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We kick off this year in conversation with Alex McKean, an art teacher from St. Johns County. As you’ll hear her explain, even pre-kindergarten art class is not immune from the culture wars certain politicians are waging on public education.
Nonetheless, she has a hopeful vision for the future and works to make sure her art classroom is a place where all students have fun while learning new skills and gain confidence in themselves.
Alex McKean, Art teacher, St. Johns County
- Arts Curriculum – St. Johns County School District (stjohns.k12.fl.us)
- Visual Arts Resources (fldoe.org)
- Arts in Education – Division of Arts and Culture – Florida Department of State (myflorida.com)
- Arts Education Matters: We Know, We Measured It (Opinion) (edweek.org)
- The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies
- New evidence of the benefits of arts education (brookings.edu)
Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA president Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit feaweb.org/podcast
Sharon Nesvig: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.
Tina Dunbar: Welcome back to another new season of Educating from the Heart. I’m Tina, here with my cohost, Luke. And we’re kicking off the start of a brand-new school year, as close to 3 million Florida students head back to their classrooms. And I bet you can relate to this, Luke. This is an exciting and busy time of the year for parents, students, and for teachers too.
Luke Flynt: You are absolutely right, Tina. As a teacher, there was nothing more exciting to me than the start of a new school year. the first day of school was one of my favorite days of the entire calendar year. It was actually my favorite time of the entire calendar year. There was just no other time where you have that sense of joy and hope and optimism of what a new year can bring. I also really looked forward to the start of a new school year as a student.
In particular, I looked forward to my band class with Mr. Sammons. He did such a great job of creating a sense of community, a sense of camaraderie that we all wanted to be back together at the start of a new school year.
Tina: That sounds like a really wonderful experience, you know, as a parent, it’s all about preparing your child for school and completing all the paperwork at the beginning of the school year. And with the recent changes to the law, I anticipate parents will face numerous permission slips this year to allow use of a Band-Aid to lunch selections, even nicknames a student may share with their classmates.
Times have really changed, Luke, but my best memories date back to when I was a student. Back to school was filled with so much anticipation. You wanted to check out the new students, the changes in the school building, and the teachers leading your classes. My art teacher Marilyn Price still stands out. She taught me to spend time in reflection and how to process events in the world around me. You know, back then teachers were free to openly talk with their students and answer questions that made you think and expand your curiosity.
I truly believe her influence helped me to excel in school. You know, these days, Luke, we really downplay the importance of art and music to student learning and achievement. They weren’t afraid to answer questions. I truly believe that sense of freedom and security helped her to help me excel in school.
Luke: Oh, it absolutely does. Again, speaking as a former teacher, many of the best lessons that I ever taught came from students’ natural curiosity. And if I had said, “No, I’m sorry. We have to stick to this script or to this page. I can’t answer your question.” Just the number of learning opportunities my students would’ve missed out on are countless. When you talk about the importance of building relationships with students, right? We know that students don’t learn from people that they don’t like.
It is so vitally important that we have that relationship building. And that is, you know, one of the things that all this legislation is intentionally trying to harm, the relationship between the student and the teacher.
Tina: And that’s why we sat down with an art teacher from St. John’s County named Alex McKean. We spoke with her over the summer about her experience over the past school year and her hopes for this upcoming year in light of some of the new restrictions educators are facing.
Luke: And, you know, Tina, I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that when you and I look back on our schooling, we fondly remember an art teacher. Just like Ms. Price that you mentioned and Mr. Salmons for me, Alex really tries to make sure that her students learn art, of course, but not just art. That art is a vehicle for her students to better understand themselves, better understand the world and their role in it.
Alex McKean, Art Teacher, St. Johns County: Hi, I’m Alex McKean. I’m from St. Augustine, Florida. I teach elementary school art. I’ve been doing that for one year. Before that, I taught four years of high school art. This next year will be my sixth year, but I went from high school to elementary, which is a big difference. So, I really feel like this past year was my first year all over again.
Tina: You’re starting all over again. Wow.
