Thursday, October 9, 2014

In the Art Room: An (Awesomely Candid) Interview with a First Year Art Teacher

If this beautiful face looks familiar to you, that's because it's the always-awesome Rebecca Tenpenny, my student teacher from last fall! Since leaving my (super sad and sobbing) side, Rebecca has moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where she currently teaches art at two kindergarten through sixth grade schools. At one placement, she is on a cart and at the other, she's got her own art room. Being a new art teacher, I thought it would be fun to interview Rebecca. She's also included some photos of her art room, her displays and the lovely landscape that is Salt Lake City. Without further ado, here's Rebecca!
Rebecca hiking with Kingsley, her 85 lbs lab.

During your first few months of teaching, what has surprised you the most? 

I AM SO TIRED ALL THE TIME! I was definitely not ready for how physically affected I would be.  I am surprised by how emotionally, mentally, psychologically and physically draining teaching is. And allllllll of those things combine to make me the most exhausted human being in every way possible. I always thought I was one of those people who could stay up late and then get up whenever, because, well when I was in college I did just that. But now that I’m a little bit older, my body is not as resilient as it used to be. And don’t give me that stuff about how I’m still super young and have no idea what getting older is really like. I know I am young and have a long road ahead. I’m just saying that being about a year away from 30 is a lot different than being in your early 20s. 
Display outside of Rebecca's art room.

This whole situation is like when people say“you’ll never know what it’s like to have kids until you have them,” and people who are expecting think “ok well I’ve heard that a lot so I won’t be too surprised when the baby comes and it’s nuts” and then they still are surprised once they do have the kids. Well, I don’t have any children of my own…oh, but wait! I already do! Imagine having about 1100 kids, and they all want your attention and need your help because they’ve never had art before, can’t speak English, just moved to the country a week ago, OR are just so excited that they can’t sit still. THAT is why I am so exhausted. Phew. Rant. Over.

(Oh my goodness, you guys, don't you love Rebecca? Teachers everywhere are sayin', "right on, sistah. Preach.")
What do you feel the most comfortable with?

Hmmmm…..I feel the most comfortable with my 85 lb black lab on my lap, a drink in my hand, and reruns of Parks and Rec playing on the Netflix. Wait, oh you mean with teaching? NOTHING! Just kidding. Kind of. I think if I had to pick something (because honestly I know that in every way I have a TON to learn and shouldn’t be too comfortable) then it would be not taking stuff too seriously. Does that count? I mean, when I am in front of the kids, I am super goofy, I make mistakes, I laugh at myself with the kids, and also just go with the flow. They seem to appreciate that maybe because, well, they make mistakes all the time too. I mean…NONE of them are perfect (WHY AREN'T THEY PERFECT???), but neither am I. I try to remind them of that all the time. AND I remind them that this is a good thing, because this is what makes us all unique.
However, that makes me sounds like I’m this super chill art teacher who lets their kids get away with anything. I’m NOT (Or maybe I am but don’t tell my students). One thing that goes along with being relaxed is that I don’t let them walk all over me. Because in the back of my mind I always know that this is a job, but it is not who I am. I mean, part of my identity now is definitely “crazy art teacher” (You’re not the only one described as such, Stephens. Just the other day a sixth grader wrote an entire journal entry for her teacher about how Ms. Tenpenny’s clothes never match. I love it!). Still, I know that this isn’t the only place where my happiness comes from. So, I don’t put up with them treating me or my art room like badly because I’m aware that there is more to life than teaching and in any situation I wouldn’t let people treat me poorly. That all sounds a bit confusing, but I’m a visual person so don’t blame me for my words.  I think this is what most people call “classroom management.” Those dreaded words. But yeah, I think I’m pretty comfortable with classroom management. I make sure the kids know WHO I am, how I feel about things and how I will react when they don’t meet expectations. And this leads to a pretty comfy environment, I hope. The kids seem to like it in my room and I usually like them….except when they laugh at another kid who farts. IT WAS AN ACCIDENT! (and totally not me!)
Disclaimer: I totally didn't pay Rebecca (that much) for her next comments. Aw, shucks, buddy.

