The Art Teacher as Role Model.


                Dr Max Darby: Visual and Performing Arts Consultant, Asia and the Pacific.


What did you do on the weekend Dr Dee? I’ve been asked that many times in class and I’m sure you’ve also been asked what you’ve been up to on a Monday morning. Listening to the excited chat of students about what they’ve done is always fascinating. I’ve found it’s easier to teach Art effectively if I can relate to my students on a personal level. So much of it is about confidence; my confidence in them and their confidence in me. It’s about sharing ideas and communicating about all kinds of things. And, it’s about making close connections with people with different attitudes, values and beliefs, and from diverse backgrounds. Art teachers are able to develop special relationships of trust with students that other teachers envy. I find it easier when I share with them my excitement and enthusiasm for the things I teach and for anything to do with Art in general. My reply when asked about my weekend is always something like I went to an exhibition and saw some great figure paintings (or, whatever, I’d seen)….and off I’d go!


Now, the point of this article is – if there are things you want your students to do, and ways you want them to behave, you’d best model that kind of behavior yourself. If you want them to go to art exhibitions you need them to know you value going to art exhibitions yourself.  That’s as true for the ‘personal qualities’ you want students to develop as it is for attitudes to art. If you expect people to be honest with you, for example, you need to be honest with them – always. As with everything I write, there are more questions than answers. And, that’s my own role modelling of good teaching practice – don’t provide too many answers, ask more questions. Students are not stupid! 


I’m a great believer in ‘practising what you preach’. No use saying you believe in something if your behavior demonstrates otherwise. I’m sure you know people whose actions don’t match what they say they stand for. They expect people to care about them when they are selfish and self centred. They expect students to be tolerant when they are intolerant. They expect students to put in more than the allocated class time but they never stay behind at lunch or after school. They expect students to be well-planned, highly organized and to leave the class room as they found it when their own work spaces are a disorganized mess. They expect students not to bully each other yet much of their teaching practice is overly controlling and demanding with punishments introduced that don’t fit the ‘crime.’ They expect students to be on time to class yet they are often tardy in getting there themselves, and they say they want students to love art and admire artists yet they only ever talk about artists once a week in their single ‘theory lesson’. Can you think of other things art teachers value that they need to model?


Of course, many teachers do model many of the things they value, some important educational things and some that are just ‘arty kinds of things’ that reflect their personality. I know one art teacher, for example, whose dress sense and exciting colour combinations and abstract patterns impacts stunningly on everyone, not just students. She shows imagination, flair, a creative sense of design, and clearly demonstrates ways of reflecting her good taste, individuality and personality each day to staff and students. She designs and makes much of her own clothing and is a usually a ‘walking work of art.’ I have never seen her looking messy, drab or boring. No-one misses her entry into a room and no-one misses the example she sets. And, everyone loves it.


Another teacher I know projects quite a different image of class, taste, quality and professionalism by wearing wonderfully designed and cut designer suits and tailored coordinated sets. Both teachers protect their choice of dress by wearing protective clothing and so model another organizational behaviour they expect of students. A male art teacher I know wears ties with art motifs and reproductions showing his love for his subject. He must have about 30. There was high drama one day after a student commented on one of his designs and he cut it off below the knot with scissors and passed it along for a closer look! Only he knew the tie needed replacing! Those students never forgot that incident. Of course, teaching art effectively is about more than the way we dress and the fun examples we set in terms of developing and sharing personalities, isn’t it?


I know another teacher who once took hours to apply her makeup and clothing so that she really looked like Mona Lisa when she was teaching about Leonardo. The likeness was uncanny and extraordinary. She didn’t need to tell them what she’d done, they quickly picked up the relationship between her preparation and what she was teaching. Another  very successful teacher I once knew sets up enormous still life sets in the class room (she has large spaces) using things like refrigerators filled with food, arm chairs, a carpet square and even magazines and a photo of Elvis on a coffee table! Her students are thrilled to be making sketches and paintings from such imaginative settings and scenes. There is always something in her classroom that provides challenge and motivation to her students. Taking the trouble to do such things is an example of a successful teacher making the effort to inspire her students. Imagine the additional enthusiasm and excitement if students also designed and set up some imaginative spaces. These are simple but effective examples of the teacher as role model. You want your students to take pride in how they look, then you need to role model it. You want students to take time and trouble with important activities, then you need to role model it. You want students to think and act creatively, then you need to role model it. Following are some additional ideas related to the topic of the teacher as role model that are also worth sharing and that might be employed to great effect. Certainly they help in meeting the expectations placed on good art teachers.


