Do Art Teachers Need to Be Artists?

When engaging in a conversation about careers, often the first question you will be asked after it is discovered that you are an art teacher is, “Do you exhibit your art?”

There is an expectation that since we teach art, we must be artists. We either paint or sculpt and therefore we must have a body of work we display or sell. However, is this expectation realistic? Does our chosen profession require that we make art… or only make artists?

Does our chosen profession require that we make art… or only make artists?

 
art teacher artists
 

The presumption of the art teacher/artist doesn’t appear to apply to other teaching paths. With the exception of the fictional television series Breaking Bad, there is no assumption that science teachers spend their weekends mixing chemicals in a lab. English teachers are never asked if they occupy their evenings writing the next great novel. Though the driver’s ed teacher hopefully has a functioning automobile and a legally active license, there is no speculation of seeing him in Charlotte, NC during NASCAR. Still, art teachers are expected to make art.

 

Where does this expectation comes from?

Perhaps the most common responses to why art teachers should be artists come in the form of other questions. For starters, how can one teach art if one isn’t an artist himself? It is true that an artist must have mastery over her preferred medium? Is it also true then that to help students acquire a higher level of proficiency, an art teacher must also possess these artists’ abilities? Another question that could be raised is, how can one share the joy of making art if they don’t create art themselves? While these are thought provoking questions, how much do they matter?

A common lesson in high school art consists of the teaching of linear perspective. Most high school teachers bring out the rulers once a semester and explain to a classroom full of art students the joy of the horizon line and vanishing points. While most teachers teach perspective, not all use it in their own personal art. Likewise, many lessons on technique and media are shared with students that are not incorporated into the art teacher’s artwork. If it is true that an art teacher doesn’t need to personally apply a technique in order to teach it, then it can be extrapolated that a teacher wouldn’t need to create art at all but could still be an excellent teacher.


 

Do making and teaching art require the same skills set?

To say one must be an artist in order to teach art implies that acquiring artistic skills equates to understanding teaching methodologies when, in fact, the two are mutually exclusive. The truth is, just because one is an artist doesn’t necessarily mean one is a very good teacher. Being a good teacher is an art form in and of itself.

 

Being a good teacher is an art form in and of itself.

 
Of course, knowing artistic techniques can go a long way in making sure you can pass skills along to your students. However, similar to a football coach who can direct a winning team but is no longer an active player, an art teacher can conduct an art room without currently producing art.
 

What if you just don’t have the time?

Sometimes it’s not a matter of if you want to be a working artist but if you have the time. Grading, writing lesson plans and keeping up with current pedagogy can take up much of an art teacher’s free time, to say nothing of life’s regular intrusions like paying bills, doing laundry and making sure the dog is fed.

 

So, what IS important for art teachers to know?

What then, regarding the making of art, should be the expectation for the art teacher? The art teacher should know the subject. The art teacher should have a fairly wide range of understanding when it comes to media and technique. When the art teacher does not possess a particular piece of knowledge, there should be a willingness to learn. These are the attributes that can be applied to ensure a student’s success. Being a working artist? Optional.

 
 

What are your thoughts about art teachers that aren’t artists? Are you one yourself? 

Do you think the expectation on art teachers to be artists is unreasonable?

 
 
 

Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.

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  • Katie Morris

    I think it’s more likely to apply to “specials” teachers. You don’t expect English teachers to be novelists, but you expect librarians to love to read, PE teachers to spend some free time playingsports and exercising, etc. Maybe the difference with art teachers is that people expect the selling or exhibiting and not just the making of art? I don’t think it’s necessarily a requirement to make your own art, but I think it’s a bonus.

  • Anne Hoffman

    Thank you for writing this article. I actually had been thinking about this recently. I used to love to create my own art and would do it all the time. Now that life is busy with teaching, raising 2 kids and taking care of 4 rescue dogs, I simply don’t have the desire or time to make art anymore. I, however, consider myself a very good art teacher.

