Reflections on Teaching

Oct 17 2009

I've been teaching nonstop for 13 years now, starting with a local art school that became NH first art college, at various schools, education programs, at MassArt, and now, I teach at Metalwerx, Currier Museum Art Center, Sharon Art Center and a handful of small jewelry programs.    I've taught so much, I can't always remember where I have to be at any given weekend, so my pretty battered calendar keeps me on track.   I have to schedule my life 9 months in advance.

Like so many jobs that were hard-hit by the recession, education  in many schools took a hit.  Enrollment are down and record number of workshops/classes keep getting cancelled.     It has been interesting ( and frustrating at times) to go from teaching 3-4 days a week plus weekend workshops to one or two classes a week, and the occasional weekend workshop.    For the first time in over a year and half, I've finally back teaching two classes back to back at Sharon Art Center.    Maybe it's not teaching so much and not having to teach a regular weekly class, but I have noticed a few things that have been a consistent lately this fall.   Or I'm being introspective lately.

Students, like people, tend to fall into two groups. One are the anal ones, who are obsessive complusive or prefectionists, and others are impulsive, are into instant gradification, and are too eager to sit still or never stop chattering away.    I find the instant gratification students are very impatient, cannot slow down or relax on certain jewelry techniques like piercing, which is using a very thin, fine sawblade to cut patterns in sheet metal.    After trying to teach a very chatty, implusive student a few weeks ago on how to saw properly, she was too abrupt and kept breaking every blade.   Finally, I said, fine, you don't need to saw.  Here, take these shears and cut the sheet metal.  Simple shapes, nothing fancy.   Keep it simple.   I have to give marching orders to the point, I actually have to move students around.    She was happier and I stopped being so frustrated.  It's the quiet students who often do very well with time-consuming, finicky, precise techniques since they work at a slower pace, taking their time.   Wish more people were like this. 

Implusive people are like kids, you got to keep them occupied with quick, easy to learn skills and keep the tricks coming all the time.     They can be very needy, requiring me to be next to them at the expense of the other students, and it is very draining on me.    I've had classes where one student would hog me for  the entire day/class and I would turn into a zombie a hour or two before it's over.  The worst ones are the chatterboxes, which means I have to focus on them for the entire class, thus draining me to the point I'm barely functional.    I lost much of my hearing, some of it from pounding metal for so long, so I rely on cochlear implants to hear and reading lips to understand.  Works well except if I have someone who speaks very poorly or has a ( forgive me) a motormouth.   Just having to concentrate on lipreading for 2 hours is enough.  Add 3 hours or a full day, and I cannot focus anymore.   Lipreading is hard enough. 

Of course, so much of fine jewelrymaking and metalworking isn't quick, or easy, and take years to learn and master.   After 25 years, most of metalsmithing is as natural as breathing to me.   Trying to convey that it takes time to master the skills is too long for many people.   Fortunately, there are some people who get it, and can fall into the rhythm of metalworking if they are willing.    I'm content to knit wire all day, solder metal all day and hammer metal.   Just don't ask me to saw all day.    To the right person, once discovering metalsmithing or jewelrymaking, it's like magic and it changes your life.   I took a jewelry class in high school and 25 years later, I'm still as passionate about metal as I was back then.  I just love working with metal.  It is the perfect medium and I can do so much, and not enough time to do everything. 

 Another observation I made just recently is that if I get a class or workshop that is a mixture of rank beginners and some experienced jewelry students, the beginners go thru so much wire and sheet metal, it costs me a lot of money in the materials alone.  The more experienced students use less metal and are more thoughtful of what they make.  The beginners are so eager to learn, they make as much as they can crank out in one day, thus using so much metal, they clean me out, often leaving nothing for other students to use.   Makes calculating cost of materials per student a nightmare so it's hard to put a fixed rate per student.

Those two observations I made will help me much more in figuring out how to keep the implusive ones happy while giving the quiet ones ( or the anal ones) the time they need.    Definitely a lot of wireworking is the key for the most part.    The learning pace and needs of students has changed tremendously in the past decade, and it's more of keep it shorter, simpler, project-oriented that they can take home things they've made than hardcore metalsmithing.   There are times I worry that traditional metalsmithing or jewelrymaking will suffer and that the skills hard-earned since the Egyptians will be lost, but somehow, skills get carried on from generation to generation.   I feel an obligation to keep passing on my skills so that it does not die out but be carried on by future generations.   

I know this is a long blog, but it's overdue in a way.   I had burned out on teaching thanks to too many very needy students and after a fairly long absence of teaching regularly, I was back into a weekly teaching schedule.    I do look and approach teaching differently now than what I did when I first started out.    One last thing, once I teach how to forge or hammer metal, my students turn into hammering fiends, making as much racket as they possibly can.  Pounding metal does relieve stress, but it's hard on the tools and on the body ( plus my overly abused ears!). 

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