The Benefits of Practicing What We Teach

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Maintaining school reform’s momentum in New Orleans will be tougher both politically and in the classroom. Photo: EditorB, Creative Commons

They say, “Those who can’t, teach.” I disagree. Many who can, do, and, as a result, are better at both.

Mary Rooney

When I met Mary, she was sidelining as an arts extension teacher with a local nonprofit. I was a principal at the time. I immediately recognized her potential as a classroom teacher and hired her on the spot. She struggled a bit in the beginning, but quickly found her footing and became one of my most effective teachers. She eventually got certified and earned a graduate degree. She is now teaching at Bricolage Academy in New Orleans.

Mary is a practicing artist as well. She has a studio at her home in the Holy Cross neighborhood, where she is working on a series of abstract paintings for an upcoming show. She is also working on a mural for the exterior of the Aquarium Gallery and Studios in Bywater.

I asked Mary how her teaching has helped her as an artist. She said, “I work with really young children and developmentally their art making process is free flowing and uninhibited. There’s a lot of joy-in-the-making and the creative buzz of an elementary art classroom that is contagious. Play is a component of my own creative process, and my students absolutely influence that spirit in my work.”

Mary added, “I sometimes show my students what I’m working on to get their feedback, which is always endearing. One thing I have noticed is that my students have gained confidence in both creating and talking about non-representational art. In the past, I have heard students describe abstract art as ‘scribble scratch’. I think showing students my own abstract art, in addition to the work of other contemporary and historical abstract artists, has opened their minds to the expressive possibilities and potential meanings embedded in abstract works of art.”

“Does your artwork inform your teaching?” I asked.

“In my experience,” she said, “the correlation between art making and teaching is like a symbiotic relationship because both practices continuously influence and inspire the other. Teaching not only pays the bills and allows me to maintain a sense of freedom in my studio practice, but it also satisfies my hunger to work in a fast paced environment surrounded by lots of people. My studio practice helps me achieve a ‘creative flow’ that ultimately invigorates my teaching practice. Maya Angelou said it best, ‘You can’t use up creativity, the more you use, the more you have.’”

Mary admitted that it’s not easy to maintain a balance between teaching and art. “There is research that says teachers make about 1,500 decisions a day and it can feel like a superhuman act to come home and make art after teaching all day. It is no secret that teaching is sometimes stressful and exhausting work. Author bell hooks has written about the necessity for teachers to take care of themselves in order to fully show up for their students. In her book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks stated, ‘Teachers must be actively involved and committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.’ Engaging in my studio practice has become a therapeutic outlet and a way for me to process some of the challenges of my job. After work in the evenings, I often do yoga and create little mixed-media meditation drawings that help me unwind and get centered. These creative habits are my way of taking care of myself so that I can show up each day for my students.”

Kelley Crawford

Kelley Crawford is the Managing Editor of Via NolaVie, an online publication in New Orleans. She writes a weekly column on the arts, edits and proofs the work of numerous contributors (including me), and works to fulfill the nonprofit’s mission and vision – all on a shoestring budget.

Kelley also just finished her first novel, Boycott, and she has at least three others on the drafting table.

For her “day job,” Kelley is a teacher at Bard Early College New Orleans and at Tulane University. According to Kelley, she spends her time at school “grading, editing, critiquing, listening, caring, entertaining, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing – basically almost every verb you can think of is part of my job. I feel like the collection of my responsibilities changes every day and every minute within the classroom. Sometimes I feel like teaching is a performance art piece that you have researched for decades of your life.”

When I asked Kelley if her editorial job helped her as a teacher, she said, “Absolutely. My work outside of teaching and my work as an educator come from the same place and nourish each other. They’re both about working toward a reality that isn’t currently in existence.”