  • mike

    I’m not a great artist, although as an elementary art teacher, my students think I’m Rembrandt. I’ve thought about this question often and it leads me to the question; “Do you have to be a good artist to be a good art student?”
    A conference I was at last Fall called this the “hierarchy of art”.
    I want to teach my kids confidence in trying to create art and an appreciation for art.

  • Megan Darling

    Thank you for this article.

  • Nicole Kosek Caulfield

    I worked as a professional artist before using my certification and becoming an art teacher. I think it really helps me as an art teacher. It helps me guide students with creating lessons that matter and that will be built upon, it keeps me enthusiastic, it makes me a visible role model, it keeps me empathetic to the students’ struggles with making art because making art is painful as well as fun.

    You can be an artist and be a good teacher and learn pedagogy. Artists are usually really reflective individuals which really helps with strategies in the classroom. Do you have to sell your art – no.

    I still do sell my art. I used to be in galleries and did fine art shows but now that I am working full-time I sell my art in one venue (the Portland Saturday Market) that I can sell prints at as well as originals. It makes it possible. Plus it keeps me with a foot in an art scene. Here is my artwork: http://www.art2.gallery

    I suggest hanging some things in a coffee shop or something if you have never done that. If we are asking our kids to do that and put themselves out there when they are not comfortable, then we should be willing to do that too.

    • Mr. Post

      Nicole, I just checked out your site. I love your sense of color, balance and composition – great work!

      • Nicole Kosek Caulfield

        Thank you so much! I have used a few of your tips in my classroom and greatly enjoyed explaining why we had dog bowls on the tables.

  • Mr. Post

    Expecting art teachers to be active showing artists is expecting them to hold down two simultaneous careers – that’s a pretty high bar to set.

    Having said that, some of my most influential teachers did exactly that. My friend Mel was a high school ceramics teacher – he applied for a year long sabbatical and moved his entire family to Japan while he apprenticed with the potter Mr. Uchida. He resumed his teaching career when he came back and sold pots from his studio at the same time. He saved enough money to buy a farm where he has built stoneware kilns, a wood-fired kiln, a salt kiln and several raku kilns. While doing all of this, Mel made enough money selling pots to travel to 83 different countries with his wife and two kids. Each June he invites art teacher friends and potters from around the country to attend a week long pottery camp – he calls it adult-shared-learning. Professional development on the highest level – all with love, laughter and learning. Mel is 80 and still going strong. You can download Mel’s teaching story here… http://www.paragonweb.com/manualinfo.cfm?cid=163

    People all over the world for centuries have made art a regular part of their lives. Cassie Stephens does this – she makes art and teaches and blends the two seamlessly.

    Is it necessary that art teachers be artists too? Nope. But if I had to choose between two teachers in any area of study, I would always choose to learn from the one who is actively engaged in the discipline. I know when I develop new skills as an artist I bring these skills right into the classroom.

  • Renee G

    I guess first we would have to decide what it means to be an artist. Can a person be an artist and not be a *professional* artist? If being an artist means that one makes art, whether or not one exhibits, sells, or markets one’s art, that opens up the definition somewhat. I am that kind of artist (although I occasionally exhibit at our town’s local art center gallery, and have sold a few things, it is not a profession for me) and I have been a classroom teacher and an art teacher to young elementary school children. I think being a maker of art makes me a better art teacher because it gives me a perspective that is wider than the perspective of art teachers who never make any kind of art (and I would suspect that such a person is a rare sort). By the same token, I think a writing teacher who actually writes for pleasure has a wider perspective than a writing teacher who never picks up a pen. Something to think about, for sure.

    • Greg Patrenos

      You are right about both, Art and writing. And most other subjects as well.

    • Katie Morris

      Exactly. I consider a lot of people I know “artists” even if they don’t sell or exhibit “professionally”.

  • kayshay

    The artist is passionate about what they do, and that is an important thing to communicate. It is much harder for people to marginalize the arts when you share that excitement and commitment. That being said, I can remember thinking it was odd that my teachers didn’t make art when I was in school. How could they NOT make art when it was so much fun?

