You’ve undoubtedly heard about the art teacher from Utah who was recently fired for showing controversial artworks. Mateo Rueda is his name, and he joins Tim on the podcast today to share the full story of everything that has happened in the past month. Listen as Mateo tells about the lesson that caused the controversy (5:00), the surreal disciplinary actions he faced (11:30), how the reaction to his story went viral (17:00), and what opportunities he has moving forward (23:15). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for Art Teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Odds are you’ve come across a story in the last week or so that seems too ridiculous to be true. The story of the art teacher in Utah who was fired for showing his students famous artworks, some of which happened to have nudity. Today, that art teacher, his name is Mateo Rueda, is here to talk with me about the whole situation and give us some insight as to everything that has happened.
I’ll let Mateo explain so you get the correct story, but I’ll just say this. I can’t imagine going through what he has had to go through. This is every art teacher’s nightmare. You preview materials but something slips through the cracks. You do your best to explain to your kids and you use the opportunity to educate as all good art teachers do, but for some reason, that’s not enough, and even though it should blow over, it doesn’t. Parents play up the outrage, administrators don’t stand up for their teachers and it just snowballs from there. Then before long you’ve lost your job.
It’s unfathomable, to be honest, but somehow it’s exactly what happened to Mateo. I want to let him tell his story, share his reactions to all of these events and all of these, just, unimaginable situations, and kind of let us know where he goes from here, so let me bring him on now. Mateo Rueda is here with us and I’m very excited to talk to you, Mateo, thank you so much for coming on. To start off with, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you’re from, how long you’ve been teaching, anything else you want to tell us about your family or your life outside of school?
Mateo: Yeah, of course. I am originally from Colombia and that’s my hometown. I lived there for 25 years in Bogota and I grew up in a good family overall. My mother is a professor. She teaches at an engineering school back home. I grew up very passionate for the arts. Mostly I love drawing and painting, so I went ahead and pursued a bachelor’s in fine arts back home in Bogota that led me to come here to the United States to pursue an MFA in fine arts, a master’s in fine arts. Here, my uncle, he’s a music professor here at Utah State University and I guess I can speak a little bit about how inherently I do enjoy being an educator. I guess it’s in the blood, you could say, but at the same time it’s just a wonderful endeavor.
Yeah, Cash Valley and teaching over here, there’s a bit of under-demand for teachers, especially art teachers, when it comes to it, and I am grateful that I was hired to teach at Lincoln Elementary. There is this program called Beverly Taylor Sorenson Art Learning Program and it’s amazing. They are capable of getting about 60 percent of elementary schools, they are capable of getting an art teacher in these schools and also with a coherent learning program for the arts, which is very important at that early stages of life. Yeah, I don’t know what else to say about me.
I’m an artist in general. Part-time, I’m an artist. I love working for the community, for people, showing my work in festivals, art galleries. I really like that dynamic of being able to connect with people through my work, so yeah.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely, no, and I think it’s really good to hear about your passion for teaching, your passion for art, because I think that’s a sign of a good educator right there, but we need to kind of dive into the story and everything that’s happened to you. I guess kind of to begin, can you set the stage for everyone listening? Can you tell us about the lesson you are teaching, what you were teaching, what you wanted kids to do and how they ended up looking at these art history cards with the nude paintings on them?
Mateo: Essentially the setup for an art specialist in public elementary schools is rather short in the amount of time you get. You get about 20 minutes for class and for grade and I teach from K to 6. They enter the classroom and you get about five minutes to settle them and then maybe five to 10 minutes at the end of the class for them to clean, meaning that you get a maximum of 30 minutes, really, to address the classroom, to actually have some workshop going on, a studio environment happening. Throughout that time, they were working on a color wheel. Essentially they were understanding color theory. They would only get some oil pastels which were the colors red, blue and yellow, and from there they would have to define secondary colors and then tertiary, which is a fun experiment.
Once they’re done with that, they had to choose an image from these postcards that were very convenient to have in a sense, because they were able to select one and keep it with them for their sketchbook. This was close to the end of the class, probably the last 10 minutes, when one of the students manifested that they were feeling rather uncomfortable about the type of images that were there. There were a couple that had nudity on them. I think mostly they were confused, and we need to understand they saw the images and they were mostly confused, I can say, and I realized at that moment that I needed to do something.
