" Listen to your students, and you will become the better teacher for it."
Dr. Veronica Hicks is professor of Art Education at California State University, Sacramento. She prepares pre-service art educators for the rewarding privilege of both teaching students and learning from their experiences.
We had the pleasure to sit down with Dr. Hicks to find out about the intricacies of her scholarship and career.
Tell us a little bit about your background. What motivated you to pursue teaching?
My mother was a high school art teacher for 20 years—of course that left quite an impact on me. My parents worked really hard for me and my brother to get private education. Being in Catholic school, I had a lot of different days off then public school, and my mom taught public school. When I had more days off in the calendar than my mother's schedule, she would take me to her school, and I got to watch my mother teaching and working with adolescents from the desk or from the back of the room. I was able to see what it is like to be an art teacher and a successful teacher for years. With that, it was just natural for me to be curious about art education as a field.
Were there any core doctrines or home values that shaped your worldview growing up?
My father always said that you can fall in love, get married, and have beautiful babies. But one thing he always asked of me is to get a degree. They can never take that away from you. My father and my mother were both first-generation college students. My mother was encouraged to be a hairdresser. She didn't like that trajectory for herself, and my father got to college on the GI Bill. He was a Vietnam vet. Seeing what he saw growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, my father just thought that if a woman can get a degree, no matter what type of negative relationship she's in, she can always provide for her family. He grew up in a single parent home, so I think that was something he was afraid of. Therefore, it was a huge part of my upbringing.
He was like, you can meet anyone you want, date anyone you want, but you have to get a degree first, so that I know you're protected—I won't have to stress out and think that you're going to be financially insecure unless you stay with somebody. So, that was my main goal—to graduate college with a degree that could support me. Seeing that my mother could carry when my father was in between jobs with a teaching degree—teaching was just the right fit.
What did you get your degree in?
My Bachelor's is in art education with a minor in crafts at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. It was a state school which I really appreciated because it was really cheap. It was not Ivy League, by any means, but it was a good school, and every art teacher that I had, once I entered the school system in Pennsylvania, got some type of degree from Kutztown University. It was known to be an art education school, and I wanted to focus on that particular part of education.
After I graduated, we had a recession. So, I did not get a job as was fruitfully promised. Everything shifted. I ended up substitute teaching for a few years. I was so afraid that I would never land a job. I just thought this is it for me, nothing is healing in our country. And I finally got an opportunity for a full time position in Camden, New Jersey. For a while on Wikipedia, the definition of poverty had a picture of Camden, New Jersey. But that was my people.
I grew up in a ghetto. I know from firsthand experience that ghetto kids need somebody who's going to give them all the attention that they need and all the care that they need—not just about delivering materials or curriculum. You have to educate the whole child.
I wanted to be in a place where I was needed most, and Camden, New Jersey was it. I was so fortunate to get my first full-time teaching job as a high school art teacher. It was amazing. But then after working in the school—which was considered a “safe school” in which students didn't have to walk through metal metal detectors to go to school—I realized very quickly that the students that had disabilities—physical, emotional disabilities—were grossly underserved by the current curriculum, and even the staff. That really bothered me as a first time teacher because you go through school, maybe you get one course in educational psychology, something to do with disabilities. I was completely unprepared to work with this student population. That's why I went back for my Master's in Art Education with an emphasis in special populations, because I was so desperate to make sure those populations of students were getting what they needed from my class.
Can you elaborate on what it was like teaching students with special needs?
You try your best with all of them. I think I always knew from watching my mom that I wanted to be the teacher that you might not remember every art project you did in their class or the content, but you remember that it was the class where you could relax, talk to your friends, accomplish work, and remember feeling good. When you graduate high school, you remember feeling good in that class, feeling safe in that class, like you could be your weird high school self in that class. Come on, we all know high schoolers are egotistical and a little awkward. I think the art room embraces that. Encouraging that made it a popular class.