    Now that I have taught for 35 years, I understand how painful it is to not be able to make art all of the time. I desperately want to have more time and energy to do that. But I have expended vast amounts of creative energy during the day, throwing out ideas to motivate people who are not finding their own direction. By the time I get home, my creative juices have often been exhausted. I know that making art is invigorating on it’s own but it is also very definitely intellectually tiring sometimes. I still try to make art as much as possible, but I have to agree that it is setting the bar pretty high to expect people to hold down 2 careers. People don’t seem to understand that making art is, indeed, working. It is fun and fulfilling, but still work. And after a full day of work, with a 5:00 alarm clock setting, sometimes I just don’t have the necessary energy.

    And, all of that being said, I still want to make art and think it is a good example to set for the students. I want them to know that you don’t only make art to fulfill an assignment. You make art because it is important to share a little of yourself out there. Because you love exploring ideas through personal expression. Being human is important. Making art is way of exploring your own humanity. I know that sounds pretty intellectual, but as I see everything getting more and more technology based, I think it is important to maintain sharing of individual thoughts through the arts.

    Is it important? Yes, but. . . . Reality is it is extremely difficult and you can bring the knowledge with you even if your life makes it difficult to continue to make art. You can help other people find what makes the arts so special– that is an art in itself.

    • Greg Patrenos

      YES

  • Liz Dillow

    I actually get a little frustrated when I go on job interviews and they ask to see my personal portfolio, especially because on a number of them they have asked to see that before they’ve asked to see student work. I try to politely explain to them that I don’t bring along a personal portfolio because I feel in some ways that it distracts from my first purpose: to educate students. If you want a really good art teacher, don’t judge them by their own accomplishments, judge them by their students’ accomplishments. While I know wonderful art educators who also have careers as artists, I know many more who put their own art before their students and, honestly, they give the rest of us a bad reputation. I personally started a career as an art educator to be an ART EDUCATOR, not an artist. I have no desire to live the life of an artist, to feel pushed to produce, to pursue galleries, to live off of commissions and sales. I wanted to be a teacher, to inspire an appreciation and passion in art, to show students that they can do something better than stick figures, to give confidence and life skills to all students, not just the naturally gifted. I actually spent my college career trying to learn as many diverse types of art as possible instead of “mastering” one specific medium. I am competent in dozens of mediums and can teach a variety of skill sets in each one of them.

    That’s not to say making your own artwork is bad or unimportant. I still love to make art (though usually it only happens during the summer). It teaches me so much and inspires creative ideas for my students. It helps keep me in practice on my skills and reminds me of the struggles my students face. It is also mostly private, something I actually don’t want to share with others. And it’s not what I have pursued as a career, nor what I want. And bottom line, it’s not what a school is paying me to do, so it shouldn’t matter as much as what I can teach and how well I teach it.

    • JAS

      I couldn’t have said it better myself :)

  • Jared Hulstine

    Thanks Ian, this is a great article and question that most of us have wrestled with: do I need to be making great art, or is my classroom studio and my creative students my work of art? I have always struggled with the balance of teaching young artists how to be creative, and finding time (and the energy) to be creative and make personal artworks. Right now I’m finding this debate to manifest in my decision to get a generic masters to renew my certification, or to pull myself together and apply for the MFA that has always been a goal of mine. Which is an echo of question I was always asked in undergrad: are you an art major or an education major? I chose to get a degree in both, but that dichotomy has persisted within me. I know there are programs for artist/teachers at the graduate level, but most of them are online/low residency and can be pricey. This summer however, I am not teaching summer classes for the 1st time in 4 years, so I’m taking my teaching hat off, and putting my artist hat on to restart my art making practice in my home studio. I hope it goes well and others that are struggling with this question find time to do the same.

    • can’t afford a good camera

      I would definitely say – go for the fine art course, not the art ed course. I think there is only so much you can ‘learn’ about teaching art. At the end of the day, the students will do better if they feel they’re being taught by a ‘real’ artist…and you will feel better too!