I think any adult, when they are presented into the situation that you … All of us are in our having kids, showing nudes, like showing that they have been witnessing this, and you want to explain what’s going on, and not just maybe try to just, like, say, “No, this is wrong,” and period, as a role model for these kids, as an educator, I am definitely felt the necessity of explaining the nature behind these images, and mostly to lead them to understand that they should not understand this as something to frown upon and deem it as shameful, because that felt like that was what they were kind of saying, for sure.
Tim: I think what you’re trying to tell the kids is, like you said, it’s not something to be ashamed of. I think you make a good point when you say, as educators, we need to tell them why this is taking place in art, what the reasoning behind it is. You do want to set an example of how to handle that in a mature way. Let me ask you, do you feel like kids accepted your explanation or your answers well enough? Second part of that, once class was over, did you kind of expect that to be done? Once kids left class, did you feel like your explanation about the images was going to be the end of it?
Mateo: No. I told the students that they should be able to talk about this with their parents. To a point I was also thinking about myself, like if I just choose to not do anything about it and they talk to their parents, that could get me in trouble because that means that I would be like, one way or another, hiding something. I think, again, this is a question that any adult needs to ask themselves about what they would do. The way I approach the students, and I always have, is in a very genuine manner. I, of course, am a voice of authority when it comes to managing the classroom and whatnot, and children are children. You need to keep order, and it is a skill, for sure. One, that I exercise well and they respect that.
When it comes to it, I approach to them in a genuine manner and I think they understood what I meant to say. Some students did, some students didn’t. It just happens. As you explain anything, you want to be thorough but at the same time being such a delicate subject, you do want to definitely try to convey a point, but interpretation happens and the kids probably had some set of preconceptions too, you know, when it comes to these types of images. If I’m not wrong, I mean, especially in Utah, when it comes to children being exposed to these types of things in an academic setting. Especially in high school when they’re looking at art, they do actually have to sign some type of consent about it, and it’s always controversial.
I remember in college in Utah State University was also rather controversial to teach some of the students figure drawing. You would have a nude model, but some of them would actually still, one way or another, react one way or another, immature. I know BYU has a bunch of controversies about some exhibitions and whatnot, and it’s rather stupid in my opinion.
Tim: I guess my next question having to do with that mindset and where you’re located, do you feel like that kind of escalated the disciplinary process? Because I’ve kind of seen some conflicting reports about what happened and what caused things to escalate where you started with a short suspension. That suspension got longer and eventually you got terminated. Can you talk about, I guess, how things continued to get worse for you and what you think caused that?
Mateo: Of course. Parents emailed the principal. The principal emailed me, so I went the next day and I was in what is called a temporary administrative leave for one day, I guess while they try to figure this out. The only thing I could tell the principal is, like, “Hey, these images were presented … They just showed up in the situation that I tried to handle. They don’t agree I handled it properly, but I did my best to the best of my values, to the best of my faculties and criteria, again, as someone considerate about these kids and how they felt.”
I stated my point of view to the principal but essentially that was it. From there on, the next day I was called again and this time with HR and we agreed to effect that maybe I could’ve managed it better. To a point I was like, “Well, with all this scrutiny from the parents and whatnot, I just want to move on,” and they gave me a three day momentary leave, which was signed in contract. That’s where I was like, “Okay, that’s it. See you guys next Tuesday.” I think that same day or the next day, on Thursday, the police arrived to the school and they were investigating a call, an anonymous call from one of the parents, about me being exposing the children to pornographic material, and that’s where then I get a call from the principal and I went there and talked with her again. She told me that that temporary leave now was undefined, and I was like, “Okay, well, this truly sucks and it’s concerning because these are very serious accusations and it’s scary one way or another.”
Then again, when I was here at home, I was thinking, well, really, if the police had something true, they would already be here and I would already be somewhere else, but it was scary and at the same time, I was bewildered. I was like, “What the hell is going on?”
Mateo: Yeah, anyway, the next day in the morning I got a call from HR and they just told me that I am being terminated. The only thing that I could ask there was did this actually reside in the realms of what is just? They said they felt that they had enough grounds for that to be that, so it was at that time, and again, I talked with this with my wife. At that moment, my mother-in-law, who also has had her experience with lawyers and whatnot, told me, “Let’s go get a lawyer. Let’s talk about this and we’ll see what happens.” That same day they sent me my termination papers. It’s just this letter. It’s so harsh in its language.
