Teach, Breathe, Relax


My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”


2 thoughts on “Teach, Breathe, Relax

  1. Can it be that some students suffer from dyslexia or they are not meant to be in art classes to begin with and simply fell into it for lack of other options. Here are the Art Gallery we currently have 4 young emerging artists all in their early twenties. I asked a well known established artist what he honestly thought of their work and he simply said to me, if you look at their work it looks a lot like another famous artist, in this case Frank Stella. This means they have not found their own voice yet and 5 years from now will probably do something completely different. The public is far less generous in their comments which is sad but understandable.
    Frankly I feel that in 5 yrs all four will be lucky to still be in the art world at all.


  2. I get a few students a year with in depth talent, intelligence and the creative drive to say something unique. They might eventually become fine artists. I teach at a community college, and there’s no selection process beyond the requirement that they earn a high school degree. A lot of my students want to be graphic designers and see no need to know much of anything about art, and they come in with little or no exposure to fine art. Many suffer from short attention spans. Lately it’s been getting more and more difficult to communicate with them, and my usual multilevel method of showing examples, discussing theory and demonstrating techniques has become less effective. One fella who consistently drives me crazy hears what he wants to hear and tries to redesign an assignment when he feels uncomfortable. Last Saturday he came up to me and said, “So gray scale pastels are the same as compressed charcoal.” I told him no, and he repeated his statement. He hadn’t bothered to get compressed charcoal as required and tried to badger me into agreeing with him. I finally spoke to him as if he were five years old and said, “You keep saying the same thing, and I keep saying no. No means no.” Then I handed him a stick of my charcoal and sent him on his way.

    At this point I’ve opted to preserve my sanity even if that means that I’ve got to let the more obtuse students drift. I used to try to reach every one, but now I realize that that is a fool’s quest.


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