  • Jessica Blumer

    Wow, what a great article. I’ve thought a lot about this myself, and I feel guilty when I can’t devote time to my own art. Then, I feel guilty for feeling guilty. It’s a lot of pressure when we already have so many other expectations and obligations.

  • Tracey Comerford

    This is an article that I really needed. Thank you! I was an English teacher for over 10 years but never published a book. I am now a high school art teacher, and love art but do not consider myself an artist. I am a teacher, and my passion is to create that passion in my students and help them develop their own artistic skills. A teacher asked me last year what my preferred medium was. Without skipping a beat, I answered, “My students”.

  • Vicky Siegel

    Awesome article!!! I, too, struggle with making my own art, with being exhausted from teaching, children involved in sports at home, and volunteering at church, I mostly only find time in the summer. I think it was the “creativity in crisis” AOE class that helped with this debate. In the class we even had some creative assignments. I sometimes get motivated to make art from my student’s projects! My students water colored cardinals and a background with the salt texture in 2nd grade. I then created a newer version at home and donated it for a silent auction/benefit.

  • Samantha

    Although I do not believe an art teacher needs to be producing work while they are teaching, I do believe that they should be technically proficient. I’ve seen too many bad habits and poor technical skills passed to students through teachers who do not understand how to appropriately use a medium.

  • Greg Patrenos

    Yes. I taught K-8 for 30 years. Sometimes I taught University/College classes in the evenings. When I was hired my district had a real Art Coordinator that looked for people that combined both worlds. Is it hard to make Art whilst teaching? Damn hard. But so is making Art and having a family. Some years I only finished one sculpture some years I only got one started. All Artists are teachers whether in a classroom or not. To look at the world and see beauty,ugliness,possibilities, problems and questions and to convey those thoughts and ideas to others, that’s an Artist. When I demonstrated any media or method, I did so with a firm understanding of the process that my students could see and understand. My students knew i was serious about Art. When meeting their parents they would say i was not only their Art Teacher but also an Artist.
    The one-point perspective example is bogus. Perspective needn’t be obvious, Artists use it in subtle ways all the time.

    I have to agree with kayshay, How can one NOT make Art when it is so much fun.
    You don’t have to be a full time Artist with work in galleries but don’t stop your own work.

  • doug davis

    Do Art Teachers Need to Be Artists? YES! At a time in education when art educators are being relegated to Intervention Specialists, I believe we need to stand up for our content area and revel in our uniqueness. Not everyone can, nor should teach art!

    “A teaching artist is a practicing professional artist with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator, who engages people in learning experiences in, through and about the arts.”
    Eric Booth

  • pac

    I thought being an art teacher would automatically allow me to continuously make art. However I find the demands of the job make it very difficult to create my own work. I make many samples for the students, but other than summers it is near impossible to create my own work.

    • can’t afford a good camera

      You should actually feel proud that you create samples for the students. I find I don’t even get time for that!

  • I have been a middle school art educator for 14 years. During the past 2 years, I have also worked as an adjunct professor at a local college in the art education department teaching a junior level theory course. When I meet parents, students, gallery-types, working artists, collectors, (pretty much anyone) I introduce myself as an “artist / educator”.

    I spent the first 8 years of my career NOT making art. I made samples for projects, but I made not “art”. I felt like those samples were good enough and were all I needed to do to keep up with my skills.

    Around that 8 year mark, I hit a wall. I hated what I was doing – teaching art was not bringing me any joy or fulfillment in life, I had zero interest or connection to art or the art world. I thought about going back to school for anything else. In the midst of this mini crisis, I thought about why I had become an art teacher in the first place. I won’t bore you with the story (it’s a long one) but the gist was I wanted to be able to make a difference in the world though art. Lofty goal… I was no longer making much of a difference through art because I no longer cared about art, artmaking, or artistic behaviors. At this point, I realized I needed to walk away or fall in love with art again. There was no way I could continue this career without a passion for the subject I was teaching.