And spare me your false humility because you better include this next part: I only feel this comfortable with myself in the classroom and with classroom management in general because I learned from you! To those who are reading this blog: Cassie may be super humble sometimes, and may have false humility at other times, but when it comes to people bragging on her teaching…no one is over-exaggerating! I am the luckiest of lucky for being able to student teach with her and learn from her every day. Cassie, you didn’t give me explicit instructions about how to be a good teacher or connect with my students, but in every way on every day, you led by example. When district people or other teachers out there compliment me on my super sweet skillzzzz, I always say, it’s because I learned from the best. And then I direct them to your blog, and they’re like “Oh! You’re not actually just good at this because you’re just copying everything from this fantastic lady.” It’s true. Seriously. If all art teachers could student teach under you, then the world would be a better place.
Talk a little about your unique teaching situation. What's that like?

Well, I am currently employed under the Beverly Taylor Sorensen Arts Learning Program grant. Look up that kids, she is amazing and has done INCREDIBLE things for the kiddos of Utah by getting art into their schools. They seriously wouldn’t have it without her. The core of the grant centers on how arts INTEGRATION (key word) helps student achievement. So, as part of my job description, I must integrate other subjects into each project to support classroom learning. I also have the classroom teacher in the room with me at all times as a side-by-side teaching model in order to reinforce whatever core subject I integrate. So, that is a blessing and a challenge for sure. I totally agree that art should integrate other subjects to show students (and the rest of the world) that art is an essential part of life and learning, BUT it does feel like there is quite a bit of pressure on me to make my projects as “helpful” to the students core subject learning as possible. So, I couldn’t just teach an art for art’s sake project which I want to do. All the time.
Having the teacher in the room with me at all times has been great for learning kids names, classroom management and integration because lets be honest, I can’t remember what different micro-organisms there are! I have formed some great relationships with all of the teachers I work with because of this. We really do have a blast! And it is super awesome because they are able to see some of their students shine that normally don’t in the general classroom setting. Some people might think that it would be stressful to have another teacher in there, but it’s not! Even if a teacher thinks I’m crazy for doing things a certain way (refer back to previous question’s answer), I literally couldn’t care less. Meaning, their opinion matters to me to a certain extent, but in the end, it’s just my job. Not my life.
Rebecca's students' display for International Dot Day. I KNOW. Amazing!

Other than what the grant requires, my job situation is pretty unique. Well, it’s very different from what I was used to back in TN. I actually split my time between two schools. They are similar, and then extremely different at the same time. Both schools are Title 1, and have about 95% of their students on free lunch. They are both VERY diverse when it comes to the students’ ethnic backgrounds. Which I LOVE.

At one school I have a classroom, the other I am on a cart. Both situations have advantages (yes, I do believe being on a cart has its advantages) and disadvantages.
The school where I have a classroom is one of the refugee schools in the district. Salt Lake City has a high population of refugees from all over the world, and I get to be a lucky lady who works with a lot of these kids. And I mean it. I love being at this school. There are over 30 languages spoken there. The top five being: 1. Spanish 2. English 3. Somali 4. Arabic 5. Karen (which is represented by our Burmese students). Now, there are definite challenges that come along with being a refugee school, mainly the language barrier. But the most heartbreaking issue is the opinion of the surrounding community. Most families that live in the area assume that it is a bad school with bad kids and a rough environment because of the refugee population and they won’t let their kids go there. This makes me want to go to each of them individually and 1. Punch them in the face 2. Berate them for hours and 3. Let my dogs poop in their yard and not pick it up. Because they couldn’t be more wrong. Now, do we have issues that all schools go through with attitudes and fighting and whatever else? Yes. But you show me a school that doesn’t and I will give you my dog. That’s saying a lot.
Bottom line: my teaching situation is VERY different from what I thought it would be when I finished grad school, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My kids are awesome, and I love them to pieces. Even when I want to squash them to pieces. The teachers that I work with are a fantastic mix between awesome seasoned veterans and fresh-faced, excited newbies, and I have found some amazing friends. What I would trade is my salary…but I’m SURE I’m the only one who thinks that!
Rebecca and her boyfriend Doug (sorry, dudes. She's taken.) love getting out and enjoying the beautiful surrounds. So jelly!

How are you feeling about your life choices (haha, this question reads so funny but you know what I mean!)?

