Occasionally, I like to interview people who have made a real impact on the world of art education, folks like Mrs. Laura McCants Reddick-Reichert who has 38 years of experience teaching art. She is the Alabama Art Education Association Retired Art Teacher of the Year for 2014-2015, and has helped mentor many, many art teachers in Alabama. I heard her name spoken in art education circles for years and then finally had the chance to meet her at my own classroom management workshop last winter. Laura is a genuine, down to earth, giving and compassionate person who understands the business of teaching. The biggest question I have for any art teacher who survives until retirement is simply, HOW? Laura was gracious enough to answer this one and a few more of my questions this week, and she had so much to say I am saving part of this interview for next week - her best advice for someone just starting out in the field. 

Q. Will you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, perhaps how you got into education? 

A. I am a child of a first grade teacher/reading specialist and a newspaper editor. When talking about what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say many things, “I want to be a nurse, or psychologist, etc., and Mom would chime in “You really don’t want to be a teacher.  It’s more work than you get paid for and it’s very hard work, too.  Don’t you want to be a………..?  then she would recite a litany of other professions from which to think about.”  I worked  as a life guard, an artist-intern in the editorial art department at the Birmingham News, and in retail sales. 
As a freshman in college I had to declare a major and I wrote down “psychology” because that’s the only thing I could think of at the moment because I was still undecided.  In my sophomore year I took an elective - an elementary art methods class (back then you did not have to be pre-admitted to the teacher education program) and in that class we had to choose an art activity to do, make the art product and then orally explain to the class what it was and how to accomplish it.  My professor, Dr. Jeri Richardson, praised my efforts and in a passing conversation told me that I would be a good candidate for being an art teacher.  Since that was the semester I had to declare my major for sure, I chose art education because I enjoyed that class so much.  The rest is history.  I finished my undergraduate work, made good grades and was actually allowed to enter graduate school unofficially and take 2 graduate level classes before I completed my undergraduate classes, leading me to complete my master’s degree the following year.
Original weaving by Laura
At the University of Alabama my Art Education professor, Dr. James McNutt was a weaver and he taught me what he knew about the weaving world and about all kinds of fibre arts. We learned hand weaving, batik, hand spinning and vegetable dyeing of wool, what flowers, roots and nut shells yield what colors and all in all it was a lovely experience.   Art Educator and long time friend, Jan Stephens and I were like Lucy and Ethel during our graduate school experience which was great  EXCEPT for the one time we used real indigo to dye blue yarn (which smells like urine) and the odor permeated the top floor Clark Hall where the art education classes were and also the administration offices below.  We made NO friends that day. I graduated with honors and did not get a teaching job right away so I worked at a Framing shop until I was hired.  My first teaching assignment was with Birmingham City Schools, teaching in multiple schools each year for 6 years, then I moved to Jefferson County schools to teach close to home and then to Trussville Schools when it formed its own school system.  I retired after 30 years of full time teaching and in that same year I began what ended up being 8 years of part time teaching.
As I look back, that one encouraging professor who praised my efforts and then took me under her wing got me going in the best career I could ever have asked for.  The other professors pushed me to do things I did not think were possible and for them I am grateful.

Student work; paper sculpture

Q. What is your favorite thing about teaching?

A. My favorite thing about teaching art is that there has always been freedom to teach the curriculum however I wanted to.  I am so happy that I did not have to follow a rigid text book all those years.  How boring would that have been?   I like mixing things up and never doing the same things the same ways year after year to keep the teaching experience fun for me.  I also LOVE to see kids discover things about themselves, and their art.  Guiding students into experiencing the creative process has been the joy of this job. Each day is different and each student is different, and the same student on one day will be a different  on the next day so all the variables in this line of work has kept it fresh all these years.

Student work; weaving
Q. Can you tell us how you survived teaching until retirement? 