    So, I started making and experiencing art again. Slowly at first, maybe a piece every few months and a visit to an art-related event in between. When I first started to paint again, I was shocked at how BAD I was. I had lost my touch and the frustration I felt over this loss was maddening. Over time, my work got better and this sparked the flame I had as a college student for artistic life. It took a great deal of effort and it is not easy, but at this point, I paint almost every day. I exhibit fairly frequently and I am involved with the local art communities. I do not aim for larger markets or for fame – I’m lucky to have a great job that provides me with a paycheck every two weeks – but I do aspire to making art that touches the viewer and is more than just a project sample.

    MAKING art saved my career. Being a WORKING ARTIST has changed my approach to teaching because I am now practicing what I teach. I realize there are plenty of teachers who don’t make art – I think the majority of my coworkers in the large district are in that category – who aren’t dispassionate and ready to walk away from the career. However, for me, maintaining a connection to the skills and practices that brought me to teaching has been essential to my work as an educator.

    • Mr. Post

      Great story – it’s easy to make everything in life a priority ahead of ourselves. Artists have to be tiny bit selfish to make that time for themselves first. If I don’t work in my studio, after a while I get cranky and feel out of balance…

  • Cherylanne

    Teaching ANY of the Fine Arts requires the teacher to be proficient at it. A music teacher needs to know how to make music. A dance teacher needs to know the art of dance. Teaching a core course is not the same thing. They teach the basic knowledge a student needs to know to graduate and go on with life. The Fine Arts are ELECTIVES, and need to be taught by someone with a vested interest in their chosen field. Now, maybe as an art teacher, I don’t have the time to make, display and sell my own works. That doesn’t detract from the fact that I AM an artist and pass my passion for art-making to my students.

  • Karen Bloch

    Yes I think it is important for an art educator to be passionate about his or her specialty (drawing, painting, fiber, etc.) BUT— I do agree with Ian that the teaching itself IS an art form and occupies most of our time leaving almost no time for our own art making. Most of my professors in college were practicing artists and craftspeople, and yet were NOT good teachers….many were happy to have free studio space to make their art at a college space and “teach” a few hours a week!

  • david carlson

    Awesome article!!! Thank you! I am told over and over that I am an awsome art teacher by students, parents, staff, and principals and yet I beat myself up for not having great personal art to show. Somehow I feel less than I should be…
    Thank you for raising at least the possibility that I’m OK.

  • faigie

    I do not believe you have to be an artist to teach young children art. I was an early childhood teacher and director for years before I became an art teacher. My passion in the kdg classroom was teaching kids through art to develop confidence in themselves, develop problem solving skills, initiative and to have a wondeful outlet. I became an art teacher in a new school and so far only teach first and second grades. I do lots of research and know exactly the kind of work I want my kids to do.Art that helps them grow in all areas.

    I also taught a college level art course last semester to total beginners. Again I also did tons of research and loved it and they loved it too.

    To teach more advanced and higher level art you definitley are better off being an artist but, you can teach kids to love art and grow from art without having an art background as I am proving.

  • I have personally felt that every art teacher should be an artist. They may not have to be showing their work in shows, galleries, or craft fairs, but they should be doing something with their talent outside of class. We went to school for years learning how to do something with art be it painting, drawing, weaving…. I find it sad when someone with talent is to busy to utilize something that they have done well with in the past. The excuse for not having time is the same excuse of why you cant go to the gym. If you want to make time you can, if you want to make an excuse you can as well. We as teachers also have this thing called summer to help with time to create art. I do all of my art during the summer months and then put it in shows throughout the year, then repeat. A lot of my students want to be an artist when they grow up, its good to be able to show then that it is possible.