What happens is this is a professional case file for me. This is something that can definitely follow me for the rest of my life when it comes to me applying for other forms of education. I want to move forward in my career and I believe I have a lot of opportunities when it comes to being an educator, formally speaking. That can definitely leave a very tainted background and it was something that I needed to handle. It was not easy because what do you do there? If you’re like, “Well, we do not accept these terms,” and that’s what we did. We told the district we do not accept these terms, and they were like, “We’re going to go ahead and continue with your termination and you have the right for a hearing.”
At this point I am very depressed. I guess just being like, again, like, how can they get away with this? It’s not fair, at all. Luckily one of the parents contacted me through Facebook and she expressed that her daughter was in the classroom, that she heard my explanation, she understood it very well and that for her, she finds that she is not capable of giving her an explanation on why her art teacher is being just removed. To me, that actually gave me some sense of hope about maybe being able to establish a better case about what happened.
I wrote to her and I wrote to her a letter, a little long, but it also helped me to clarify the set of events, how things happened, how I felt and everything in a sense. It was helpful for me and I’m glad that she was someone like minded and definitely decided to do something about it, which I admire and I’m sure it’s a good lesson for her daughter to learn about tenacity and conviction about what one holds to be true in a rational manner for that matter, because all of this has been rather irrational, for lack of a more, how do you say, word.
Something that was very interesting was that this ended up on the front page of Reddit in one of the subreddits of “Not The Onion.” I don’t know if you’ve …
Tim: Yes, yes.
Mateo: It speaks about the ridicule. It speaks about how nonsensical this is, so yeah. After that I guess the fact that she spoke to the Herald Journal and that led to enough track for people in the valley to gain awareness of the situation, led to Fox News, Fox 13 and Channel 2 to interview. I think that’s really the big surprise for everyone and it really led to a more controversial, rather sensational type of scope towards the district and the valley. It was interesting, for sure. As I said, it was interesting but also at the same time kind of saddening for my name to make part of such ridiculous news instead of me being recognized for my work.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely.
Mateo: I like the attention for what I do but not the attention for these types of matters. Of course not.
Tim: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and I’m sure it’s been a whirlwind last month for you. We’ve talked about just this nonsensical happening, your frustration, your depression. Can you talk about just kind of your emotions through that whole disciplinary process and just kind of let us know how you’re feeling and how you’re doing at this point in time?
Mateo: Yeah, of course. I think a concurring problem with small towns like this in the United States is that in a sense, people who have an alternative point of view against the cultural mainstream, and that includes Mormonism in a huge chunk, they might feel that they don’t really belong to any place here and that can lead to serious levels of depression and anxiety. I think for the first time, because I’m someone who’s not from here. I’ve been here for six years now in the United States and I would always, one way or another, be baffled by what people would tell me about the culture in general. Like this is how people do perceive art or this is how people wear their underwear, their holy, sacred underwear, and you’re like, “This is ludicrous and I cannot believe a whole society just, one way or another, moves around these types of, in my opinion, dogmas.”
I think it’s always something to kind of not fall yourself into it but when you don’t feel the … I guess when everything just seems to be okay in general and then this type of situation happens to me, I did feel depressed when the police was called. My wife, she struggles with borderline personality disorder and this definitely led her to a breakdown. It was not easy for me to be managing someone with panic attacks and whatnot and then with the situation here, it was a very sad, stressful environment for me at a personal level, especially when nothing made sense. When things are not making sense. I can recognize when I do things that demand some form of reprimand. I truly do.
I’ve learned from my lessons as a human being and this was one that definitely there was nothing to reflect upon, nothing to really grow from. It was just like I had to be sharp and think about what to do and who to write and how to really manage the situation properly in order for my character to not end up … The step by the community or for me to be thought of as someone who would just put the kids in these uncomfortable situations for my own self-realization, not self … what would that be, like self-approval, I guess.
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s … I don’t know, that’s a tough situation to be in and I think you explain it well and I appreciate you kind of sharing your mindset with us.
Mateo: Yeah, I don’t know if I have been long winded.