It’s interesting that during earlier times most artists learned their skills by working with Great Masters who role modelled successful practice and attitudes. Can you think of some artists who worked as Great Masters, or learned their skills through being apprenticed to someone else? Michelangelo and Artemisia Gentileschi are two that come to my mind. There is that rather uninformed saying today “those who can’t do teach.” In other words, if you’re not a good enough artist you can always turn to teaching. I’ve seen many examples that prove that to be quite untrue. I’ve opened many exhibitions of teachers’ works that clearly demonstrated they were worthy and skilful artists and I know of art teachers who have very successfully made the transition to full time artists. Fred Williams and John Brack managed both jobs for a while. Have you thought about organizing an exhibition of the diverse and exceptional talents of your own art staff?


For their credibility, art teachers sometimes need to demonstrate they are ‘great doers’.  Administrators, parents, students and teachers from other subject areas love to see what they can do. There is much to be gained educationally too from letting your students observe you at work. Sometimes I’d do so in class time by undertaking some of the tasks I set for the students. I also often worked after school or stayed back with senior students at night. For those who were unable to work in the studio after hours, there was always work of my own left in the studio so that they could observe my progress. Encouraging students to put in more than formal class time is easier when the teacher role models their willingness to stay behind themselves. Besides, there is the opportunity to work with students more as a colleague than as a teacher.


One enormous learning experience I had (and which provided a different experience of role modelling) occurred at school one evening after dinner (many of my students were Boarders) when I was confronted by an enormous white space on my ‘arrogantly large canvas’. I had been sitting for ages on a stool wondering what to do and where to start. One girl said to me You don’t know what to do, do you?” She then took my two hands, placed them onto my palette of colours and pushed them onto the canvas provocatively stating “Now you have to do something, don’t you?  I learnt as much from her that night as she did from me. I think it’s so valuable that students see the way you think, plan and work. They also learn from seeing you confronted with artistic problems and challenges and how you work through them. I sometimes would pretend being unsure myself of what to do next and listen to their advice as they talked about my work and what was working and what wasn’t. It was also good sometimes for them to realize that I could reject their advice and share with them my reasons. One thing that did always emerge was the capacity for these students to talk about art and to analyse situations, and to listen to a range of opinions. They became so supportive of each other in many ways. They also observed me fully focused and immersed in my painting. The effects on their own ways of working were enormous. 


My Story is a painting I completed for an exhibition of my work in 2009. It provides a role model of quite a different type (there will also be a series of traditional  9” X 5” studies related to the theme – see the images included). I worked with Papunya Tula artist, Jungala Kriss at a workshop for teachers provided by Zart. Jungala talked about his own style and intentions. Many of his works use the traditional Aboriginal dot and line style but he explores his ‘own stories’ in contemporary strong colours. Someone asked him whether it was appropriate for art teachers to engage non-Aboriginal students in dot and line paintings. He expressed his opinion that Aboriginal people don’t own dots and lines. They’ve been used by other artists for centuries. What they do own is their stories, and even Aboriginal people don’t own all of the stories. They never copy the stories belonging to people from other Countries (‘Country’ referring to different spiritual and geographical locations) who may even be living nearby. So it is quite inappropriate for non-Aboriginal students to copy Aboriginal stories. What he suggested was for non-Aboriginal students to tell their own stories based on their own experiences and lives. What ‘stories’ from my own life might the paintings reproduced here be telling? How have the Aboriginal dots and lines been used and adapted to suit my own expressive needs?


My current paintings, based on the colours and patterns of Australia, not only tell my own story but are strongly influenced by two key sources. In terms of role modelling, they show how such sources of inspiration are quite valid because they are not copies of Aboriginal works but explore personal avenues of expression. I travel extensively worldwide with my professional consultancy work and to get out of Australia to the North or West, I fly over the wonderful interior of this country. To the West, it takes 5 hours from Melbourne to Port Hedland – that’s a lot of land to fly over, and I’m always excited when I pass over the Western Australian coastline.  I spend hours looking at the amazingly beautiful country as it unfolds below me, much of it like an enormous Aboriginal painting. I always think about the capacity of some Aboriginal artists to conceptualize the terrain from an aerial perspective, even if they’ve not experienced it. While these works role model my ‘valid’ use of Aboriginal influences, look again at My Story and see whether you can guess my other inspiration?