Because of the situation in that particular school district, a lot of students hadn’t had art since elementary school. Sometimes it was left out of their programming all through middle school. I usually had mostly seniors taking my class, and they probably went about nine years without having a visual arts class. I felt honored to be able to reintroduce them to that.
I cared about grades and testing and making sure they passed assessments for the state. But, that legacy you leave your students with—maybe introducing them to ceramics as they graduate, and then they will want to be into pottery. You're giving them expressions or hobbies outside of school that maybe they can try out or relax with as they come home from work or share with their own children.Those were the meaningful moments that I was able to provide as a high school art teacher in Camden.
Did you have an opportunity to see them express their successes or difficulties in their work?
There were some harsh realities, even for me. You're always learning to be humbled by what your students are going through. I had one sketchbook assignment where I had my students draw their happiest birthday. I was really surprised when a student who had a physical disability, who had one arm, drew a McDonald's and a police car. I said, “Can you explain this?” I thought this student was making a joke. That showed my greenness as a new teacher. I didn't approach that as sensitively as I should have. So the student says, “Well, normally my sister and I are locked into one bedroom because we are wards to my grandmother. My grandma is alcoholic and abusive, and we usually use the bathroom in a pot in our bedroom. So, on my birthday I snuck out the window, and I wandered the streets until the police found me, and I told them about my situation, and the police took me to McDonald's while they arrested my grandmother.”
You can't train for that. I work with pre-service art educators now, and I tell my students,
You cannot prepare for everything, but what you can do is be aware and be sensitive. That's the best you can do in those situations— being aware of what your students are going through.
Can you elaborate on some of your current responsibilities?
I have the best responsibilities, because I get to teach future teachers not to bore the pants off of their students. Which is super important, and we don't do that innately. We're creative beings. If you ask your child, “Are you an artist?” They would be like, “Yeah! I’m an artist!” Then all of a sudden middle school hits, and they're like, “Oh, no. I don’t know if I can draw anymore.”
[A lot of people] get self-conscious in middle school—middle schoolers have this part of their growth in which they want to draw things more realistic. Perspective is tricky, and that's when in middle school it's like, “I can't do this. I can't draw.” And actually, if you ask someone who says, “Oh, I can't draw” to draw something, you'll see that it looks like a middle schooler’s drawing because that's where they stop. It's a stunted growth. But if you push past that, you can actually go to a high school level and beyond.
I really enjoy my job because my responsibilities are to help people push past, “I'm not really good at ceramics, so therefore I don't know if I can be an art teacher,” or “I can write this lesson plan, but how do I actually teach it so kids want to hear me and listen to me?” and “I'm so close to their age, how can I get children to respect what I have to say?” I get to talk to undergrads about how to handle a classroom, manage expectations, and excite students with the most enjoyable topic ever—visual art. Talking to children about how we engage in the visual world that we live in, from advertising to clothing choices. Why are we watching this commercial? All of that is visual art, and we get to talk about that with K-12. I love being a guide for my undergraduate students and helping them with a spark of an idea—“I really like to do this, how do I get kids excited about that?” And my answer is usually like, “Put yourself out there and expose your vulnerability. Show them your journey of how you got to be so good at digital media or painting.”
What is some advice you could give someone who wants to be an art professor?
There are a few folks that I've spoken to who want to do art education at the undergraduate or graduate level. And I commend people with that type of vision, because I was not there. I thought, high school art teacher, that's where I want to be. And of course things change. I would say apply for programs with a few years of experience actually teaching. You need three years teaching K-12 in any arrangement so that when you start theorizing about education and pedagogy, you have practice to back up on. I'm not the first person to say this, but when you have just theory, you're like a talking head. There's no substance. You're just talking about things in the ether. But when you have practice and practical knowledge and practical experience to back up the theory, it's going to make a more solid case. So, it's important to get on-the-ground experience.
Additionally, you can come from a Masters in Education, a Master's in Fine Arts. It doesn't matter. If you have something that you want to share on a larger perspective, which I think a lot of artists do, then a PhD could be the vehicle to get that message out. And that's why I pursued a PhD (or EdD which does a similar job).