Tim: Oh no, I really think that people want to hear from you, because this is a situation that I think every art teacher fears. They don’t want to be put in the position that you’re in, so I think it’s important that we talk about all of this. I just have one last question for you. I know you’ve reached a settlement with the district at this point and I know you can’t really talk about it, but can I ask where you do go from here? I know there’s not anything that anyone can do to get your job back but is there any other way that art teachers can help you or support you at this point?
Mateo: Yeah, there has been plenty of offers when it comes to, like, “Hey, we want to get you a job at a place that you’re more accepted,” for sure. I’m looking forward to see what could happen with that. Then again, as an artist, it’s good to understand that my work is what keeps me afloat. The fact that I can always be doing something and selling it or working at festivals or different commercial venues where they want murals or things like that. That, in a sense, has become a source of revenue for me to, again, not much, especially here in the valley, but enough. I’m a person of simple means when it really comes to it.
I understand and I understand from a lot of the public opinion that this could be something that would allow me to sue the district and come out with a huge chunk of money, but to an extent, I also feel that that would be dishonest with myself. I just want what it was fair for me and I know that that sounds a little bit like, “Well, you’re dumb because you can make money and still do things and be okay with yourself,” I understand that the people from the district, either for protocolary reasons or whatnot, that they also are people with families who have their lives and this has been a very stressful thing for me in general. Going into more legal matters, these are things that could last for years before something is really settled, and I don’t want that. Again, my goal here is to be capable of … Be perceived as the person who I have worked myself to become and not something else, and then I think that was the real end goal from my end.
Again, I think if I’m gonna make money, I should do it in an honorable way and just have what I earn and what I deserve through my work and not through these types of chicaneries. Even though it affected me psychologically, I feel that it affected more other people and I don’t want to reuse that as a card, for example, to make money. It’s not who I am.
Tim: No, that is very fair and I think it’s great for everybody to be able to hear that you are in a good place and you know exactly where you want to be and where you want to go to move on from here. We’ll go ahead and wrap it up there, but Mateo, thank you so much for coming on, talking to me, telling us the whole situation, the whole story, and I know a lot of people are gonna be eager to hear this, so thank you.
Mateo: Of course, Tim, and thank you for listening to something and wanting to get something more compelling than just the sensation, the controversy. It’s always important to understand that people, that the character of the people who were involved in this matter have … It makes sense, you know? For people to address themselves that way. I wonder about the opinion of the parents and I do sometimes want to know what they think, because I really care about their kids. I truly do, and if I, one way or another, led them to think that I belittled their kids or that I hurt their feelings, well, I would never have intended to do that.
Definitely I had to address a situation with maturity and that demanded me to speak with authority, but never to treat the kids in a bad way. I am someone who’s very genuine and that was why my class was so successful and that’s why I have such good credentials when it comes to be an elementary art teacher. A lot of commendations and whatnot. Anyway, thank you.
Tim: Thank you and hopefully we will talk to you again soon, so thanks for coming on.
Mateo: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim: It’s obvious to me that Mateo is a passionate, dedicated teacher and someone who cares about the kids in his classroom. I appreciate him coming on the show and I really appreciate him being so honest, so open and so willing to tell his story. Now, I wouldn’t wish Mateo’s situation on anyone and honestly it should never happen to anyone again. At the very least I hope it can be kind of a cautionary tale so we can avoid these kind of terrible situations in the future.
I won’t get on my soapbox and rant, because it isn’t the time or the place to do that, but I do need to say something here, because as teachers, we are highly educated, highly trained professionals who need to have autonomy over our own classrooms. We deserve to have the trust of our administrators. We deserve to have their support. Our principals and our administrators need to be able to say no to parents and they need to be able to say that they trust their teachers to know what’s best for their students and what’s best for those classrooms, because when administrators can’t do that, you see what happens. It costs the school, it costs the district, it costs the teacher, and it costs the kids, because they no longer have a teacher that they loved, and there’s no honest explanation for them as to why that is.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. If you’re new to The Art of Ed, check out all of our amazing content at theartofed.com. If you are new to the podcast, please subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts and know that you can sign up for our email list at artedradio.com. Thanks for listening and we’ll be back with our next episode next Tuesday. Talk to you then.