By Ciéra Cree
Ashley Potter is a 29-year-old art teacher living in Rhode Island, USA. She teaches students from Kindergarten through to the fifth grade, which would equate to teaching children between the ages of five and eleven in the UK.
She and I have been friends for many years; initially conversing as pen pals, and then as friends through social media as it meant we could talk on a more frequent basis. Recently, I decided to hold a conversation with her about her teaching career so far, including some of the highs, the lows, and the funniest moments along the way.
Today, I will be sharing some of that conversation with you.
Was becoming an art teacher always something you planned or wanted to do?
“Eight-year-old Ashley wanted desperately to be an art teacher, and somewhere along the line, I decided to get my bachelor’s degree in just Studio Art, rather than Art Education.”
“When I realized I actually wanted to be an art teacher in 2013, after graduating with my Bachelor’s, I started to see that decision as a mistake, because I felt like I wasted time working at a big box retail store, doing work I hated. I was living in this apartment far away from home, working 40-hour weeks in a management position, doing inventory and stocking shelves.”
“In my mind at the time, I was wasting time, but after I went back to school to pursue my Master’s in Teaching in Art Education, I realized that a lot of the skills I learned as a manager translated into skills I needed in the classroom that needed developing.”
“I think it’s interesting how we end up on these journeys that we don’t think are helping us, that end up connecting in the end. I had major problems with classroom management at first, because teaching is a lot harder than it looks, and in my second year of pursuing my Master’s, I had so much doubt about what I was doing that I didn’t even know if I should continue. There was a moment right after that, where things started to click, and I realized this was a job I was built for, I just needed to press on.”
What are the best parts of your job?
“What’s cool about doing what you love is every day when I wake up, I am able to go to do something that I love. It doesn’t feel like work at all. I get to make jokes and be silly, and still help kids think critically about the world around them and help them build skills I know they’ll use as adults. It’s not just about building art skills, it’s about helping small people grow and learn social skills they need to be successful.”
“It is almost impossible for me to have a bad day at work, and if I do, it’s always counteracted by a student doing something that warms my heart. I remember one day I went into school and my anxiety was through the roof for whatever reason. I sat at my desk and took out my computer to check my plans for the day and a first grader cautiously knocked on my door because I think they could tell I wasn’t in a great mood from my body language. I tried to grin, and I asked the student if they needed anything, and they came up to me and told me they made me something over the weekend. They handed me a plastic bag with a paper snowflake in it. After expressing my enthusiasm, I thanked them, and they left the art room beaming. I remembered thinking ‘okay, universe, I got the message.’ And I was able to let my anxiety go by breathing through it.”
What are your least favourite parts about your job?
“I hate learning that a child is suffering or doesn’t have things they need. It genuinely bothers me, but I have no control over the situation as their art teacher. I have to just be there for them however I can.”
Any particularly funny memorable moments? Any disasters?
“There was a moment I mentioned to someone recently, about meeting a new student from another country who was an English Language Learner. I have never seen a child look more terrified and confused because this child literally knew no English.”
“I remember I took note of it, and I practised a bit to learn some Spanish so I could help. The next class, I was able to tell the student to get more water on their paintbrush in the language they knew best, and their face lit up. It was one of my favourite moments.”
“I had a bit of a disaster once while letting kids use drawing chalk. The art room looked horrific. I had warned students against blowing chalk dust at others, and I had to tell one student to get in line and end their art class early because they kept doing it anyway. What is funny about teaching situations like that is that sometimes certain lessons work with certain groups of students and not with others.”
What would you say to anyone out there wanting to work with kids?
“All children really need is patience. I think it’s best to remember that sometimes children’s problems seem small to an adult, but they may be the largest problem a child has had to deal with in their life so far.”
“I’ve had students get anxiety about things I thought were silly, or argued about crayons, but they need to be able to work through these small problems so they can deal with larger problems when they’re older.”
Any final comments, thoughts or messages?
“Teaching is a very rewarding job and I highly recommend it to anyone looking into it.”
You can find more examples of Ashley’s work on her Instagram feed.