Teaching is Making


I have started this essay, paused, restarted, renamed and abandoned it, too many times to count. The problem is always the same: I do not know how to write about how you should teach, or even about how I taught. I did it a lot, only got fired once, so I must know something about it. [FYI, I got fired by an inexperienced college president who couldn't deal with students complaining about me simply because I told one that showing up 20 minutes late for a 9 a.m. class when you live in the same building as the classroom is staggeringly unexplainable other than by a lack of desire to come to class at all, so why not admit it and sleep even later? And also because I mentioned to a couple of students in that same class that I found their work boring mostly because they didn't do enough of it to get any further than mediocre. This was not considered 'nurturing'. If a baby bird expects to eat, it at least has to open its mouth.]

Who are you?

Teaching well is a particular, peculiar, conjunction of skills. It is well beyond what is taught in Ed. school. I never went, but every decent teacher who did admits that. Teaching is transmission. There are lots of ways a gift is given, lots of ways it is received. An old man sits at a fire, speaking old truths new to a boy who becomes a man one tattooed dot at a time. A rat develops an overall perspective of the maze and quickly finds the now-moved food. A teen weighs your bullshit factor before deciding how closely to listen, how much to trust. An adult looks for competency wrapped in menschness. She responds by breathing slower. The point is not in what you tell them, it is in what they can do with it. It isn't in the outcome, it is in the process. The end isn't when the bell rings, it's when they don't need you anymore.

Some of teaching is always having two ways to explain anything: straight forward, and around some curves. We understand in a variety of ways. Have lots of visuals and toys. Draw things, being sure to establish right away, and with some self-deprecation, that you cannot draw, that if you could draw you might have become a painter. At least 17.5% (I make up statistics) of the class will identify. No one can draw, render reality, well without 10,000 hours of practice. (And that goes for teaching also. And making anything well enough.)

Leave enough vagueness in assignments to allow room for opportunity. Or don’t give assignments at all; let students’ work develop organically. Tread very carefully into a student's creativity. It's a mine field filled with ego-bombs that can go off in different degrees, but always in harmful directions. Sometimes you can inadvertently push a creative student into being the most common denominator by insisting they do an assignment the way you, and most of the class, envisioned it. Get over it. Get into it. Get it.

Is this a 'teaching moment'? Don't speak without thinking all around the issue. Henry James criticized art by asking of himself, three questions:

     What is the artist trying to do?

     Did the artist accomplish it?

     Was it worth doing?


Who's right and who's wrong is not only irrelevant to your purpose, but dangerous. You are just about to, at best, lose that student's confidence in you as a possibly-memorable teacher; at worst, have them begin the process of dismantling their creativity to become 'normal'. How sad for both of you.

When you have a teaching moment treat it like gold. It is a chance to slide out of the teacher and into the mentor. A mentor guides with allusion and illusion. Think of Pat Morita in those Karate Kid movies, or Master Po fondly calling David Carradine "Grasshopper" just as Carradine is about to pick up the pot of boiling oil to get those neat dragon scars and pass out in the snow. Explore the student's work more freestyle even if the assignment was backstroke. Help the student move from where they are to another place. Oh, and the student has no idea what that place might look like - if they did, they would go there on their own. The mentor has to figure that out based on the student, not on his/her own road. And good luck with that.

Other things I've learned are also easier to state than to implement: Listen, watch, take nothing for granted; Be aware that no one enjoys listening to lectures; Allow breaks for texting, email, and Facebook, otherwise they will do it anyway and miss something; Never let a good writer write anything for extra credit; Don’t like everything (you’re not their mother) and don’t dislike everything (they’re not you). And never take it personally. Or give it personally.

You will have, in each and every class, whether inner city high school or Seven Sisters, 98% mediocre and maybe 2% raw creative. So that's 0.5 student in a class of 25. I may overstate, but you get the drift. Over 50 years in the creative world as participant and active viewer, I am convinced, have seen over and over again, that, against all Me Culture expectations, not everyone is creative. Some of your students may become ArtEd teachers, a few of your students will go to art school, fewer will become working artists, and likely none of them will become rich and famous at art. And of course, that fame-less-ness prediction includes you and me.

This is not a reason or excuse to slouch. Everyone in your class is a volunteer. Everyone is excited about photography and excited to be there. Everyone is looking forward to getting better, and maybe, against their parents wishes, become a professional photographer if not a 'fine artist', whatever definition of that you care to use. If you don't love and understand photography enough to believe in your capability to expand your students' love and understanding and abilities, then you should be duplicating keys at the hardware store.

I made a point of not showing my own work until the end of the course, if then. Curious students will find it on line anyway, but only a few will bother, unless you do nudes, in which case everyone will have seen it before they come to day one. The problem with showing your work lies with the psychological truth that students, any age, want to please teachers. Imitation is meant to please, but while it reduces their anxiety about being accepted, it steps on their imagination. I’m always sorry for the students when I go to a show and can tell who the teacher was by the student work. Bad form. He/She either showed their own work early on, or they unconsciously bent the students in a direction in critique or assignments. Sometimes we're just more palpably enthusiastic about work in our own genre or style. Good teaching involves being neutrally open to your student’s ideas, helping refine them, not change them. Every boy/man is entitled to make horror and skateboard photos, every girl/woman should take her share of abandoned building self-portraits and body image photos.

Lead gently, but push firmly. Critique honestly but be sure everyone knows the comments are about the work, not the student, because we all identify and invest a lot in our work. Skin is thin, the blood is right underneath; make it always about ‘this viewer’, 'this maker', and ‘this image’, not me, you, and your photo. Teach students to always look behind them — might be a picture there, too.


Where are you?

A high school class, a single or series of college courses or workshops are places where one learns about a creative art, like writing or photography, and even learns a bit about the process of being an artist. Pairing students with a practicing artist-teacher has worked for centuries - think of the apprentices in a master’s atelier who go on until each is either ready to produce his/her ‘masterpiece’ and go out on their own, continue on with the process, or give up go back to the dairy barn. Or Dairy Queen.

Courses teach one or both of two sorts of things: specific skills or, broadly speaking, art-making philosophy. Masters do the same things, gradually changing emphasis as time passes and skills and minds both broaden and sharpen. A basic course spends much of its time on acquiring skills and fluency in hardware, software, and materials, but a graduate course, or a master level workshop, assumes those skills and concentrates instead on building an attitude and thought process towards making and seeing art and functioning as an artist in the world. In a single-artist medium, like photography but not film, painting but not sculpture, building furniture but not boats, your finest students should end up able to practice and make work all alone, without mentor or editor, in that romantic atelier in Paris or flat in Bushwick, if that’s what they want.


John Cage had this to say: 

By John Cage, Composer (1912 - 1992)

1.  Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

2.  General duties as a student:
          Pull everything out of your teacher
Pull everything out of your fellow students.

3. General duties as a teacher
          Pull everything out of your students.

4.  Consider everything as an experiment.

5.  Be self disciplined. This means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self disciplined is to follow in a better way.

6.  Follow the leader. Nothing is a mistake. There is no win or lose, succeed or fail. There is only make.

7.  The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is those people who do all the work all the time who are the ones who eventually catch on to things. You can fool the fans but not the players.

8.  Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are very different processes.

9.  Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It is lighter than you think.

10.  We are breaking all the rules, even our own rules, and how do we do that? By leaving room for the "X" qualities.



Always be around
Come or go to everything.

Always go to classes.
Read everything you can get your hands on.
Look at movies carefully and often.
SAVE EVERYTHING.... It may come in handy


What is your purpose, why are you teaching?

Making confident artists, making curious art students, passing your stuff on is the job of teaching.