Put yourself out there and expose your vulnerability. Show them your journey of how you got to be so good at digital media or painting
Can elaborate on some of the difficulties of being an art professor?
There's not usually many people that look like me in the room. As a woman of color, I'm usually the only one in any particular group. I'm lucky when I have a colleague of color in general, but usually it's never another woman of color. However, that's not the case at Sacramento State University, which is really cool because Sac State has such a nice reputation in recent years of being one of the most diverse student populations in the country. That's exciting, and it's rare.
My advice for folks who are outside of that wonderful bubble is, frankly, you might have to work harder to be seen, to be heard. But that means when you are heard, you need to be solid and correct in what you are trying to explain or what you want to move forward with. And that's going to take extra time. When you bring something up in a group, and you say there's a diversity issue, or there's a sexism issue, unfortunately, we have to prove that before it might be taken seriously or taken towards action. So, I would always suggest having backup information such as personal accounts, or even statistics. Proof is in numbers. Despite what you believe about diversity and inclusion, we rely on math. If you bring quantitative data with you to argue a point, I think that's the best way that you can help your colleagues see things from your perspective. And there is quantitative data out there.
What has helped you persevere during those times of being the only woman of color in the room?
I have an auntie, and I don't mean a literal related person. I have other women of color that I call, email, and connect with on social media, and they uplift me. We live in a big world, but really when you focus on something so intensely to the point where you study it for decades, you realize it's a very close knit community. And you all end up kind of knowing somebody who knows you.
Make sure you stay true to yourself and honor people who have come before you. We are on the shoulders of giants.
People who are in the scholarly world want to reach out and talk to the next generation of folks. Get people that you can connect with and ask questions about their research and their work. Then you can vent to them or run things by them before you get published. That's what it's all about—getting people on your team and on your side to help you as you continue on.
What are some practical skills readers can be developing now for a degree in art education?
We know that every culture has its own identity. What type of art identity comes from your culture? Is that influencing any of your own work, or where you want to work? Does it affect you how you move and perceive the world? Identify those types of things, that part of your perspective and embrace it and be aware of it. You will of course come in contact in the professional world with folks that do not share your same culture identity, and you need to understand where you're coming from and be accepting of where they're coming from.
The other side of that is being self reflective. One thing I always did as I was coming up as a young teacher was I kept a journal. It can be physical, digital, or even pictorial; you can just do a visual journal on Instagram. But you should document your experiences, document your feelings because every time you teach a lesson, every time that you work in a new school, you're growing and changing. You should be open to how you are feeling about that. And if you don’t check in with yourself, you might miss something that is telling you, okay, this school is not really a good fit for me. The only way we can do that is by collecting this historical data through journaling or some other activity—being able to go back and check and see these points of, “Hey I've been really feeling like this for the last few months or a few weeks. Do I need to change, or do I need to stay the course?” That's really an important factor.
As a teacher, there is a huge part of my teacher population that suffers from burnout. After just a few years of teaching people leave the profession. And I hope that more journaling and checking in with ourselves and having “aunties” will be a way of preventing that burnout from happening. We want people of color. We want a diverse field of art educators throughout the nation, and we don't want them leaving because there may be very simple steps we could take to keep them focused on where they need to be.
We know that every culture has its own identity. What type of art identity comes from your culture?
What is a gift of advice you would like to give to readers?
Listen before you speak. Listen to your students before you start talking to them. As teachers we are the stereotypical pillar of knowledge in the classroom. We're at the top, and the students are down here, the vessels of knowledge. We fill them with knowledge. But if you're looking at teaching holistically, and you're looking at teaching effectively, you understand that you have a student body of 30 wonderfully formed individuals with so much knowledge. And if you ask them to reflect and share with you what they want from your class, they're bound to listen to you more. They're bound to respect you more. And they're bound to buy into what you're going to teach them more. Listen to your students, and you will become the better teacher for it.