A. I survived teaching all these years because I knew I had to work; there was no other option financially for me as a mother of 3 children.  I have always had a job since I was 16 and taking off from work was never a realistic option for my family in the early days. Back in those days if a mother left her teaching job to raise her baby there was no guarantee that she would have her job back in the same school.  I was adamant about teaching close to home and being on the same schedule as my children so I only took 6 weeks off after the birth of each child to secure my being back in the classroom that I wanted to be in.  We all adjusted and they are all grown now and successful adults so it worked out well. Not taking more time off also allowed me to retire earlier than some of my colleagues who chose to take extended leave.  They did what was best for them and I did what I had to do, too.  All of those years of having the mindset that “I must work,” I ingrained in myself that I was going to teach until I retired and that is how it happened. 

Some years were better than others.  Teaching has been an up and down experience with administrators changing all the time and dealing with negative parents, or co-workers, etc.,  and the stuff of education that I could not control so I have always tried to keep a positive attitude no matter what.  The attitude is the key to surviving.  I knew that no matter what else was going on in the school, MY students were MY priority and giving them my all while they were in my class kept my spirits up when there were plenty of times I could have said “forget this” and quit. Over 38 years, the positive experiences hugely outweighed the negative ones, hands down. In addition, I am married to a retired teacher and having a supportive spouse who really understands the business of teaching means everything. 
He helps me think through problems, assists me with building things to enhance the art learning experience for my students, and attends my professional conferences with me assisting in workshops that I am leading.  He is a continual learner, as well, being a pretty good potter himself, and he is an enabler in my addiction to yarns and fibers.  He built a studio at home for me to play in and transformed a room in our home just for my yarn stash! I am one lucky gal!

Q. I understand that you do a lot of volunteer work through your church, can you tell us a little bit about that?

A. I will preface my response by saying that I am dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian (USA) from birth and choose to remain so because of the ideas of reformed theology and particularly the Presbyterian form of government in running the business of the church. No denomination is perfect but I find that being Presbyterian, even with its imperfections is perfect for me.

Student work: Empty Bowls Project
I teach a Wednesday night kid’s catechism and art class at church.  We are a very small church and this class only has 6 kids in it.  We read Catechism questions and discuss what they mean and then we make art.  They have created a journal binder of illustrations of some of the questions that they like the best.  The class has morphed into a “service to the community” type of art class.  Much of the art they make now is framed with theology in mind and the art pieces are professionally displayed and used to enhance the drab hallways of the church building.  We have made a large wooden block mosaic cross that is full of color that hangs near the sanctuary doors.  They have made other collaborative art that also livens up the administrative offices and commons areas.  We are now focusing on how to do art that might help the community at large so we are making clay bowls for the “Empty Bowls” project.  In the fall we are hosting an Empty Bowls soup night and financial donations for that meal will get participants a beautiful handmade ceramic bowl to take home and the money will go to the Presbyterian Home for Children and TEAM, a local food bank.  In this Wednesday night class we talk about the relationship between God and creativity all the time and we have such fun. At church I am also Elder in charge of Worship, Arts and Music which is a HUGE job but one that I am called to do. (Laura also is a member of a knitting group, "The Knit Wits," where they knit plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats for the homeless.)
Personal work; knit/crochet
Q. What is your favorite medium when creating your own art? How about your favorite project you teach?

A. My favorite medium to make my own art is whatever I am experimenting with at the moment.  I like relief print making without a press, shooting photos and all things fiber arts. I have drawing and painting skills but don’t consider myself a good drawer/painter but use these skills as means to other artistic ends.  I really enjoy transforming found objects, old canvases or discarded items into fresh and colorful art. I enjoy weaving, knitting, felting, sewing, painting and combining these in various ways to make art that pleases me. I like to use cheap or free (found) materials as much as possible giving me a sense of freedom to create unabashedly and relieving me from the worry about wasting expensive art supplies.  However, when I do purchase materials with which to work I try to purchase the best that my budget will allow.
I think my favorite things to teach students is hand building pottery, printmaking and hand weaving.  Most students come to my class knowing what a pencil, crayon and marker are but looms and yarn and rolling coils and brayers and glazing are things not as familiar and I enjoy seeing them enjoy what they do in the classroom.  The sense of pride I see in students when they complete fiber, clay and the printed art is rewarding to me.
Q. What is the funniest thing your students have done?