Alex: Yes. I mean worth it. I love them, but definitely… I teach pre-K pre-pre-K through fifth grade. They call them PPEs. I don’t know why, but, three-year-olds-
Luke: I think I have a good idea.
Alex: Three-year-olds to twelve-year-olds. And I used to teach 14 to 19 year olds. And just developmentally the difference is exponential, and they put these three-year-olds and four-year-olds together in this classroom, and they can’t do the same things. So, really I spent this year trying to figure out what they can do, because I didn’t know. I was like, okay: you can’t read, you don’t know your shapes, you can’t spell your name, you don’t really know what a line is. Trying to explain what a line is, is harder than it sounds. Because it’s just one of those things that you forget how you learned it. So how do you teach that? How do you teach what a color is?
Tina: Well, I would think it would be particularly more difficult now to teach a three year old because, if my math is correct, their first year of life was during 2020.
Alex: Yep. So they’re very different children,
Tina: Right? Because they were not exposed to a lot of things that normal child would be exposed to just going out.
Tina: Just experiencing the world. It’s gonna make it difficult.
Alex: It, it was challenging. And even for the rest of the grades, like second graders. They hadn’t really had a real school year before. So, like getting in line, you know, you can’t mute them in real life. So, like getting used to those routines of school that you just sort of assume they know inherently, but that’s not how that works. You know, behaviors aren’t always kids acting out it’s them not knowing how to, I don’t want to say behave, but like how to do it the right way. And so you have to teach them how you want them to be. Because otherwise they’re not being bad. They just don’t know how to be.
Tina: It’s interesting you mentioned that because one of the things you hear from many teachers is behavior is a real problem across the board, and you approach it from, it’s not that they’re being bad, they just, you need to set the expectations.
Alex: You need to teach them how to be good.
Tina: No matter what age then.
Alex: Exactly. And you know, at the end of the day, they’re children, and we are teachers and we are there to teach them, whether it’s art, whether it’s how to tie their shoes, you know, whether it’s what a cloud is. You know, you’re there to teach them not only about your subject matter but about life. And I know that’s a bit of a sticky situation in today’s day and age, but, you know, that’s our job is to prepare them for the world. And that’s all we try to do, that and love them.
Tina: Do you feel today’s sticky situation gets in the way of what you need to do?
Alex: I, I do. Um, and I hate to say that, because I love teaching so much, but I do feel that a lot of the issues with teaching now are because we feel these pressures from society. It’s not even society. It’s people that don’t know our profession. We’re the teachers. We went to college for this, we know what we’re doing in our classroom, and we want to do what’s best for kids. And so, they don’t understand how these laws and these different regulations and rules affect or how they are going to be enacted in the classroom.
Like they look all well and good on paper, but the actual ramifications of them. don’t work in the classroom. It shouldn’t be all about politics. You know, you shouldn’t be making these decisions about an entire profession based on a feeling or something you heard from your cousin’s friend.
Tina: Do you feel the state has overreached into curriculum?
Alex: Yes. I mean, it’s so crazy because teachers read these things and we’re like, who told them this was a good idea? No teacher told them this was a good idea, for a fact. No one in the classroom was like, yeah, yeah, yeah that’s, that’s what we should do. Because we know that’s not going to be positive in practice. It’s just not. And it hasn’t been,
Luke: So, I could very clearly imagine, even though I haven’t been in the classroom in a few years, how the political climate would impact an English classroom.
Alex: Yes. Especially.
Luke: Yeah. But help me understand how it impacts an art classroom.
Alex: Well, for me, despite teaching art, there are plenty of things that come up in my classroom, because they’re doing a lot of independent work, and that is when conversations happen. So, if a child says something inappropriate, I want to explain to them why that’s not okay. And there are some rules being put in place that make it difficult for me to explain why that is not nice, that is not kind, and that is not okay for you to do period. Because people see it as, oh, that’s just your opinion. I’m like, no, it’s either kind or it’s not there’s no, oh, I think that’s nice. You know, I don’t know, like there, there are offensive things and there are things that are not offensive. If someone’s offended by it, it’s offensive. That’s what offensive is.