 Of course, it’s Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist movement. Who hasn’t in some positive or negative way been influenced directly by that period of Art? In terms of role modelling, I believe teachers have an enormous responsibility in encouraging and showing students how to validly use influences from artists without simply copying them. I’m sure you, like me, have seen some horrific examples of  ‘shonky’ interpretations of Pollock’s style! I think he would be horrified. Students seem to think Pollock’s style is easy and miss the complexity of the many layers of paint. They certainly miss his intentions and focus. They need a context to work in; to know what was happening prior to his work; the various phases he went through himself, and the many influences he provided for successive artists. Along with my use of Aboriginal influences in My Story, I’ve also tried to adapt various aspects of Pollock’s style to suit my own needs – the general application of paint through splashes and dripping to help tell my own stories. I believe more is to be learned by students seeing the way such works are conceptualized and created than by talk. Role modelling can be such a powerful learning tool, for teachers as well as students.


I once drove the long trip to the Flinders Ranges via Mildura and Broken hill and collected yellow ochre and red oxide stones from a creek bed near an old Aboriginal Art site of carved symbols or images in the natural rock face. The easily recognizable landscape of Hans Heysen’s wonderful interpretation of Brachina Gorge (which I studied at school) formed a backdrop to the creek bed where I found the stones. I had the well-meaning intention of getting my VCE students (who were studying Aboriginal art and culture), to make their own colours and pigments by grinding the stones into powder and adding as binder. I didn’t do it because I wasn’t sure about the ‘correctness’ of working this way and I would never deliberately role model to my students practices that were inappropriate. I wish I’d met Jungala back then. I learned so much from him – about Aboriginal art; about his own work; about how to teach about Aboriginal art and culture: about the true history of this land; and, most of all, about myself. I learned that I’m really a loner and really always have been. I’m hoping to do more work with him and his people later this year in his own ‘Country’. That will provide me with some unique exposure to strong and powerful role modeling.


There are some interesting opportunities for role model behaviour when teaching students about art and culture. We’ve all had negative responses from a student, such as I can’t stand abstraction! Or, That’s not Art.  Know what I mean? Been there? So, what kind of role model can you provide when this happens? In reality, all of us have personal preferences for selected artists and artworks.  Do you value students developing their own preferences (while keeping their options open)?  I personally love some of Picasso’s works but not all; I admire the work of Storrier but not so much that of Sibley.  Some of you already disagree with my preferences, I’m sure. How could you be so stupid, I can hear you saying, Picasso is awesome! But that’s the reality, isn’t it? If teachers have the right to their own opinions about what art, so too do students. Of course, good art teachers work hard to ensure personal preferences of students are well informed.


I can’t stand the taste of vegemite and it doesn’t matter how many reasons you give me as to why it’s good, I will never enjoy that sick, salty taste. Art’s a bit like that. I believe one of the essential aims of all good art programs should be to help students to understand why they like the things they like.  Of course, teachers can’t focus just on working with things their students like. They need to broaden their experiences and introduce them to works of quality they know nothing about. And, I think we’d agree that if a student for some reason doesn’t like a work we value, then at least we’d want to help them recognize its quality and importance. If we really value personal opinions about art (as we often argue we do) then we need to accept that some students are not going to like all that we teach them. We need to be able to accept and acknowledge a student’s opinion. Like the vegemite example, in matters of taste, they can’t be wrong! If we don’t acknowledge the student’s personal opinions about artworks, why would we think students will value ours? Possibly they will reject them in protest. As a student I think I would have!


Here’s a quick solution to those students who take an immediate dislike to an artwork. We lose if we provide a negative response of our own, such as Be quiet and learn about it because it will be on your exam. I suggest we role model a different approach. Why not say simply, Yes there are some things I don’t like about it too, what don’t you like?  This acknowledges and validates their opinion but immediately refers them back to the work, engaging them with it and making them analyse it’s contents. Surely that’s what you wanted anyway. And you and other students can participate in the conversation and discussion that follows. You might ask the class who else sees things they don’t like, and who sees things they do like? Picasso’s Weeping Woman is a great work with which to deliberately employ this kind of strategy. Education Officers know if they get a negative response early with a group of students, they will have a great session. They sometimes deliberately take students to a work that will encourage group interaction. Have you ever noticed how there are seldom ‘trouble makers’ at such sessions? During the classroom discussion, a student might change his/her mind. That would be good. They also might not. That’s not necessarily bad.  But through being a part of the discussion (rather than excluded from it) they might better come to understand some of the qualities that you and other class members see in the work. That would certainly be good. There are many other strategies you can use. What would you do? Role modelling a rational and thoughtful approach to differences of opinion is one of the tasks in which art teachers need to engage.


