignments were. It was hard to take ownership of my art when I was just copying down step after step that my art teachers gave me. On the chance that I was given freedom to create something original, I didn’t even know what to do with it. In your class though, I learned to take ownership of my art.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about myself as an artist, and I realized how much of my confidence and ability came from your instruction. I don’t think I ever thanked you personally for the impact you made on me, maybe because I didn’t even know it then. Thank you so much.”
ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.
PORTFOLIO VIDEO CRITIQUES
Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories! More info.
ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.
“How do I become an undergraduate art professor?”
“What should I be working on now if I would like to be an art professor?”
“What makes a student artist stand out from their peers?”
“How did you become an art professor?”
“How do I become a teaching assistant?”
“How can I make the transition to teaching art at the college level?”
“Can a math teacher become an art teacher?”
Video Critique Program
I offer 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for aspiring/professional artists working on a body of artwork, and for students working on an art portfolio for college admission. Watch sample video critiques and get more info here.