Monday, May 23, 2011

My Little Department is Growing Up

"I want more art. Why can't I have art twice?" "Why can't I have art all year?" "Why don't I have art at all this year?" "Why does art have to end?" "How can I make sure I have art next year?" I answer these questions with "I understand how you feel, maybe you should talk to your guidance counselor or the principal about it. Unfortunately, I have no control over the schedule."

Two summers ago, the very day that I had conceded I would never find a job teaching art and finally, reluctantly, broke the news to my restaurant manager that I would, in fact, need a full time spot on the waitressing schedule in the fall, I received a message from an unknown area code. I ran to the ladies room to take the call, and the unfamiliar voice on the end offered me a last minute interview in a part of the state I had never even heard of, let alone knew how to find. I went for it.

During the interview for the .6 art position, I was asked two very poignant questions: The principal wanted to know how, as potentially the only part time teacher in the school, I would make myself known throughout the building. She also wanted to know, hypothetically, if I were to receive an art teacher position with only a week and a half notice and zero materials, how I would manage. I don't remember what my responses were, but apparently they were the right ones, and both of those scenarios became my real life problems immediately. The following days were a blur of running around to gather paperwork, track down transcripts, get immunizations, and fax things that, well, needed to be faxed. I had less than two weeks to design a comprehensive art curriculum from scratch. There simply wasn't one. And she wasn't kidding about the lack of supplies. When the former teacher had decided she would be leaving, she had requested that all prior orders in place not be filled. In fact, the position (and thus, the department) had recently been eliminated and then incrementally reinstated just prior to my interview.

Since then, it's been a whirlwind of activity. I have taught 3 classes a day, all to different grade levels, with very different curriculums, which hopefully is sequential and transitions well throughout the years. There were many nights last year when I didn't leave school until 8 or 9 pm, with just enough time to get some rest before doing it again. A lot of nights I would lie awake and wonder "what am I going to do tomorrow?" The early morning traffic was horrendous. I was told early on in that first year that with the state of the economy and the looming number of layoffs ahead, it was not likely that I would get to teach art full time in the near future. It was entirely ruled out fairly early in the second half of the year. I was told that I was more than welcome to seek out other employment. I was deflated.

I found other ways to make art a part of this school's culture. What should have been my prep period happened to coincide with 6th grade study, so I made myself available for any 6th grader who wanted to come in for more art. I conserved supplies whenever I could so that I could stretch them farther to be available to more students. Before long, I had an unofficial full class of students. I kept going. I entered my school in a regional art show, recognizing the outstanding work of 15 of my students at another school 40 minutes away. I didn't let it bother me when no one from my school or administration attended. I let them hear about it through the grapevine. The following year I requested to substitute the remaining 40% of the day, so that I could be more involved in the full school day. I continued to field the the "why don't I have art?" requests the same way. I kept on going, making little more than what it cost me in gas and oil changes to get there. I took long walks with friends as I ferreted out how I would pay my rent if I kept going this way.

If participating in a regional art show didn't make me a presence in the school, I would just have to host it. I invited the Superintendent to speak to up to 500 attendees on the value of art in education. To my surprise, she accepted. I put so much of myself into that show that I was asked to be co-coordinator going forward. I filled the lobby with artwork for our annual Arts Night, and kept it up for over a month. No one was going to enter the building and not see the art we had created. I let everyone know how hard my students had worked at every opportunity, never asking for the credit. They really have worked hard; in fact they have amazed me time and time again with what they are capable of. I lived by the "beg, borrow, steal" method of aquiring supplies. If someone's grandmother's sister's friend's cousin's uncle just happened to have a penchant for saving old milk caps or coffee cans, I'd take them and find a way to put them to use. I have a list of people who save newspapers for me. I have acquired an unused dusty old skeleton and a few gallons of glue from the closets of other teachers. If you can give it to me, I'll find a way to repurpose it.

We are still in a time of extreme economic hardship. School budgets are still in deficits of millions of dollars, and teachers are still unsure from one year to the next what their employment situation will be. I am both pleased and amazed to be able to share that I will be teaching art full time next September. We did it. The reality of that hasn't entirely sunk in with me yet.

Meanwhile, my brain is on the brink of explosion thinking up all the ways that I will revamp my curriculum and make space for more students, both in my class and in my day. I will need to be more organized than ever, as I won't have the empty morning hours to fill during my sub time when no one is out to cover for. In fact, I'll probably be subbing more than ever until the end of this year while teachers make the mad dash to use up all of their untouched personal days. I will be using my 15 minute prep period each day to dig through old files and paperwork, cutting out the extra and making room for the new. I will need to find whole new methods of organization. I will be presented with new challenges regarding stretching my budget to make it work for me and will face the obstacle of motivating reluctant students now that art will be mandatory for all and taking the easy way out in a study is no longer an option. I anticipate that the year ahead will be as hectic as the first, and that in addition to tackling these issues, many more will arise that I could never imagine today. These and more are topics you can expect to be reading about in posts to come.

Research shows that teachers make more split second decisions per minute than brain surgeons. This 'always on' decision generation, combined with the demand for ultimate and constant patience, results in an extreme mental fatigue that our longer-day working, longer commuting, or physical labor partaking friends can't really understand. It will be an adventure, I'm sure, but for now I am going to take the time to revel in the accomplishment of a job well done, and my upcoming retreat to the serenity of summer.

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