When I reversed the question, Kelley was equally emphatic. “One of my favorite musicians has a song where she says, ‘I’m holding out for that teenage feeling,’ and that teenage feeling is how teaching helps me as a writer. There is a beautiful reckless invincibility that students have. All my kids are college-level students, so they are learning new ways to think and view and interpret — many of them independent from their parents or the environment that defined or tried to define them for eighteen years, so conversations revolve around the unanswered questions in life. Then you add in theories and ideologies of brilliant philosophers, scholars, poets, writers, artists, free-thinkers (literally writings that were tied to nothing but someone’s own volition), and all of that marinates and pickles in your mind until the recognizable world is no longer easy to understand. Instead, it becomes a place of thought interaction to the point that everything is a mobile puzzle. And then, you get to write about it…”

I asked Kelley, “Does your work with Via NolaVie give you more street cred with your students?”

“Ha,” said Kelley, “I’m slowly starting to get them see my ‘other job’ as ‘cool.’ One of my students said to me, ‘I didn’t know there was another way to live life until I met you.’ That may not give me street cred, but a connection with a student is way better than anything street cred could offer.”

Adam Newman

Adam Newman earned a degree in architecture from Tulane University, but he has spent most of his career working in graphic design. He runs a firm that specializes in branding and visual communication in print. He creates websites, logos, and signs, and he helps businesses realize their vision. (Full disclosure: he designed the jacket for my book, He Falls Well: A Memoir of Survival.)

Mr. Newman has also been teaching a class at Loyola University since 2007. While some of his students are marketing majors, and others take the class as an elective, they all appreciate the fact that their professor actually works in the field. He talks about more than theory; he talks about real issues experienced in the real world.

“While I don’t consider myself much of a ‘pragmatist,’” said Mr. Newman, “I do think my unique value to my classes has been a practical one more than an aesthetic one.”

Mr. Newman’s students enter the classroom chomping at the bit to “make stuff.” They are eager to use their technical skills and be creative. Adam has to rein them in with practical considerations – things like budgets and bandwidth, polling data and market research, time-lines and persnickety clients. “All of this before we ever even think about aesthetics.”

“However,” said Adam, “I’ve also been reminded of the beautiful happy accidents that students produce when not being so practical.”

When I asked Adam how his teaching helped him as a business owner, he said, “It causes me to be more rigorous in assessing my own work. I have to practice what I preach. I can’t be sloppy.”

When I asked him if there was a downside to teaching and working in the field, he said simply, “I’m not sure there is one.”

~

My father has been a practicing artist for more than sixty years. He has had countless shows, and he has garnered numerous accolades. By any measure, he has had a highly successful career.

I once asked him why he had never become a teacher. “I would have loved to,” he said, “but if I had, I would have wanted to be really good. To be a good teacher requires tremendous dedication – hard work, creativity, and passion. I wanted to apply that to my art. So, I looked for something else to make ends meet.”

Teaching is both demanding and rewarding. Because of this, most teachers choose not to pursue a second career. For those who dare, the challenges are great, but so are the rewards.

At one point in my career as an educator, I evaluated schools. I would collect and analyze “hard data” to determine whether or not a school was “making the grade.” Whenever I had a chance, I would take a few “soft measures” as well. One of my favorites was to ask teachers what they did in their spare time. I would ask English teachers for example, what they were currently reading or writing? I would ask art teachers if they had an upcoming show, or science teachers about a recent article in Nature. Whenever I got an enthusiastic response, something other than “I don’t have spare time,” or “I’m just a teacher,” it put a smile on my face. I believe in the value of practicing what we teach.

Author’s Note: In faculty lounges across the country, teachers often joke, “Those who can’t teach become administrators.” To combat this notion, many schools, especially private schools, require administrators to teach at least one class. It’s a good practice.

Folwell Dunbar

Folwell Dunbar is an educator and writer. He coaches teachers on instructional “best practices” like Project-Based Learning. When he isn’t coaching, he can usually be found working on his own projects, or, practicing what he teaches.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.

 

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