In her book, A Retired Art Teacher Tells All, Marlene Nall Johnt explains the day-to-day workings of a high school art classroom. Throughout this practical, funny, sometimes heart-wrenching book, Marlene paints a picture of what it takes to create a thriving art program. She tells stories of her most embarrassing moments along with times that former students communicated the tremendous impact she had in their lives. Marlene encourages us to reflect upon our own practice, finding ways to improve and always trying out new things. She scatters a few warnings here and there, too about how to hold onto your job! Marlene retired after 23 years of teaching in Louisiana and rural south Alabama. The following interview took place via email during the summer of 2015.
(All photos credited to Marlene Johnt unless otherwise noted.)
photo credit: barnesandnoble.com
Q. How's life after retirement? What have you been up to?
A. It has been great! I sheepishly admit though, that I didn't actually meet true "retirement." When I wrote the book, I envisioned that I would finish my last teaching years in north Alabama. It turned out that a full time position wasn't available and I didn't reach those years. Had I been teaching full time though, I never would have written my book, which took me three years to par down, sculpt, embellish and refine.
I make shell jewelry under my artist name, "Maggie Marlene." It is available on my "Maggie Marlene" Facebook page. It's been a big success. I also am getting to paint and take classes! Oh, it is a big thrill to be on the receiving end of a workshop.
Q. What is life like down on the coast? Few of us get to live so close to the water! I grew up near a south Alabama bay and I miss the wide open spaces, the smell of the ocean, and the cries of the birds. I don't miss the sand or the heat, though! A. We love the bay! I learned to swim and waterski on these waters as a child. I’ve never been afraid of the Gulf and I still play in it. Yellow-flies make me insane. The heat and sand don’t bother me.
the bay where Marlene finds shells for jewelry making
Q. Are you still involved in art education? A. I viewed my book as a way for me to always be involved in art education. I wanted to say all I had to say at one time and put it into print. It was my swan song, written while the career was fresh on my mind. I've heard from art teachers in Europe wanting to thank me for helping them see things in a new way. A teacher in Germany sent me an e-mail explaining how my methods completely changed her approach to teaching. She gushed that the other art teachers brought her a bouquet of flowers and put them on her desk with a note saying, to the effect, "We are so pleased to see the turn-around in your classes. You are glowing." Now, that made my day! So yes, I consider myself still involved in art education.
Q. Now that you are selling your work as an artist, what is the best piece of business advice you would give to an aspiring artist? (It is really neat to see all the beautiful art pieces you have been creating since retirement!) A. Follow your heart and do the art you always wanted to do. You won’t burn out and give up mid- stream. Q. Was it difficult for you to be transparent in the book, to allow your faults to show for all to see? A. Good heavens, no! I was determined that I was going to write an art education book that was different. One that would sooth the nerves of our struggling teachers and to keep them from quitting our profession. I had nothing to lose. I was about to retire.
Q. What is your fondest memory of being a teacher?
A. Smiling faces that don’t reflect just seeing a good grade. It was nice when I came back after a missed day and the class said, “You’re back!”
Q. What is the best decision you made that helped you deal with disruptive kids?
A. Seating students in alphabetical order. It is amazing how students affect others’ behavior. If you break up groups of peers, the students are opened to new friends and attitudes. It was rare for me to move them. They eventually learned to enjoy their new friends.
Q. What was your most angry moment at school?
A. My anger was toward a parent volunteer, not a student. I was called to my principal’s office; a mother had seen some unfinished projects in my 6th grade Art class. She thought they were something she imagined were racist Klan figures. She went to the principal and complained. What were these sculptures? They were unfinished, white plaster action circus figures. We had not put on the circus clown ruffles, tutus and painted costumes, yet we had put on their pointed hats.
Q. What was your funniest moment?
A. I had to give this a lot of thought. There were funny things happening in my class every day. I made a point of adding humor and pointing out humorous situations daily. Funny things often spring from dark moments; like when someone’s project is just a disaster and we find a way to salvage it.