Alex: And we’re being sort of put in these boxes where we can’t do that classroom management, because we don’t want to say something that will sort of open a floodgate to some other conversation, because kids ask all types of questions-
Tina: And they should.
Alex: They should. And we should be able to answer them, and we’re being sort of muzzled. And it gets in the way.
Tina: So, does this kind of craziness kind of contribute to the discipline issues?
Alex: Oh, a hundred percent. Because if you can’t… kids need to understand why they can’t do certain things. And if you can’t tell them why they’re gonna be like, well, then I’m gonna keep doing it. I don’t see a problem with it. I think it’s funny. Like it just… you have to teach them that’s our job. We’re there to teach them; let us teach them. We’re not trying to be political. We’re not trying to sway your child anyway. We’re just trying to give them information, and they can make their decision after that.
Luke: So I’m, you know, trying to go back to when I was in elementary school and thinking of the things that I did in art class, and like rainbows, right. Weather is a thing
Alex: I make rainbows all the time,
Luke: Right? Yeah. I mean, for lots of reasons.
Alex: Color theory, that’s incorporating science. Cross curricular is the best way for kids to retain. So, if I’m gonna teach them about colors, I should teach them about the rainbow. And now the rainbow has this whole new meaning, but it’s also still just a rainbow
Luke: Right, but that’s what I was getting at. Is that, is there the fear that if a child little Johnny comes home with artwork and then Mom calls up this school and says, “This art teacher is having my child paint rainbows!”
Alex: That is very real. And like this year, kids love making bracelets. They just think it’s so fun. They get to pick the beads. They’re like, I’m gonna spell my name. And, um, it, it’s just a great way for them to learn like dexterity and find motor skills. Um, and one boy came back in, and he was like, can I make another bracelet? My mom won’t let me wear, wear the one I made.
Alex: And he was like, well, because bracelets are for girls. And so, it’s things like that where I never even thought of that. Men wear jewelry all the time. Most jewelers are men.
Luke: I’m wearing a bracelet!
Tina: A lot of men do. My husband wears like the leather ones that are made for men with the, you know, his initials.
Alex: I mean, but artistry is not gendered. You’re just producing art. And like the fact that that was even taken that way, blew my mind. Never in a thousand years, would I think making bracelets with children would be a political problem because they were just having fun. We weren’t even talking about anything. They’re like, “Ooh, there’s purple. I’m gonna make this one purple and this one sparkly, and I’m gonna put BFF and I’m gonna give it to Sarah.” Like they just love it because they made it, and they get to wear it.
Tina: I think that’s everybody’s biggest concern now that’s something that’s so basic, so simple, so innocent can be turned into something so ugly, so divisive, you know? So hateful
Alex: And we just want to teach them love because that’s what we’re, that’s what we want. We want them to feel love. We want them to give love, and we don’t want to put these limitations on them because they’re just kids. They don’t need to see that big, angry world. They don’t need that hate. They just need to have fun, and they need to learn.
Tina: If you were to sit down with a legislator, what would you say to them?
Alex: I would ask them, that before anything else, ask the teachers, not the administrators, not your friends, not your political allies, but ask the people that are in the classroom right now, because teaching now is different than it has been ever. And so, the only people that know what will work for teaching now are the teachers who are teaching now.
Luke: So, imagine that I am the legislator, and you’ve just told me that, ask the teachers, ask me what I need. What’s your answer? What, what can I do when it comes to legislation to make sure that you’re able to give every student the quality education they deserve?
Alex: It’s different supports, especially when it comes to new teachers. So, when someone decides to get into the teaching profession, they’re doing it out of passion. They want to help kids, but once they get there, they don’t always have the supports in place that they need. So, you know, having mentorship programs at schools and not just, you know, throwing it on another teacher’s plate, who’s already doing their full-time job, you know, but having systems in place to support them.
Having more PD [professional development] that’s, you know, available and free because we all know that we don’t make that much money. We can’t just fly out to San Diego anytime we want. And to teach us, you know, how to deal with difficult behaviors, how to teach a culturally diverse classroom, um, how to reach out to parents, how to become more involved in the community in a professional way.
