Core to my role as an art educator is an unwavering respect for students: who they are, where they are from, and who they will be. Through teaching art, I hope to communicate that art is a deeply empathetic human practice. To teach visual art, through its history and contemporary expressions, is to teach about humanity – its triumphs, its failings, its joys, and even its angst. Therefore, students can grow to appreciate art for being a humane practice, and in turn reflect its core trends of honesty and empathy. Art can therefore garner respect for both oneself and others.
I know that art can do this because, as an art teacher, I have witnessed a visual progression of students’ learning and processing about the world. As a student teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic, my experience has affirmed for me the essential role of art in young lives. For many children, whether learning remotely or in-person with major restrictions, art currently serves as a conduit between themselves and the world. I have been continually moved, as a teacher, to see the range of creative responses to each assignment or prompt. These responses are windows into the students’ personal interests, thoughts, senses of self, and emotions. Art allows students an opportunity to express themselves while they are, for the most part, unable to be with their peers in a normal way. This is a particularly extraordinary time to teach art, as I am a facilitator of children’s knowledge and visual representations just as society is facing unprecedented, difficult changes. As a new art teacher, I was worried about what this year would look like – whether I would be able to connect with my students, and whether we would be able to still have the rich experience that art can be.
In teaching 8th and 6th grade remotely, many students took cover under the vague anonymity of their Google Meet icons. Art is a visual practice, so this was without a doubt worrisome. Over time, however, I was able to understand a little bit about each student through their artwork, their artist statements, and their comments on the virtual Do Nows. Slowly, the students revealed to me how they think and who they are. I learned who the daydreamers, the comedians, the future activists, the sports enthusiasts, and who the readers and the video gamers were. I learned that many of my students were keenly watching what is going on in the world, and that they felt a drive to express their strong moral convictions and ethical wonderings. The students revealed how they see themselves, their communities, and society, both indirectly and directly, through the artwork they felt compelled to make. This reminds me of what the most vital aspect of art education is: to preserve the chance for students to make artwork that is meaningful to them. Each piece of artwork, if made meaningful to students, is a snapshot of the students’ growth and learning. One can facilitate meaning by teaching in a manner that respects the social and emotional lives of students, or as bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress: “Engaged Pedagogy” (1994): “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. (p. 14)”
When teaching grades JK-5, this social and emotional benefit of art became even more salient to me. To have a space in which imagination is not only encouraged but cherished, to have a calm, peaceful, and supportive space - art class – is exponentially important. Whether students become artists in life or not, to have a place to focus on different ways of expressing ideas, emotions, and concepts, remains paramount. Through learning how to show these expressions, students become more in tune with both themselves and with others, garnering empathy and understanding. Lastly, another way that art class can cultivate empathy and understanding is also to affirm identities and experiences through representation. Through art, art teachers can ensure that a wide range of experiences are not only shown but also held in high esteem.
At all ages, the fostering of empathy and understanding leads to a vibrant and creative art classroom. In art education, it is vital to preserve students’ ability to make creative choices. Meaningful artwork cannot be coerced; it must come from students’ inner selves and art educators must allow students to create the work that is exciting to them – that sparks interest, even if it is within a given prompt. To allow this, an art educator must focus on continually honoring each child’s art. Growth occurs when students feel inspired, seen, and respected as artists.
When in art class, students can see artists’ creative responses to the changes, conflicts, and challenges that they have faced. In turn, students can not only put themselves in that artist’s shoes but also see that artist’s perspective within the context of students’ own lives—and especially the challenges of this time in history. However, while an art educator can and should lead students to understanding the challenges our world faces through art, the art educator must also focus on the mere joy of creating—whether splashing paint abstractly on a canvas, moving one’s hands through clay, or creating an assemblage of miscellaneous scrap materials. Supporting students ingenuity and curiosity throughout childhood is paramount to them feeling free to explore innovative ideas or creative endeavors throughout their lives.
Art education affects the lives of students beyond the classroom and beyond K–12 education. In my teaching, it is my aim to instill in students that their work is important, and I hope to teach them a keen appreciation for both their own selves and the experiences of others. I also aim to create a peaceful atmosphere in the art classroom, in which students can feel at ease. I believe that art education is synonymous with the opportunity to foster imagination, empathy, social awareness, and joy. ︎