A. The funniest thing I have seen at the elementary and middle school level is that the best Christmas or teacher appreciation cards or gifts come from the most unlikely students; the ones you have to constantly stay on top of for behavior issues, the ones you have frequent parent conversations with on the phone during the school day when you are art your wits’ end, the kids on the edge, the kids who seem to hate being in your class; you know those kind of kids. The sentiments are so meaningful from these people and I am grounded by them.

The best things kids have done for me is for them to ask, “May I do another one,”  “Look what I made at home all by myself,” or I took what we did in class and tweaked it into this new thing, see it?  I love making art!” As a teacher of the visual arts grades K -12 this is the best compliment ever.

Q. What has been your greatest triumph in the classroom?  How about any classroom management difficulties you were able to solve?

A. There is no one “greatest triumph” in my teaching career as I was fortunate to be able to witness small miracles of discovery each and every day in the art classroom.  As time has passed, and former students have contacted me via social media, etc., I have seen that I did make a positive impact on many lives.  Not all students are professional artists but they are all consumers of art in one form or another and many of them are creative in their own way.  I will say that last year I agreed to teach an art class for high school students, ages 16-21 with special needs all year and watching them succeed was very rewarding. They found the JOY each time they worked. That joy was triumphant, indeed.

Student pieces; weaving
Classroom management is always a work in progress because each class is different, each year poses different challenges.   I quickly learned to keep one thing as priority: My job was to provide positive learning opportunities for ALL students in my care from bell to bell.  Anything or anyone who got in my way was to be dealt with very quickly so I could continue my work. Over the years I learned to be highly aware and to see the signs of negative student behavior in order to diffuse situations before they got out of hand. I immediately separated kids with behavior issues (always keeping them close to me within my eyesight) and kept right on teaching……...they had to wait on me to do my job first and then I went about doing the discipline protocols with them when I had time.  I think by going on about my job of teaching the rest of the class and having the “negatives” wait on me to deal with them nullified their ability to disrupt and control the direction of my class. I made sure that everyone knew that I was in charge; not them. I showed the “positives” (rest of the class) that they were more important and that the disruptor was put on ice until later.

Q. What is the greatest challenge you face as an art teacher & how have you overcome it?

A. The greatest challenge I faced as an art teacher was working with administrators and other faculty who had NO IDEA of what good art teachers do and why they do what they do.  I found that I had to advocate for art education EVERY YEAR and EVERY DAY I taught because others around me did not have personally meaningful knowledge of visual arts and therefore did not “get it.”  I quickly figured part of my job was to educate the adults in the school along with the students by displaying art all the time in the school, in the community, calling newspapers for photo shoots, and doing what I could do to promote the visual arts programming in the school in which I was teaching. It is not that others in my school were not intelligent, they just had not had enough experiences enhancing the right side of their brains, poor things.  Oh, the things they have missed.
Q. What is the biggest mistake you have made in the classroom? (What is one thing/decision/experience you wish you could “do over” as an art teacher?)

Personal work; Knit/crochet
A. The biggest mistake in my teaching career as a whole is not having discovered the teaching format called TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) earlier in my career. I learned to teach art using the DBAE, Disciplined Based Art Education) format.  DBAE is a good way to teach and I am thankful for it because I also learned more about the world of art by using it.  

As I write this, I am in my last semester of teaching and decided to try TAB in a modified way and have found it a better way to teach even though I have had to force myself to give up some (but not all) “teacher-control” of the art making that kids do. I discovered that the art created this way is more meaningful to them and more authentic which is the way it should be. I am still learning after all these years and it has been a great experience.

To be continued next week with Laura's best advice for new art teachers.....

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