As far as my life choices, I am feeling great! Moving out here was an awesome decision. I knew that if I stayed in TN and found a job there, then it would probably be in an area that I wasn’t too excited to live in because there were hardly any job openings at all. Except one near you that I knew I wouldn’t get…If I could’ve my life might be so different right now! Haha. So, in order to keep my sanity at my job, I wanted to go somewhere that was new and exciting with all sorts of adventure at my doorstep. Utah has definitely proved to be that place. I actually was trying to move to central Oregon (in which there were ZERO jobs) and went to a job fair in Portland, OR. There I met the wonderful HR ladies from my district here is SLC. They interviewed me that day, sent my resume and portfolio out to the schools and I eventually got the right call! Oh, and let me tell you, I don’t know that I would have gotten the job if it hadn’t been for my ridiculously thorough leave behind portfolio that I gave them. So, a HUGE thanks to Debrah Sickler-Voigt over at MTSU for inspiring and pushing me when I needed it. I would never have left the impression I did on my interviewers if it wasn’t for her guidance and all of the opportunities I had through the program at MTSU.
Rebecca and I back in the day. We had so much fun teaching together!

Since being here, it’s been basically impossible to not find adventure. I joined a bouldering rock gym, got a season pass at the Brighton ski resort for the winter (snowboarding here I come!) and have been hiking as much as possible. The first few weeks here before school started I got to go to the Grand Teton, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks.  I live down the street from a huge park and just a few blocks from all of the downtown excitement. It has been amazing. Of course I miss everyone in my life though. I knew only one person out here (who moved from TN the same week!). It was a big step, but I’d done it before for my undergraduate school in LA so I wasn’t too scared. It was definitely hard to decide to move away from my mom and dad, especially at a time when my brother was moving to Africa with his family. Basically in one fail swoop we left them with no kids in the area…but to that I say: you have a motorhome and a love for travel just like me, parents! And to which they replied by driving out the first month I lived here. I am very lucky to have parents who are supportive and excited for me…and who expect this kind of crazy behavior from me.
As far as the decision to teach: well if you can’t tell, I’m a little crazy and like to go and do and experience A LOT of different things. So, after college it was hard to settle on just one career/job. I bounced around a lot, but feel pretty at home now that I have settled on teaching. It’s pretty fun to have something different going on every day and to experience different kiddos each hour. Keeps my ADD at bay. It goes without saying that there are PLENTY of days and classes that leave me thinking “is this all worth it?” I sometimes just don’t want to move or talk to anyone for days and days. There are times that homesickness for my friends and family seems overwhelming. So, don’t let me raving about my new life out here fool you, it’s still hard! However, ultimately when I sit down and answer these types of questions, I feel pretty great about where I’m at right now. Career-wise and just life in general. Definitely ask me again later though….because goodness knows my mind might change about everything. But for now, I’m seriously loving it. And sleepy. So sleepy.

Rebecca! Thank you so very much for this amazing interview. Those kids and school(s) are so fortunate to have you. You're the best!

If y'all have any questions or thoughts for Rebecca, please leave them below in the comments. I'm sure she'll be happy to answer 'em (riiiiiight, Rebecca?). 


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7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I'm sorry that I lack proofreading skills. :)

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  3. This is all so very true.... I love the honesty. This is my 6th year teaching and I still feel more tired than any job I've ever had, including upholstering furniture for 8 hours a day.
    A couple of months before I left my previous teaching job, I had started a blog. I wanted to integrate what the other teachers were doing in class, and they were happy to share. So, I have the few lessons we did on the blog. I wish I had examples of one of my favorites, which was on Lewis and Clark (the students would choose from a list of animals that they wrote about in the L&Clark journals, read about that animal to create a journal page like theirs with descriptions and feelings about how that animal lived. They even drew a picture and painted it with watercolors to make it look old. They loved it and so did the history and science teachers. http://adventuresinmiddleschoolart.blogspot.com/

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    1. Wow, thank you for sharing, Carolina!! Can't wait to check it out :)

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  4. Terrific post. It was kismet that hooked the two of you up, for sure! I mean, check out the fashion flair! And of said it before and I'll keep saying it - in addition to all the other terrific things about her, this wonderful young woman has a TOTALLY fun name, and the BEST hair on the planet.

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    1. Thanks Phyl! I think YOUR hair is awesome!

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  5. I wish that I was 40 years younger so that I could have Cassie for my CT! I had a horrible experience as a student teacher ( I was placed with a 2nd year teacher!!) Listening to Rebecca wax poetic about Cassie made me envious of her time with you. I also love Rebecca's honesty about how hard she works and how tiring teaching is. I don't know if I could be as positive about having to integrate core subjects into every lesson. I get what she said about crating a lesson for fun or just because. Oh, and I agree with Phyl about that lovely, red hair! Stunning!

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Thank you so much for your comments. I appreciate each and every one :)