Q. What are you most proud of as a teacher?
A. This student came from Mexico one semester. He couldn't speak a word of English yet. (I had another student who) was a star on the wrestling team. He didn't know anything about art and had not been exposed to art. Both had a lot to learn. Both made remarkable improvements as you can see in their pre-instruction drawings and then their final drawings. This is what I am most proud of in my art teaching career. I did not draw on these final drawings. These are Art 1 students who are all 10th and 11th graders.
There are 3 parts to the assignment:
Marlene's still-life set up in her classroom
1: draw from my verbal descriptions of objects before I put the still-life in the center of the room. 2: Draw the still-life without one single suggestion from me. 3: Final drawing of the still-life after about 5 to 7 classes of instruction.
A white sprayed still-life with carefully chosen shapes offers a superb way to teach light, shadow and form. It helps to simplify seeing a workable composition and focal point. It is an intense teaching unit but one I would never skip. There are extra payoffs as well; can you imagine that these young men are going to destroy art supplies for fun when a substitute teacher is there? Are they going to harass me and laugh and try to get me fired, just for the power of that? Are they going to destroy another student's artwork or treat it as if it wasn't important? No, to all of these questions. A commitment to a strong drawing curriculum is one the students all love. They will take that skill with them forever.
Art Honor Board display - 3 minute life gesture drawings done on large sheets of newsprint - black marker (after the foreshortening drawing unit)
"Early Finishers" floral foam sculptures; "They loved this! This assignment is a wonderful way to teach reduction sculpture and the importance or rotating the piece as they work on it. I taught the importance of repeating designs with variations to create harmony. The pieces were painted as a final step using acrylics."
Q. If you could change one thing about the state of our education system, what would it be?
A. Consistent funding. It drove me crazy. I doubt they will ever truly value what we do until all of our art teachers are designing high quality art programs. Some in authority find the weakest links to use as an example to prove we are not very valuable. They don't look hard for much of a reason though.
Q. How did you survive this job until retirement?
A. I survived by being sure of what I was going to do in every class and knowing what the graded assignment at the end of the projects would be. Reading this, it sounds like we never had spontaneous days but we had great ones, too! Students aren’t grumpy and frustrated when they understand what is expected from them and that vastly cuts down on unruly behaviors. The art projects had to be challenging as well. I also had a fair and reasonable discipline plan that didn’t change from year to year. All the kids knew it and all of the principals knew it. All the parents could understand it. They knew that behind this smiling face was a woman who was made of steel when it came to following her discipline plan, ha.
Q. What is the most important bit of advice you would offer a beginning art teacher?
A. RELAX YOUR FACE!!!! Now this is a sharp double- edged sword though. Your face will be relaxed once you are confident that you know how you are going to approach your assignment and your students for this one class period. This means you should already be able to visualize a general idea about what this class time will look like, if all goes well, before you step in front of the students. If you have all of your materials counted and in proper order, if you have a clear idea about the assignment and when the deadline will be, if you can CLEARLY describe what you are looking for when you grade the assignment, your face is going to be relaxed. Students love being able to count on you and your good humor and your fairness. They are anxious to be a part of your fun yet challenging class. You cannot fake being prepared though. If you are struggling with decisions every minute of the class, it is going to show in your body language. You will give off a negative vibe that all can feel. Your relationships with your students will suffer. You should aim for your classroom to be a relaxed place where hard, creative, intriguing art is created with positive outcomes. If they decide to believe you have their best interest at heart, this will happen.
You write with so much compassion for the students as well as teachers. A Retired Art Teacher Tells All is truly an amazing gift to those of us who are still in the classroom and I thank you for the sacrifices you made to make this book happen. There were some ideas that really resounded with me - that we are there to teach ALL our students, not just the talented few. Also, how important it is to base instruction on the needs of the students. I loved your stories about how to "explicitly" describe washing the table and how to put on an apron - you are hilarious!
I also appreciated the fact that you warn us to ask for help when we need it. Principals may notice when we flounder, not say a word, and then not renew our contract! It takes strength (and humility) to know when to ask for help.
Again, thank you for being willing to allow us a glimpse into your life now, and for your gift of your "swan song!"
Marlene and her husband, Jim
Interviewer: Mrs. Anna Nichols
Next week's article; INSIDER'S TIPS TO HOLDING ONTO YOUR JOB!