College Art Instructor: An Informational Interview Report

[Thanks to Felicita for sharing her informational interview report on how to become a college art instructor and related career information.]

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As I was thinking about this informational interview assignment, I was initially planning to interview a high school art teacher because of where I’m headed in my education and career. The art teacher I planned on interviewing was the mother of one of my art instructors at a local college. A few years back my instructor told me that her mother taught high school art, so when this project was introduced, I asked her if I could get her mother’s email to ask some questions about her career. I gave her mother a month’s notice and followed up with another email, but I did not get a reply. Then I followed up with the instructor and asked if I could interview her instead, but she politely declined my request because she was out of town. As I was starting to feel discouraged, my husband suggested another art instructor at the college that we both knew. I was hesitant at first because he was also on a sabbatical and might be busy, but I persevered and called anyway just to be sure. I requested an interview by voicemail and left my phone number. To my surprise, he called me back the next day.

My husband and I have known this college art instructor for about five years and have taken classes from him in the past. He is more like a friend and mentor to both my husband and I than a formal art instructor, so we still keep in touch via e-mail and Facebook, and sometimes we stop by his office to catch up on life. At the college where he works, I feel that most of the studio art department faculty behave in this way. They are all very helpful and informative and never seem to have a problem opening up with students for support and guidance. I think this is an essential component to being an instructor because you should be sensitive to the needs of your students inside and outside of the classroom to help them succeed.

Before I began my interview with this instructor, we talked briefly about life and school, and I was also able to explain in more detail what the career/life planning class that I was taking was about. I have known him to be one of the more unconventional teachers at the college, and I appreciated that he elaborated on many of the questions I asked. Although I already knew the answers to some of the interview questions, I asked them anyway in case he had more information to share or wanted to expand on other topics.

I used the “favorite interview questions” as a guide for the interview. The answers are briefly explained below:

The instructor’s official job title is Associate Professor of Art. He works at a California community college. His responsibilities include teaching classes and helping to run the art department. He said there is an official Chairperson of the art department, but as a whole, all instructors help build the curriculum. Their responsibilities range from helping to decide on new classes or programs, hiring part-time staff, and ordering materials.

He pointed out that interpersonal skills are vital in his profession; you have to like people! You also have to be able to communicate effectively in order to articulate your expectations to the class. Some other skills include organization, patience, and persistence with the students, especially if they are frustrated with their progress or their work does not come out the way they planned.

He revealed that a typical day would consist of coming in and preparing for that day’s class, whether for a lecture or a demonstration. He gathers the materials needed and sets them up. Sometimes he must prepare several times during the day, depending on how many classes he has in a day. Typically, he has about three classes per quarter that are taught consecutively throughout the day: a morning, mid-morning, and afternoon class, but sometimes he also does evening classes. He teaches painting, beginning drawing, two and three-dimensional design, and occasional special mural projects.

Discussing salary was not uncomfortable to talk about. He mentioned that the typical starting salary for a college art professor is about $50K per year. He says that community colleges tend to pay better than universities and can top off at $80-90K per year.

I asked him to discuss how he became an art teacher. He said that a college education was the most important step in obtaining his present career. He started at a community college where he completed his general education, then transferred to an art school (The Art Institute) to obtain his BFA. Then he entered the MFA program at UC Davis, which he said he chose over several other colleges because they had better studio space and offered grants. He mentioned that before Davis, he really didn’t know what he wanted to do with an art degree. When he was told about internship and teaching assistant programs that would help pay off tuition costs, he participated in those programs and realized that he enjoyed it and wanted to teach.

What this instructor enjoys the most about teaching art is that he gets to teach what he cares about. In his own practice, he loves making art, and in the classroom, he likes to see how students develop their skills, experience the art class, and how it benefits them. He sees the struggle that students face and likes to help encourage them through their “pains and successes.”

Three things he enjoys most about working at his college are the student contact, the autonomy or freedom of being an instructor and being able to decide what’s best for his class, and the actual beauty of the campus. He says the challenges of being an art teacher are always changing. His first years at the college were the hardest because he had to learn how to run a classroom and help the students; he had to develop a strategy that worked. He revealed that he’s always trying to find the best way to help the students and to be the best teacher; always continuing to mature himself as a teacher in order to be an asset to the students.

He mentioned one professional organization that would help me get a job in the field after I get my MFA. It’s called the College Art Association, and they travel to various parts of the country holding conference and workshops for graduate students looking to become teachers. There are workshops and job fairs that advertise job openings for both private and public schools.

At the end of our interview, the instructor had a lot of advice for me. He said that since I have a clear goal, I should just keep going for it. He said that as an undergraduate, I should produce the best work I can. He also said to be experimental and to create as much as I can. He said developing a personal style is a journey and being an undergraduate is a time to discover what makes my work unique and what sets me apart from the others. He said technique is important, but in graduate school, I must develop a cohesive body of work that “speaks” to the viewer and significantly communicates my ideas. He said graduate school will want to “unravel what you think you know to the point of making you uncomfortable, but everything will come together by the time you finish.” From a career perspective, he said to get into teaching positions and team teaching positions at the graduate level. He said to be proactive and check out what the schools have to offer; look for internal and external grants, research and interview the schools in order to make the most informed decision to get what’s best for me.

Reflection

Most of the information I gathered in this interview was not new because I had previously done research about getting a position as a high school art teacher and/or college art professor. I had also talked to other teachers about how they got where they were over the years I’ve spent at the college. I knew the necessary steps as far as getting an education, but what was new to me is that there are associations that hold workshops and fairs to help graduates get jobs. All of the information that I gathered was interesting, and more than that, I was encouraged to keep going, that sometimes it is hard, and that I should not give up even when things get complicated. My interviewee knew that finances have always been an obstacle for me and reminded me that there are other ways to pay off tuition in which I wouldn’t have to owe money. During the interview, he also mentioned that having a BFA has some options, but they are still narrow. He recommended getting an MFA for more career options.

Since I left UC Santa Cruz last year, I have been struggling with choosing the right college for me and was left feeling disheartened about my experience there. But I have come to slowly realize that everyone makes u-turns in life and that sometimes they are necessary for growth and learning. I probably would have made a better decision if I had researched more, but at least I know now. I know in my heart that I want to be an artist and I would enjoy sharing my love of art with others, whether they are high school students, which is where my love of art flourished, or in college, where I developed better skills. Both age groups present their own challenges, but I think I either path would satisfy me.

Overall, this interview was very helpful because I needed to hear that I can get where I want to be from someone who has already done it. The interview was not formal or uncomfortable because he and I knew each other. I was very appreciative that he called me back and was willing to do the interview with me, and when it was over, I remembered that it’s just his way, and I am the same, always willing to help.

Here is the thank you letter I sent:

Dear xxxxx,

Thank you for allowing me to interview you about working at a community college. I found it to be not only very informative, but also very inspiring. Sometimes I need to hear that I can still make it, despite my circumstances. It’s also good to hear that we are all human and struggle sometimes, especially when I learned that you weren’t the most responsible student in community college. Interviewing you reminded me to hope and rekindled my dream of becoming an art teacher, and more importantly, motivated me to keep painting, since it’s what I love to do also. I’m very fortunate to have such great people like you in my life to mentor me and help me to reach my artistic potential. Thanks again.

Sincerely,

Felicita



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