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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

Can a Math Teacher Become an Art Teacher?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I presently enjoy the rare chance to teach drawing in my math class. We have discussed perspective and symmetry so my math students are working on drawing in perspective. After teaching high school math classes for almost ten years, I am more than ready to get out. I would like to teach art or digital imaging at the high school level.

However, I feel trapped in this high-demand, high-pressure, test-obsessed field with no room for advancement or creativity. Although I could obtain a certification to teach art in my state, I have never been to art school. I suppose my question is about how feasible this is. Could a math teacher teach art?”

Technically speaking, if you obtain the required certification and degrees to teach studio art, you can do it. However, being an effective art teacher is much more than degrees and certification. A huge part of being a successful art teacher is the ability to draw from your own experience as a visual artist. You can read, write, and analyze all you want about art theory, art technique, art education, etc., but until you have the hands-on experience of actually making your own artwork, your ability to teach studio art will remain superficial. The equivalent would be a soccer coach who reads about soccer techniques, but has never physically played a soccer game.

Teaching studio art at the high school level has its own unique set of challenges. Most high school art teachers teach general art courses that cover a wide range of techniques. For this reason, you need to have expertise in multiple techniques: drawing, painting, sculpture, and more. You have to know all of these processes inside out, which requires many years of working with those techniques through your own artwork. Teaching a course as specialized as digital imaging at the high school level would be rare, usually only private preparatory schools are able to offer a course like that.

Abbie Read, Visual Artist

There are many aspects of creating your own artwork that would tremendously inform your capacity to teach studio art. Troubleshooting is a significant part of creating your own artwork, and you will learn much more from your mistakes than from your moments of success.

For example, it took me years of mistakes to figure out a reliable technique for stretching canvases. Despite technical demonstrations by my teachers, I made many errors: my canvases were too loose; I didn’t accurately measure my rabbit skin glue sizing which resulted in cracked oil paintings, etc. It was only after making these blunders that I could see what was required to execute the technique properly. These experiences are critical to being an art teacher because you acquire practical strategies for difficult problems.

So much of my time as a teacher is devoted to showing students how to fix things when something doesn’t work out. Students will make mistakes, and you have to be able to provide your students with options no matter what goes wrong. The demonstrations I give emphasize ways of dodging potential problems. As much as I try to anticipate problems, new issues always arise that you could never foresee. One of my colleagues told me that a student once accidentally ran a pencil through a printmaking press! Since hearing this story, I am adamant about telling students that absolutely nothing is ever allowed on a printmaking press other than the press blankets. Being told what to avoid is just as important as being told what to do.

Oil Painting brushes

Making art is usually a very physical process, and seeing a professional in action can be tremendously influential. The individual demonstrations I give to my students can have a greater impact than any verbal description I can provide. In my drawing classes, I often ask students to simply watch my body movements while I draw. I tell them to not look at the drawing I’m making, but instead to see the direction my wrist moves in, the sweeping motions I make with my arm, and to observe the swift pacing of my movements. These physical actions could never be portrayed in a book, they simply have to be experienced in real life and can only be demonstrated by someone who has done it many times before.

Essentially, you have to be an artist before you can be a studio art teacher. Students look to their teachers to be role models, and they need to see that their teachers have active studio practices. This makes the idea of being a professional artist real for students. Initiate your career change by building your own history as a working artist. Collect your own tricks of the trade, and share those experiences with your students. Inhabiting both roles as artist and teacher will enrich your art students beyond measure.

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8 responses on "Becoming an Art Teacher"

  1. Consider that in addition to knowing a wide variety of media, you also have to grapple with sensitive issues like appropriateness of content and censorship, making sure all your materials are properly supplied, and knowing how to deal with hazards in the studio space.

    When I started teaching summer classes to K-12 students, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake because I had experience in many different mediums, taught my own workshops, and had been a teaching assistant for several different art classes in college.

    I have so many “oops” stories though, my cheeks burn just thinking about it! One time we were making body cast sculptures by wrapping the students’ arms and legs and feet and hands in packing tape. One kid got a little overzealous and wrapped his arm and hand up very tight and couldn’t free himself. His whole hand was blue and swollen! I was totally unprepared, I hadn’t made a safety plan or anything. Luckily I was able to carefully cut the tape off with an xacto knife, but I was about two seconds away from driving him to the emergency room!

