You can't teach art without getting paint on your hands

18th August 2006 at 01:00
Sometimes it's hard for teachers to remember why they went into teaching.

When the nitty gritty takes over and the paperwork, meetings, demands of assessment and behavioural issues swamp everything else, they can struggle to recollect what it was that initially attracted them to the profession.

For many, especially at secondary level, it is love of their subject and the desire to inspire children's learning which prompts them to make the leap. Rekindling a passion for the subject can do wonders for reinvigorating professional practice and recharging energy levels.

For many art teachers, the desire to be an artist came first; the desire to share practice with students was a secondary consideration. Indeed, art educators increasingly argue that you cannot be an inspirational art teacher without continuing to engage in your own practice.

Susan Coles certainly thinks so. It might be a tough call to carry on as an artist with all the other pressures on time, but this head of art at Biddick school in Washington, Tyne and Wear, has rediscovered love for the job and for her subject since she picked up a sketchbook and started to draw again for herself.

Ms Coles was one of 10 teachers from schools in the north of England chosen for a bursary from the Association of Advisers and Inspectors in Art and Design that offered art teachers the chance to be artists in Venice for a week. That experience four years ago - being with like-minded professionals in an art-soaked city, drawing, sketching, creating digital images, looking at art, dining out on art away from work and family - has had a profound and lasting effect.

Ms Coles has continued to make art since: at home, in galleries and in school, often working alongside her pupils as a method of teaching. An advanced skills teacher, she says that she came back alive with excitement and energy from the trip - and has not stopped buzzing.

"Most art teachers start out as artists. We all go to art school and hope to make some kind of living from our art, but then we go into teaching and after a while the art stops. When I came back from that trip to Venice all of that ambition came back to me. Now I take a sketchbook everywhere, even to meetings so I can doodle when I get bored."

Ms Coles has been creating digital art and exhibiting these past few years, but she has also undertaken to work with her pupils, sitting the same exams - GCSEs in graphics, photography and fine art - exhibiting her work alongside theirs as a way of teaching by example and pepping her professional enthusiasm.

"I have learnt a lot about different learning styles through making the art myself. Pupils are able to talk to me about what I'm doing, in fact they become quite competitive. Children like you to share ideas from your own practice and I think it makes you a more rounded person. I now feel sorry for people who teach art and don't do it themselves."

In particular Susan Coles has remained in contact with Stephen Livingstone, head of art at Spennymoor technology college in County Durham, who also attended the Venice trip. He has since developed his watercolour landscape painting into digital installation, exhibiting in school and in local galleries, as well as earning a contract with the British Library, collaborating with archaeologists and experts on the Lindisfarne Gospels to create a website called Sacred Book.

He believes this creative involvement has made him a better and more enthused teacher: "I think it gives me greater credibility with pupils and feeling valued as an artist has given me a huge boost. Being involved in these challenging projects makes me feel part of a wider cultural scene and that has to be good for my teaching."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, is a former art teacher who's continued as an artist, exhibiting widely.

"Working with youngsters if you are an artist can be tremendously satisfying," he says. "I used to love bouncing ideas off the kids in terms of my own work."

Before his position with the NUT, Mr Bangs taught art in schools within the now defunct Inner London Education Authority which used to run a London art teachers association, providing workshops in drawing and painting, meeting art teachers' needs as artists in the holidays and evenings. "That association had a tremendous knock-on effect in terms of your teaching. It created a community of artists that were better teachers for it. The art curriculum has become excessively didactic in my view, but if you carry on with your own art it brings an essential vibrancy to your classroom practice."

In September Susan Coles starts an MA in Fine Art and Education run by Northumbria University and the Baltic gallery of contemporary art, Newcastle upon Tyne, supported by the National Society for Education in Art and Design. The society runs an artist teacher scheme nationally with the Arts Council. For more information see

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