Like all those things, aren’t necessarily taught in college or even, you know, how to use the different grading systems and school systems. They don’t teach like a Schoology class in college. They don’t teach a e-school solutions, Dojo. They don’t teach any of that. You just have to figure that out. They’re like, oh yeah, we use this program, but every district is different, right? So, you move districts, you gotta learn a whole new thing, but there’s not necessarily a person or a system in place to teach teachers that.
Tina: Kind of feel your way through is what you’re saying?
Alex: Yeah. And that takes away from everything else. Like we already have so many different things that we need to focus on. We can’t ignore it. And so then automatically other things get sort of just pushed away or forgotten about, you know, swept under the rug a little bit, things that we would want to focus on. We can’t because we have to do all of this other stuff that we don’t necessarily know how to do. Not that we couldn’t, but that we haven’t been given the tools or the support to do it well.
Luke: So, I hear that both as a new teacher there is so much on your plate. And then even there may be some really wonderful, experienced teachers who would love to mentor you, but their plates are full as well.
Alex: Yes, I was very- sorry.
Luke: I’m sorry. What should be taken off the plate?
Alex: It’s not even that I think it should be taken off the plate. I think that it should be like a position. Like I’ve talked about this with my teacher friends. Like there should be teacher mentors in place, just like an ILC, just like a registrar, you know, someone to help teachers teach.
Tina: Not just another teacher that’s designated, someone who’s paid to do this. A professional totally dedicated to doing that.
Alex: Exactly. I was very, very fortunate my first year teaching I had two amazing mentors. They taught me everything. Obviously not about art, they weren’t art teachers, but, um, content isn’t usually the problem.
Alex: It’s the nuances of teaching that people need help with. And that’s that, that can’t be that hard to do. I mean, I feel there’s so many positions that we don’t even really understand as teachers. Like, what is you do all day? And I don’t mean that in a, like a negative or offensive way, but I feel like as a school, everyone should be working together towards a common goal. And it’s not that I think that that’s not what’s happening, but it’s not always so obvious what everyone’s role is and how they’re contributing.
And I think with all the interventionists and all the other people that help teachers paraprofessionals, all those people. We should also have someone who is helping teachers with those things or having more PD readily available all the time, not just during the summer, you know, the summer isn’t when problems are happening right. The summer isn’t when you’re like, I don’t know how to do this anymore. It’s during the school year.
Tina: So, you don’t feel that you get the PD you need during the school year? Is that what you’re saying?
Alex: Yes, and yes, there’s PD, but it’s not always on target because again, we’re not always…I just feel like it boils down to people are not asking the people in the classroom what they want or need because wants aren’t always important.
Tina: Tell me about this year. How would you characterize this year as compared to any year within the last, since you started teaching? You’ve been teaching for six years.
Alex: I will say I’ve had a very interesting beginning to my teaching career. So, like the first few years we had that testing crisis, then COVID. Then COVID 2.0, and then this year was a little bit more regular, but all the students have that trauma from what they went through.
And so, none of my years teaching have been typical. And I would say this year would be the closest to my first year, but, for me, I’m dealing with the same, like I’m dealing with the younger brothers and sisters of my students from the high school, but, um, the, the kids are different.
Tina: How does that make you feel?
Alex: I mean, I’m always excited to learn new things and, you know, the kids are changing and I’m excited to learn how to teach them best. You know, and it’s challenging, but I know that, or I, I hope that we will get through it. And I really think that with the kids back in the school, we can start to make this difference and putting those SEL lessons in place. And I really feel like I’m starting from the bottom and we can raise these kids right. And like, because you have to, if there is an issue you have to start from the foundation to fix a problem. Everything else is a band-aid. So, teaching these kids these skills will help them succeed in all areas. Because if you don’t know how to be a person, how are you supposed to become successful in any way?
Because being confident in yourself and knowing that you can solve problems is how you succeed in any subject. It’s perseverance, it’s confidence. And it’s knowing that you have that support to help get you through any difficult time or subject in your life, knowing that you can get through that. But that again has to be taught.
