Oxygen Masks

To guide our students into their creative process, we, the teachers, must be connected to our own. It’s like flight attendants always say: you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on someone else’s. Yes, art is a foreign, uncharted territory for many teachers. But remember, we are only as creative as our limitations and habits. The more limitations we perceive, and the more ingrained our habitual ways of thinking and creating are, the bigger the creative blocks we will face.

During my time as an arts coordinator, many day-school teachers approached me in search of new ideas. Some of them were desperate to revitalize their classroom projects. A few of them were self-declared “non-artists” and barely integrated art into their curricula at all. When I asked why art was not a stronger component of their classes, most would cite their lack of experience as artists and say things like, “Art is just not my thing. I can’t come up with creative ideas. I’m more of a science person” or “I don’t even know where to begin–I have no background to guide me.”

I consider it a gift that I started my teaching career knowing so little about art. There is something about what the Buddhists call “empty mind” that allowed me to flourish as an art instructor. Knowing how little I knew opened me up to the world of all I could learn. I continually sought new ways of viewing and understanding materials. I would pick up a maple leaf and ask myself, “How else can this leaf be used?” Then I would hold it, feel it in my hand, and wait for something to jump out at me. “Flames! This maple leaf looks like a flame. We can make fiery, autumn leaf suns out of maple leaves.”

Novelty sparks creativity. We must refresh our teaching constantly, not only for our students, but also for ourselves. It is my deepest belief that the goal of any art project should be to awaken the creativity and imagination of the students, to provide them with a vehicle for expressing themselves. For this reason, modeling the creativity we are inviting our students to awaken is essential. I can recall many poignant moments when my students would look up at me, working on my project alongside them, and ask, “Ms.Wright, what are you making?”

To teaching, we bring not only our strengths but also our weaknesses. Ultimately, we want to learn how to view both non-judgmentally, as having an awareness of both helps us evolve into our most creative selves. Consequently, one of the primary tenets of the Accidental Art Project approach involves awakening the creativity within ourselves. Once we have done this, we have embodied what it truly means to be an artist. Only then can we “teach” art, and even that may be a stretch to say, because skilled teaching is less didactic in nature and more about guiding students into their own self-discovery and learning processes.

I once asked a very skilled movement teacher what his secret was to delivering such high-quality classes. He replied, “I always make sure I am one step ahead of my students.” In terms of teaching art, this can be translated to the importance of always bringing new ways of thinking, relating and creating to our students. Whenever you feel like your creativity has plateaued, it is time to go out and stimulate yourself in new ways.

GOOD posted a one-month Art Every Day Challenge, with some great tips on new ways to be creative. Some of my favorites included, “break something,” “illustrate a song that inspires you” and “doodle for 10 minutes straight.” What are some of the ways you keep yourself inspired?