Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What Have I Learned From Teaching?

When I originally decided to take on design teaching as part of my freelance life, there were two main reasons. One obvious one was to have some income during lean times in freelancing. The other was to try and impart some important things I hold near and dear that I learned when I attended art school and that I acquired in my professional life. How could I express to people and have them be as passionate as I am about good typography, the fundamentals of design and having a strong concepts behind every design?

I went into teaching with, I think, very uptight attitude about the whole thing. I went through hell in art school with the workload, tough critiques and other challenges. I think the whole experience made me a stronger designer, and so I wanted to teach the way I was taught. Tight structure, controlled syllabus and constructive critiques was the way I started. OK, sounds reasonable, right? Well, easier said than done. I quickly realized that teaching outside of my immediate experience was going to need constant tweaking and adjusting based on the students and their skills.

My fourth teaching experience was at MCAD with students in a partnership with a local high-school. This was the experience that immediately had me learning so much more than I think I have taught them.

1. Sometimes, approaching students gently rather than harshly yields better results.
As hard as this is for me to admit, because I am a total no-nonsense type of person, I cannot expect all students to be like me in their approach and focus.
2. Encourage as much as possible
Especially with my high school students, I want them to keep coming to class and finish school, so small victories may lead to something bigger.
3. Keep critiques as interactive as possible, but do not push it further than it can go.
Some people are not going to be good at this and I cannot only push the class so far to be constructive in terms of comments. It seems that most people think critiques are only for positive comments and have a hard time making suggestions. This is a skill that gets better with time as people get to know each other.
4. Adjust assignments based on comments.
I reuse assignments that work well and that I think have great lessons in them, but will change in the next class after seeing the results. Sometimes, students don't get as much out of them as I did.
5. Hands-on exercises work well sometimes, but have to be adjusted sometimes as the attention span and technology changes.
This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn. I learned almost all design by hand which I still think is amazingly valuable to understand the fundamentals, especially typography. It teaches you to train your eyes and I still think the computer is a tool, not the design. That comes from your ideas. But, I have had to adjust to get an assignment at all because younger students will push back to use the computer. Sometimes, it is the lesser of two evils.

All in all, depending on the age group and the class, teaching adjusts every week. I am surprised and challenged all the time. Good lessons for me and hopefully my students.


  1. This has been a struggle for me, too. I thrive on tough love and harsh critiques in the classroom, and I do better work when people push me hard. But it was kind of a revelation when I started teaching, and discovered that not everybody learns well this way. At first I had to do a lot of biting my tongue, but what's come out of it for me has been a discovery that what I *really* want to do is just get my students excited about whatever I'm teaching. So I'm finding that simple enthusiasm goes a lot farther than tough critiques—seeing students develop a passion for design and printing has been the best reward ever.

    Now why didn't they teach us *that* in art school?

  2. Chandler, they did teach that in art school, in the Art and Design Education program, (MAT). The Art Teaching program, that trains art teachers.

    Being a teacher is very different that being a student in art school and a designer, I agree. There are a lot of books, and training available to deal with this items that Elizabeth mentions above. She is right, teaching can change each week. It is only after spending time in a classroom environment as a teacher that we often realize this. It is truly a unique and exciting profession.