Teaching Isn’t for Everyone, But It Could Be for You

Maybe you’ve known some of the teachers I met in the 16 years I spent subbing in the public school system, the ones who were teaching just “until I get married and have kids, and then I’ll stay home.” Or maybe you’ve known some like the ones I had as students when I was teaching freshman English, ones who didn’t really know what they wanted to do and figured they’d get a degree in education and teach until they figured it out.

Or maybe you know some of the mixed media instructors who are teaching because they’ve heard it’s a pretty good way to make money, but they’d really rather be at home alone in their studio where they didn’t have to, you know, talk to anyone.

To all of these people, I say: “Please. Pleasepleaseplease. Find something else to do. Teaching is so, so much more than that.”

I married a teacher. I taught college English. Then, when I got involved with mixed media, I taught workshops and classes. I have taught everything from “Rabies Information and The Media” and “Dog Breed Identification” to “Milagro Pin Dolls” and “Journal Skirts,” and let me tell you: teaching is not for everyone.

It goes without saying that there are things you have to have before you even think about teaching. You know, like a thorough knowlege of your subject, for instance. Not like the young woman who sat next to me in an English class the semester she was to graduate and take a job teaching senior English at the high school in her hometown and turned to me and asked, “Who’s T.S. Eliot, anyway?” Or the workshop instructor who sent me a note and said they [purposely vague pronoun] were getting ready to pack to go teach a workshop and wanted to know what kind of fabric paint I used, and how did it work, exactly?

Beyond that, though, there’s more. Teaching isn’t something you do just because it seems easy or you want to make money. There are many things you can approach that way, but teaching isn’t one of them. Teaching is something you do because you have knowledge or information or a set of skills that you want to share with other people, and you have the personality and the ability to do that in a way that facilitates the transfer of that knowledge/information/set of skills.

Teaching is something you do because you love it.

There are all kinds of things to think about before you start trying to develop some classes. You’ll want to talk to seasoned teachers and take some classes where you can pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. Those are givens. Here are just a few more things to think about to get you started~~

~~What do you plan to teach? To teach effectively, you need a thorough and complete knowledge of your subject, the kind of knowledge you get only from having done something many, many times. It’s like swimming: while you could, theoretically, learn the basics of How To Swim from reading a book and then teach those steps to someone else, if you’ve never been in the water and can’t actually swim, it’s probably not a class you ought to pitch.

~~What’s your personality like? Are you painfully shy? Are you easily irritated by other people’s questions? Do you think everyone should learn the way you do and that because something is easy for you, it will be easy for everyone else? Surely you’re like me in remembering one or two really, really bad teachers from when you were in school, people so bitter and hateful or lazy and clueless that they should have had a job somewhere in a room by themselves, counting beans or something. And surely you can also remember the people who were born to teach, those who obviously loved the subject and their students and the whole process of sharing what they knew, and they made you love it. Well, as much as a 15-year-old can love geometry.

~~Are you well-organized and punctual, methodical and thorough? The standard line is that, in any mixed media workshop, you can always spot the students who are teachers in their real lives because they’re the ones with lists and questions and notebooks. They’re like that for a reason; years of experience teaching have taught them the importance of using that left brain even in the midst of a creative whirl. Organizers have enough to do without constantly having to remind teachers of deadlines and nag them about every little thing. Students who have paid to take a workshop won’t have a lot of patience with an instructor who’s forgotten the class handout and forgets to explain Step #5 and doesn’t really know how to change the drill bit in the Dremel.

~~How do you feel about sharing? If you’re making art that you sell and you want to teach a workshop about that art but without giving away all your secrets, don’t even go there. We’ve all had the experience of having someone share a technique or teach a project, whether in class or in print, and then saying that some of the steps or processes are “trade secrets.” That’s like giving someone a recipe for a cake and leaving out a couple of ingredients so that they either have to figure it out on their own or cook something that will never taste as good as yours does. Doing that and charging money for it is wrong. If you don’t want to share the information, don’t teach the class.

~~Why do you want to teach? If it’s just to make money, you’ll be cheating everyone, from the people who hire you to teach to the people who sign up for your workshops. How do you know if you’re meant to teach? The easy test: are you always explaining to someone how to do something you know how to do? Do you offer tutorials? Have you ever spent 15 minutes in the produce section of the grocery store telling someone how to dye their clothes (guess why I use this example)? Have people always come to you for explanations of how to do something when they couldn’t understand someone else’s instructions? Do you get a thrill when you tell someone how to do something and then they come up and show you what they made, and they’re all excited and you get excited, too?

Do you have ideas for workshops that would be so totally cool that you can’t believe they’re not out there already? If you just keep getting ideas–if you’re bombarded with more ideas for projects than you could ever hope to follow–teaching may be for you.

Here’s the key: do you really like people? Do you like helping them understand a process or master a skill? Are you patient? Do you realize people learn in all sorts of different ways?

We need good teachers with innovative ideas and exciting projects. We need people who want to share what they know and help other people learn the skills they need in order to make the things they imagine. Maybe you’re one of those people. Organizers are always looking for fresh ideas and inspiring new teachers~~good luck!


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4 Responses to Teaching Isn’t for Everyone, But It Could Be for You

  1. 1wingheART says:

    I was a school teacher before and have thought about teaching mixed media before. Your article gives great tips and thoughts to consider.
    Thanks so much,

  2. maricella says:

    I always enjoy your posts, but this one really struck home. Techniques for teaching can be taught, but the really good teachers have an innate gift. In return, they receive a special joy in seeing the spark in the eyes that appears when the student understands.

    I loved your easy test for knowing if you are meant to teach. My first clue was gathering up my younger sister and her little friends to play school because I knew how to read and they didn’t. I just had to pass it on. After 40 years as an educator, it is hard habit to break.

  3. caz says:

    Teaching is an extremely difficult job especially in today’s public schools with more and more responsibilities constantly being added. I teach art, but I am also required to teach writing and to bring in math whenever possible. The list goes on. I have to write reflections because I am being mentored as a new teacher. I have to keep an accounting of special accomodations for students in special education — even though in my opinion all students can do art to some extent…. let what happens happen!! Endless complicated grading rubrics, bell-ringers… It’s not enough to have an art project and let kids do it. Prep time is consumed by training. The expectations are endless. Also these days, budget problems are an issue. I had zero budget and bought supplies out of my meager salary. Yes, there are so many qualities you have to have to be a good teacher. You almost have to be superhuman. It truly is for the most brainy, energetic and capable people. I love the kids and am very patient but have never been good at organization. I’m older for a second-year teacher too — in my forties. I don’t want to work until midnight every night and get up at 5 in the morning to grade. I am in fact too shy as well to face a classroom everyday. We need more honest discussions about what it really takes to be a good teacher because it is so much more than getting through an educational program with decent grades. Then again, there probably are not enough people with great qualifications to fill the jobs. Life is always a compromise between ideals and realities… I have a job and do it to the best of my ability. I’m not sure that the kids I teach (on a Reservation) would even have an art teacher if I were not there this year.

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Kudos to you, Caz. You’re doing something really important, and I wish you the best of luck (and a lot of much-needed support from your school system, as well). Thank you for sharing your experience with us–