    • Yeah, one thing I can say about being a teacher is that once you think you’ve seen it all, something else happens. This wasn’t in the art classroom, but we once had a 2nd grade who somehow had wedged herself into the playground equipment to the point that she couldn’t get out! It was awful, she had to sit there until the fire department eventually came and had to remove her!!

  2. One of the things I noticed eight and a half years ago when I was first interviewing to teach in the public school setting was that many of the principals didn’t care about my studio art degree as much as they did my art education degree. They wanted someone who was able to manage a classroom and perform the function of an educator, then maybe be an artist or be well versed in various disciplines second or third. I know many of my student teachers and the people I went through art education courses with in college only had twenty four credit hours in art and then spread out across many different disciplines. In my opinion four months isn’t enough time to really pick up the nuances of a medium!

    So perhaps in the short term the math teacher can switch over easily enough because their past educational experience will appeal to a principal, but there might be some struggle in the classroom when it comes to various media usage and problem solving that comes with having a more time working with media. The students, in my experience, tend to find it easier to follow the studio art teachers lead when they think that person is “better” than them or at least is working along side them and problem solving! They can definitely pick up on a teacher being “real.” Good luck!

    • Interesting Ross to hear that the principals who you interviewed with were more concerned with your education background as opposed to your studio background. At the college level, it’s the complete opposite: if you won a major grant or showed in the Whitney Biennial, most colleges could care less about how effective you are as an educator.

      What I have found in my experience is it’s hard to find people who are both great teachers and artists at the same time. I’ve had some amazing teachers in the past who I didn’t think had the strongest artwork, and I’ve also had teachers whose artwork I absolutely worshiped, who were not very good teachers. It’s a rarity to find someone who truly is outstanding in both areas!

      • I have had a few teachers I know who are doing adjunct work on the side say the same thing! I’d mentioned maybe looking to work at a local junior college and he asked me where I was showing (no where) and if i had a Masters (another no.) Many of my professors also talked about what they had been doing, and I know it was a 180 from what my public school teacher did and what many of my colleagues do now! During the interview for the job I finally got, the principal leafed through the printouts of my portfolio (maybe like five or six pieces,) barely looked at them, and then said he’d pass them on to the other art teachers in the building. Other interviews, at least twice, had principals say, “Oh, whats this?” and move on to other educational papers I’d brought in. I’ll be interested to see what happens when I go out for interviews with more teaching experience, my own evolved portfolio, and nine years of student work!

  3. Teachers can make or break a class for students. I love drawing and found it a very comforting subject until I had a teacher who was not very supportive, but couldn’t articulate what exactly he was not happy with in my work. That lack of specificity, and the general lack of clarity was confusing and made me deeply uncertain of my work. It was an important lesson for me as a student to know that I have to advocate for even more feedback. Teaching your students how to be advocates in the classroom is incredibly important to help foster self-improvement. Making yourself available to talk through issues is a great way to ensure students know you are willing to have a conversation, which can totally shift the mode in a classroom for the better.

  4. When I taught art at a summer camp a few years ago, there were so many questions that I didn’t know how to answer. “Alex, what does this do?” a camper would say, as he held up a random jar of some art supply i’ve never used before. (by the way, the label also fell off the jar.)
    Luckily, my background as a working and experimenting artist helped me find a good answer:
    “No idea. Let’s try it!”
    We all ended up applying the medium to different surfaces, adding different color, and having an awesome day of exploration!
    Turns out, the medium was just an industrial sized jar of glue, but we got a good class out of it! The campers learned how to create, how to explore, and how to try and fail with a project.

    • I think that’s so awesome that you were so honest with your students and told them right out that you didn’t know! I think it’s so important as a teacher to admit when you don’t have an answer, it demonstrates that learning is an ongoing process for everyone, regardless of how many years of experience they have. I know as a teacher if I don’t have an answer for a student right away, I will always offer to do some research and get back to them, that generally works well!

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