One related issue that often comes up in class, and that the teacher needs to provide a role model for, is separating two closely related but quite different evaluative judgments about art. Those are the good/bad decisions and the like/dislike decisions. Both are important in art and art education. They become totally mixed up with comments such as “I think it’s good because I like it.”  I’m to be convinced that because you like it, it’s necessarily good! Always be wary when people use the word because in a sentence even if it’s not about art. Check that what comes before and after the word because are logically related to each other!  ‘Good’ and ‘like’ don’t always go together.


There are some forms of music you can acknowledge as being good but which you don’t like. Apologetically, I use Michael Jackson as an example. Many people would agree he is a great performer but they don’t like him or his singing. The reverse is also true. There are also examples of music that you find catchy and enjoy that are not likely to ever be considered ‘classics’. (Damn, I used to like Kasey  Chambers Not Pretty Enough!) The teacher needs to show students the differences between the two kinds of decisions (the like/dislike decisions and the good/bad decisions) and to redirect them to use comments and language that are appropriate to the kind of judgment being made. I sometimes have problems with teachers who are assessing students for their final exams saying things like I don’t like, such and such (maybe illustration). I once heard an examiner/reviewer say I don’t like conceptual works, I thought they went out in the 70’s! I don’t do it but I’m tempted to say I don’t care too much about what you like or dislike, I’m only interested in how good the student has done whatever it is he or she says they’ve done. Maybe my own role modelling needs to be adjusted? It is important though that art teachers provide sound role models of judgment-making.


One last comment about art and making judgments about art is that opinions often change over time. We need to acknowledge that fact and allow students to adjust and modify their opinions as appropriate. In fact, much of our teaching is based on the assumption that students’ opinions can be changed or modified over time. Don’t we often set out to do that? When talking to students I sometimes liken art works to people. There are some we meet who impress us and who we quickly respect. There are some we admire without quite knowing why. There are others we take a liking to over time. I have great ‘art friends’ that I love to visit regularly and I never tire of them…some works by Turner and Constable in the National Gallery in London and a wonderful room of Mark Rothko works I visit often in the Tate Modern Gallery. What trusted ‘art friends’ do you have? Like trusted ‘people friends’ I value these works enormously and try to spend time with them often, as I do art friends in Australia – Blue Poles, The Pilbara series of paintings by Fred Williams, the Impressionist paintings of Jane Sutherland, the powerful environmental works of Mandy Martin and the Indigenous interpretations of Rover Thomas. But there are also works, ‘old friends’, I once thought were important or that I valued which I now realize were rather shallow. They promised so much when I first met them but then failed to deliver. These I no longer consider as significant and feel rather let down by them. Can you think of art works that are like that?  Students will experience changes in taste too (both in their own artworks and in artists’ works) and as role models we need to be able to accommodate these.


A final example of excellent role modelling is provided by a teacher friend who was having some difficulties convincing students who didn’t see the value of spending much time on their developmental work and maintaining their visual diaries or workbooks. His solution to the problem was to keep his own developmental diary and workbook which was kept openly on the front table. Regular entries were made about his teaching, exhibitions he attended and the development of his own ideas for studio works. He made his book visually exciting and stimulating and challenging.  He valued what he did and role modelled his obvious enjoyment in maintaining his workbook. Students would check his book each lesson and they tried to develop new and interesting ways to record and display information themselves.  It was a stunning success.


There are many personal qualities for which art teachers can become positive role models – honesty, trust, integrity, punctuality, cleanliness, reliability, health and safety awareness, respect, flexibility, organization skills, a capacity to share and listen, compassion, caring, focus and dedication, patience, and a desire not to quit. How might an art teacher role model some of those qualities?


The idea of teacher as role model is one I believe is most critical for art teachers everywhere. Everyone is a role model. What kind of role model are you?







Max Darby

My Story

July, 2008

Acrylic on canvas

1 Meter X 0.8 Meter







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41 Responses to “The Art Teacher as Role Model”

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    As a former student, you inspired me to become an Art Teacher too.
    Reading over the articles you have written, I’m reminded very fondly of being in your art classes at St.Caths. It is interesting for me now completing the last few weeks of my teachers training, to read and understand the theoretical ‘behind the scenes’ or the ‘why’ of everything you did for me, the students, and the school community.
    Inspiring role model you were and still are. I only dream of one day becoming half the art teacher you are Mr D!

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