Art is not magic, and a teacher doesn’t hold the keys to a universe full of spells that make students good. That universe full of tools is available right now to any student that wants it. As a teacher, my job is to direct students towards these tools, and coach them through their own individual processes until they achieve their definition of success.
Learning to make art is a process full of trial and error. While grades may be assigned throughout that process to create markers for assessment, the real work is done through consistent application and re-application of tools (in a writer’s case word choice, research, and revision, for example). The best artists (and students) are open to changing their approaches. What works in a composition one month into a student’s writing process might not work six months later. I am a different artist than I was a decade ago, and my students will feel the same—while the process of growing into an individual style is different for everyone, I believe the constant is that the process exists.
In my writing classes, I explain this immediately. I assign work that allows students to incorporate one or two tools at a time until they have control over more methods than they realize, with each assignment building on the next, so that by the end of the class they can choose what they feel is the most effective approach to completing a task. I do not encourage students to work for grades. My hope is that they are each better writers at the end than they were when they began. This is the goal I promote. For some students, this process will be slow; for others, I will be challenged to provide additional articles to read or prompts to write outside of the planned curriculum. I grow along with my students at every stage.
“—while the process of growing into an individual style is different for everyone, I believe the constant is that the process exists.
Each student is different, and it is crucial to ascertain their needs right away. I make sure to have direct contact with every student at least once a semester. For my online classes, this means attempting a phone meeting with at least fifty students a month. If my students miss an assignment, I will call them to discuss strategies to prevent missing further work. If my students are doing exceptionally well, I will call them to encourage them to take steps toward publication. I also call the students hovering in the middle—sometimes it is the simple act of noticing them that motivates them to take the next step forward. I give each individual student the attention they need and deserve, regardless of where they are in their process.
The most important part of my role as an educator is ensuring that my students have a safe environment to create in. I share my past failures along with my successes to reinforce that art is not created by magic. This means sharing first drafts of writing that has been published, initial sketches, or even early versions of the same lessons I use to teach. If they produce something that earns a low grade, I take great care to focus on the positive aspects of that work in order to build them up to a more successful attempt. This encouragement might take place in a personalized instructional video that the student can then revisit as needed. Perfection does not exist, and since there will always be room for improvement in any work, there will always be an opportunity for me to provide feedback to students.
I am also a different educator than I was when I began. At first, I didn’t change my delivery to meet the needs of my audience, and relied on very traditional (in most cases boring) teaching materials. Now, constantly challenged by the creativity of my students, I provide teaching materials that utilize color and sound to better hold their attention. As stated previously, I also rely heavily on a consistent message of encouragement, reflected in my weekly newsletters to students and other materials. Now, I am forging lasting connections with students who contact me after class has long been over to continue sharing their process with me. Some of my students have gone on to publish, while others have pursued other fields. The continuous thread, though, is that they are all successful in their own way, and I couldn’t be more proud.