Reflection: Designer of the Learning Environment

Over the course of my first three semesters of graduate studies I logged a significant amount of observation hours in both high school and elementary art rooms, and a portion in the regular classroom. These observation hours in addition to readings and other materials from my coursework became the foundation in writing a classroom management plan. While I kept many of those informed and researched ideas in the back of my head as I navigated student teaching, they were not always effective. Teachers need to be great improvisers. I was constantly inventing new tricks, looking to build a toolbox that worked. I’m not sure that any further coursework could have prepared me to tackle classroom management. I had to live it to learn it.

When I began at the high school in January I had a lot of free reign. My cooperating teacher was ready to step aside and let me dive in. I felt that by the third week I had a pretty solid handle on most of my classes and their dynamics. I arranged the room how I wanted it and removed clutter. I created a system of pinning labeled manilla envelopes to the board the front of the room with all worksheets and reading assignments so students had easy access to them if they lost a copy or were absent. At the end of each day I wrote the next day’s agenda on the board. I would arrive early each morning to put out and arrange supplies for the day. I took careful care in organizing work from each class. In addition to consulting with my cooperating teacher I found great resources in the other teachers in the art department–we all ate lunch together every Thursday. I was calm and patient with my students and clear and firm about expectations. I kept up with grades and let students know what they needed to do to raise them.  At the end of my time there, I was incredibly sad to leave. I felt genuinely respected by my students and I saw a change in the way they approached art class. I felt successful. I was challenged every day in creating and maintaining such a positive learning environment, but for all of the ten-hour days that I put in, I felt fulfilled.

Elementary art hit me with a force. Having written an entire classroom management plan for elementary art, many of the ideas in it coming from the art room where I would be teaching, I thought I would ease right in. I had a lot to learn.

My junior year of high school I had AP French in the morning followed by what some of us called the Johnson Double Whammy: AP US History with Mr. Johnson, followed by Advanced English with Mrs. Johnson. Having my three most demanding classes in a row in the morning meant staying up late every night.  While Mrs. Johnson, Ruth, would come to be one of the most influential teachers of my entire education, things didn’t start out that way. More than a few times I burst into tears because it was 3AM, I was still doing homework, and the end was not in sight. As a teacher, I never thought my Johnson Double Whammy would be an afternoon block of kindergarten followed by first grade.

At the end of a particularly turbulent first grade class I asked the class to evaluate their behavior. They had plenty of great suggestions and I reinforced how much I would like it if we could follow all of those rules and not lose art time to talk about behavior. A little girl raised her hand and told me “We can’t always get what we like.” And that was enough to push me to cry a little later once out of the view of children. I have since developed a few new classroom management skills and had a first grade classroom teacher come and observe me to offer some pointers. There were a lot of lost moments of repeated yelling “1,2,3 Eyes on me!” and holding up the “Quiet Coyote” to only have a few students respond, and a failed experiment in using a clip chart. However, I had more than a few good days. And we were learning together, even if the uptake was slow. By the time I left the school classes of kindergarteners would flash the quiet coyote at me every time they saw me in the hallway.

An additional challenge I faced was teaching off of a cart. Enrollment at the elementary school had grown significantly in recent years and a second part-time art teacher was brought on to ensure that all students had art class once a week. Consequently, I taught two classes off a cart each day. My schedule was interrupted each week due to field trips, assemblies and testing. During testing the art room needed to be used, moving more of my classes into regular classrooms. It was a valuable learning experience both in prepping for lessons, using another teacher’s space, and seeing how my students behaved in a different environment. I had to learn how to translate my practice into a space that was not designed to be an art room–and it was often very tight quarters. Back in the art room I also had to share a space with not just my cooperating teacher, but a second teacher. Sharing a room and supplies with another teacher is a lesson in communication, and advocating for my needs. The other two art teachers were self-admittedly a bit haphazard in organization. When that wasn’t working for me I had to work with them to better develop systems that worked for all of us.

I was challenged to the max and while it was exhausting, I know that I will be better prepared for my professional career having gone through it. I am open to learning and have all the confidence that with continued practice and further professional development I’ll get the hang of it. I was grateful in my student teaching experiences to be surrounded by a community of seasoned colleagues available to share stories with and receive guidance from. The best learning environment in the art room is most readily achieved when the same goal is consistent everywhere in the school building.

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