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How Can I Make the Transition to Teaching Studio Art at the College Level?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I have taught art in public schools at the high school level for 27 years (I am 52) and at this point I am eligible for early retirement and would like to teach drawing and/or painting in college. I really love to teach, and would like a change from high school. I feel the longer classes in college would allow me to teach in more depth and at a slower pace than high school.

I did, however get an interview for a position at a prestigious private high school, as well as a job offer which would have led to overseeing their entire art program in a few years. However, I turned it down since I currently work in a great public school with other full-time art teachers, and it would have involved a complicated relocation. I would, however, be willing to relocate for a college job. How can I make the transition to teaching art at the college level?”

One would think that with your 27 years of teaching experience that it would be easy for you to get a teaching position anywhere. I hate to say this, but the truth is that a substantial background teaching art at the high school level is actually a hindrance when applying for college-level teaching positions. The academic art world can be very snotty, and unfortunately teaching at the high school level is frequently seen as low on the food chain. As unfair as it may seem, most college art programs are more likely to hire someone who is just out of graduate school, and who has just a few years of teaching adjunct (part-time) at the college level.

Art Critique: Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

You will have to start completely from scratch and accept that you will have to be an adjunct for a while, (usually years) before you are even in the running for a full-time position. It’s nearly impossible to be hired full-time without any adjunct teaching experience. On top of that, many schools are cutting their budgets, so full-time positions are becoming extremely scarce. In a single year, it is not unusual for there to only be 15 national positions in your specialized field. Full-time teaching positions generally attract 200-400 applicants for one job. Today, saying you want to be a full-time art professor is basically like saying you want to be an A-list movie star.

Adjunct teaching positions are very unpredictable. There is never any guarantee that your contract will be renewed from semester to semester, since the majority of adjunct positions are temporary positions to replace full-time faculty who are on sabbatical. There have been countless times where I have been offered a class literally two weeks before the first day of class. On the flip side, I’ve also had courses cancelled the week before classes began. It is also becoming common for colleges to limit how long you are allowed to be an adjunct at their school. I’ve been in situations where my contract as an adjunct was only renewable up to 3-4 years, regardless of my performance.

Most adjuncts live in a constant state of anxiety, struggle financially, and have little time for their own artwork. For years, I taught as an adjunct at 2-3 schools each semester. I was shuttling back and forth between schools and lived in a state of distraction. Based on how unreliable the life of an adjunct is, I wouldn’t recommend relocating in order to take an adjunct position. Another issue is that while being an adjunct can provide valuable experience, it can also work against you if you are adjunct for “too long.” I know many people who have been adjunct for over 25 years and who have told me that their ship has sailed. At that point, you are branded as an adjunct, and become much less attractive to schools who are hiring for full-time positions.

Ask the Art Prof: RISD Adjunct Professor Clara Lieu

If you do decide to go down this path, it’s important to know that while some colleges do advertise adjunct teaching positions, many do not. When I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I cast a wide net by writing letters of inquiry every year to a number of department heads at the local colleges. I was surprised that several department heads responded and kept my information on file for the future. In numerous cases, I was offered an adjunct position a few years later, and that’s initially how I launched my teaching career. Additionally, network and milk your personal connections. I got my first teaching position because I met a department head at a printmaking conference when I was still a graduate student. He asked me to send him my materials, and within one year I had my first adjunct teaching position.

Compared to full-time positions which require search committees and multiple interviews over several months, the interview process for adjuncts is relatively easy. Generally speaking, all it involves is an interview with the department head, and a review of your supporting materials. These materials usually include a resume, an artist statement, a teaching philosophy statement, 20 images of your professional artwork, and 20 images of your students’ artwork.

This transition is possible, but you will need to be prepared for the long haul it will likely be. Even with your 27 years of teaching high school, you’ll have to see this process as beginning a new career.

3 responses on "How Can I Make the Transition to Teaching Studio Art at the College Level?"

  1. I agree with Professor Lieu that getting into college teaching especially in the arts has become increasingly difficult. In fact, the market is so oversaturated with MFA holding artists looking for a teaching job, that almost every professor I’ve talked to has tried to dissuade me from getting into college teaching. However, there are definitely ways that you can get into the field, especially if you’re not looking for a money making kind of position and want to try it out because it is a dream of yours. One woman I know about your age taught at a high school, but was able to get her MFA and has since gone on to teach art at her community college. I don’t know how many employers hire teachers without a terminal degree, but personal connections with local educators on the college level count for a lot, and could save you a lot of trouble.

  2. Occasionally I’ll have dinner with an old high school teacher of mine, and the time-constraint is something he is always complaining about… Class periods seem to just get shorter and shorter these days! I can’t imagine trying to teach anything in under 40 minutes – certainly that’s miles away from the 5 hour studios we grew accustomed to at art school. Anyone who manages to teach under those constraints (and for 27 years!) deserves to be seriously commended.

    • I agree! I was a guest teacher at a middle school art class once and I could not get over how short the class periods were! I’m sure after 27 years you must have a method down for structuring your classes, but I always felt like I needed at least two more hours to get what I wanted done!

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