21 Classes. 364 Students. 5 Days.

A panoramic photo of my beautiful art classroom in Nablus, Palestine, November 2015.
A panoramic photo of my beautiful art classroom in Nablus, Palestine, November 2015.

These days, although the teaching is getting easier, and in spite of my yoga and meditation practices outside of school, it still feels like I am running amok. I teach every class in the school in grades 3-11, for one 45-minute period each week (except for 10th grade;  I have them twice per week, and it feels like a luxury). On top of it all, I have to pick up and drop off each class when the bell rings, and there is no official “passing period,” which means that when one class is ending at 10:30, the next class is beginning at 10:30.

I am ostensibly doing the job of at least two people, maybe three. In class, by the time I have picked students up from downstairs, reminded them of behavior expectations (because they don’t always remember after a week), shown them what to do, and they are settled with their materials and work, they have about 15 minutes, sometimes only 10, until it is time to clean up.

I remind my classes each day that even though they might do it differently with other teachers, I expect them to remain in their seats and raise their hands quietly when they have a question. Typically, when I am talking to a student in a rare moment of helping one-on-one, other students will push in front and interrupt me, or grab my shirt incessantly and say “Ms! Ms!” over and over. Who am I to say that this is right or wrong? Just because I am used to different behavior in my culture, is it fair to impose it on my students here? Most of the time, I am too distracted during class — helping kids and replenishing materials and re-explaining directions — to remind them to sit down and raise their hands anyways.

I desperately want to be a more efficient art teacher. With this schedule, one can afford to be nothing but proficient, almost clipped. I hate that I haven’t been able to get to know each and every one of my students. It pains me that I don’t know all of their names, and that I feel rushed when teaching.

I do have something that is not always common at home in the U.S.: my classes are never larger than 21 students, and most of them are really great kids. I also have my own classroom with a beautiful view and lots of light. On the other hand, in spite of their small size, some of my classes feel larger than I can handle. They are rowdy and they think art is a joke. I give them incentives to speak English which they flagrantly ignore. I see them as a reflection of my teaching and planning, and am constantly trying to improve the lessons to keep them engaged.

As a first-year art teacher (not including the year I taught high school photography and web design part-time), I knew there would be inherent challenges. Toss in the fact that I am at a private school, and shift the whole mix to Palestine, with 100% English Language Learners who I only see once per week, and voila. I am sitting here at my desk, feeling exhausted, tense, frayed, and a little bit crazy.

Unfortunately, as the devaluation of the importance of art education has taken precedence throughout schools both at home and abroad, our responsibilities as art educators have become greater and greater. We are expected to teach an absurd number of students across grade levels, and some teachers don’t even have their own classrooms. On top of this, we now must be advocates for the arts, to counter the aforementioned paradigm that art is a joke. The arts are tremendously important in activating the oft-ignored right side of the brain, and they offer tools for problem-solving and self-expression. Additionally, when students learn how to talk about art–both their own and that of others–, they are acquiring vital communication skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

After I was specifically invited to NOT attend parent-teacher conferences because “parents don’t care about how their kids are doing in art,” I have decided to organize an arts appreciation event.  It will be an opportunity to celebrate the arts with families and community as student work displayed, and students will perform poetry and music. I am also motivated to include a unit on careers in the arts. I created two posters about this for my classroom, and will soon teach a few lessons about it so the students understand that it is possible.

There are good moments. Like when a ninth grader came bursting into the art classroom during her break and proclaimed that her self-portrait was the first time she’s been excited about art in a long time. Or when a fifth grader decided to start a project again because he  had a clear vision, and came in every day for a week during his break to work on it, and who I later found out can be quite troublesome in other classes. Or when I hang student work on the school walls and see it altogether, and both students and teachers appreciate it. Or when I teach a lesson that is on point, efficient, and the kids are excited about the project.

If only there were two of me. Then the good moments could expand. In the meantime, it’s all about constant reflection, revision, and newfound methods of efficiency.

Although I have so many classes, it really is a privilege to teach and know nearly every student in the school (except for first and second grade). I do not wish to take this for granted, nor complain. But on some days, I just need to write it all out, and take a moment for compassion and reflection. I am thriving on the challenge, and I hope I can re-read this someday and rest assured that I have it all figured out.

Fat chance.

11 thoughts on “21 Classes. 364 Students. 5 Days.

  1. Really interesting to read, though I’m sorry you’re being stretched so thin.

    This really made me think about the devaluation of art education, and of the arts generally. A prominent writer criticised the NZ government recently and the prime minister responded by saying she should stick to writing — in other words, not to poke her head outside her little niche in society. Everything is so capitalized and commodified now that pursuits with limited monetary potential are easily disregarded by politicians, and hence by large sections of society, even if they can bring a useful and knowledgeable perspective to bear on the things that affect everyone.

    That’s why the work you’re doing is important, and I’m glad to hear you’re doing it as conscientiously and thoughtfully as you can. Hopefully more students come along with you in time, as well as some of their parents.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah Katie! What a herculean task you have signed up for! I’m so impressed with all the things you are juggling in addition to it just being your first year of teaching. I keep thinking about that wonderful quote you shared a few posts ago about falling but there is no ground. The first year of teaching is a long “fall” but in that time your experiences create many many places to hold on. Next year will be infinitely easier.
    For the art appreciation… have you considered doing a mural? It might be a good way to make the art more visible outside your classroom. And if you can engage kids like your student who is troublesome in other classes but great in yours, it might give them a chance to shine in front of other teachers and might create other benefits? It is a big job though….
    Sending love, strength and courage… you are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Tara! Yes a mural sounds like a brilliant idea. I think it would be cool to pair older students with younger ones and have them share knowledge and ideas for this project…stay tuned!! Thank you for your support!

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  3. College students today are eager to take classes that teach them how to open their right brain. Because they are aware that right brain people will rule the world! RB people are more expansive in thoughts, ideas …. Creativity … Empathy. … Brain reflection and flexibility! Tell your students that !!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Katie, I am so proud of you. You refuse to let the naysayers get you down. Instead, you come up with new, inventive ways to change attitudes toward art, inch by inch and person by person. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to see those posters you made for your art appreciation event, and a follow-up on how it went.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Katie I love your proactive, constructive response to a discouraging situation! Its so easy to get wallow in difficulties (they are difficult after all!). I am doing so right now in fact, not ready for a Monday, and full week of students and art ahead. I will remember you, crusader for art, and do what I can with my resources. Also I owe you an email, chica, and am sorry for the delay- can I plead overwhelmed by art and community responsibilities? Will be in touch soon, and thinking of you. Besos!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I feel certain that you are making a bigger impact than you can realize! It really is a shame that the system is stacked against you in every way possible, but at least you are introducing art to students who would otherwise never have the opportunity. You are giving them a gift, whether they realize it or not…

    Liked by 1 person

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