  • Lrk

    I am a high school art teacher, teaching drawing, studio, advanced studio, and photography. All teachers no matter what subject they teach should be technically proficient. Meaning, you must be capable of creating the artwork to be able to demonstrate to the students how to do it, just as math teachers must be able to show and demonstrate the work. However, I do think that being active in the field at least as some level makes you even better at your field (does not matter what subject area). I am an active artist, I am a wildlife and nature photographer as well as painter. Since this is the “career” of a artist – I am more familiar with the aspects of entering and exhibiting at galleries. have my students participate in real world competitions and galleries and they have won awards and have had their work in exhibits as well. Most of my students really enjoy this process and are thankful that I do this part. Portfolio presentations and gallery and or exhibits are part of what my students do. And, I don’t need to show other artists work because I show them mine. I think by being a active artist in the field and staying ahead of what is going on really helps me be even a better art teacher. Do have to do this to teach effectively, probably not – I have seen a lot of good art teachers out there who don’t . But, in reality it does help. And yes if you love art and the process you will find the time. Granted it ain’t easy.

    • can’t afford a good camera

      “I don’t need to show other artists work because I show them mine.” Um, other examples might be nice to see too!!

  • Tami Eveslage

    This is a wonderful discussion. I think without a doubt that an art teacher should be an artist! However, it seems to me the question actually being discussed here is “Should an art teacher also be a professional, working artist?” Those two words add a great deal of expectation. An art teacher should be skilled in the techniques and mediums taught and should be knowledgeable and passionate about his subject, but expecting the teacher to have another productive carreer along side the demands of teaching is unreasonable. That is not to say that some people will not do it and do it well, but many will find it difficult to find the time. I have been a part time art teacher in a small parochial school for the past 8 years and I have been working my own art business for more than 20 (at first part time but now pretty much whenever I am not doing something for my school. I found that the more time I spend in either of these endeavors the more time I want to and need to spend in them. The longer I teach, the more passionate I become about giving my students the best art experiences, the more time I spend researching and developing methods and plans, the more time I spend designing my classrrom space, and doing various other things that make me a better teacher. Unfortunately, none of this “extra” time is compensated for financially as a part-time art teacher. At the same time my passion for and time commitment to my teaching job was growing, my business has been too, and I have made a difficult choice to leave a teaching position I love to focus my engery and passion on my own art (which I love too!) I have struggled with making time for my work even as just a part time art teacher (the only thing part time is my actual instructional time–inservice, licensure requirements, parent communication, planning, classroom upkeep, etc. are required of me the same as of the full time teachers) If I have trouble making time for my own art with my part time teaching career, then I can imaging the pressure full time teachers would feel about such an expectation. But here is my question–is an artist who is not currently producing art still an artist? I think so.

  • JAS

    I’ve definitely struggled at making my own art… This year, I’m getting better at it through fun challenge groups on Facebook, though. I’m really in to colored pencil, but most of my artwork ends up being unfinished demo/sample pieces for my art classes I use to show a technique or concept. With a 19 month old girl running around the house grabbing at everything and anything I have in my hands or on the table, it is not easy, haha! Currently, we rent, too, so we don’t exactly have the space to have my own little studio area (I could use HER little Fisher Price art desk, hahaha). For years, I was a substitute teacher so I didn’t have the location or funds to buy many supplies, so it was difficult then to get stuff done. Then, as soon as I acquired a full time teaching position, I also acquired my little daughter 5 weeks later, so the money came in but the time left me ;) The elementary art teacher here said she didn’t really get serious making her own art until her daughter was around 8 or so. I’m not going to get discouraged, but eventually I will find the time to sit down and have 5 hours to draw!

  • barry barnett keith

    It might be unrealistic to expect that an art teacher make art, show in galleries and sell their work. it just so happens that i do. not only am i an artist, i also write novels and have been published since 2000. I have been writing and producing art not really knowing at all that i would become an art teacher. it is however, extremely difficult sometimes to keep up with the demands i put on myself as far as gallery caliber work (i am a landscape artist/portrait artist) is concerned, along with framing and dealing with people who handle showing me outside of school. however, my students give me immense respect and attend my shows, as well as give me 100 per cent engagement when i demonstrate a skill, which is quite a complement in this electronic age (cell phones). my name is barry barnett keith, please feel free to look at my work on facebook, my novels on amazon or where ever books are sold.