People don’t inherently know these things. It’s not human nature. You have to teach them how to be a good person. And I think people are naturally good, but you have to teach them how, you have to give them that direction.
Luke: At some point, hopefully there will be fifth graders for whom you were the only art teacher they ever knew. And, and when they leave elementary school and, and head on to sixth grade, what do you want them to say about you? How do you want to be remembered?
Alex: I would say, I’m a little bit strict for an art teacher. I have some certain rules, but I would want them to leave with a sense of confidence in themselves because so many people get it in their head like, “oh, I can’t draw, I can’t paint. I can’t do this,” but it is just practice. If you are passionate about something, if you like something, if something is fun, the more you do it, the more you will get better at it. And the same goes for art. So, I want them to be able to say, “I am an artist, and I might not be the best, but I am doing my best and I will get better.”
And I try to remind them you are a child. You’re not supposed to be Picasso. What you’re doing right now is incredible for your age. And that is a hard concept for them to understand because they see all these things on the internet, and they’re like, oh, why can’t we do that? I’m like, you also can’t drive because you’re not old enough.
Like there’s a lot of things that are defined by certain milestones in your life. Skills are no different.
Tina: How do you see the future public education?
Alex: I, I mean, most of my friends are teachers and I, I really feel that if we keep being as passionate and as driven as we are, and we try to prepare more new teachers to get to where we are, we can make a difference in public education because there’s so much potential. And there’s so many people that care about these kids. They just need to be heard and respected. I don’t necessarily know how to do that, but I mean, organizing and, you know, talking to your legislators and getting them to hear you and what we need and what these kids need.
We’re going to make a positive change. And I really hope that we will step away from, you know, focusing on parents’ rights and focusing more on what teachers need to make your students successful. Instead of this sort of blaming culture.
Tina: Because what’s that doing to education, from your point of view?
Alex: From my point of view, it it’s, it’s draining us. Like you never hear a teacher say they leave because of the kids. They leave because their profession broke them. And that is so sad.
Tina: That is sad. It really is.
Alex: Because the goal is to help the students. But when we are not allowed to do our jobs, it gets very frustrating when we are not trusted to do what we know is best. It is disheartening. And hard to move past. I do feel like I am still making that difference. And now I feel like I can start making my own art again. You know, um, when I was teaching at the high school, I was giving all of my artistic energy to my students because they were taking these college level art classes, and it’s exhausting to be creative all the time.
Tina: It’s not something you just turn on and off.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. I’m, I’m excited to, to start doing some of that as well, because. When you’re teaching art in elementary school, it’s all about the fun. At the high school level, it’s more serious and about, you know, the artistry and, you know, fine arts and things like that. At elementary school level, you’re just playing, and it’s beautiful.
Tina: Well, I must say, students at St John’s County are lucky to have a teacher such as Alex leading their classrooms. And did you hear, she has a solution for student discipline issues, setting expectations and teaching students how to be students in her classroom? I think that’s so important. And she also speaks on the importance of support for teachers and mentoring.
Luke: Oh my goodness. Yes. As a first-year teacher, I was very fortunate to have an informal mentor. I literally would not have finished my first two years of teaching if it had not been for Todd Hibbard. But again, that was just an informal thing. I got really lucky that there was someone on my same grade level who was looking out for me. We do need in Florida much more highly structured, dedicated mentors so that every new teacher has someone who is dedicated to making sure that they succeed.
Tina: I hear what you’re saying, Luke, but our teachers are burnt out right now. Do they really have the time and energy to mentor a new teacher?
Luke: That is a great question. And I think one of the points that Alex was trying to make is that we don’t need to add anything else to the teachers who are already overburdened, that there actually should be people whose full-time job is to make sure that they are mentoring. Now, we already have a massive teacher shortage, so, it is a little complicated. Where do we find these full-time mentors? But the issue all comes back to respect, right? Because when we respect teachers and pay teachers well, they will come back. We will have dedicated people. And then we need to be sure that there are full-time mentors available for those new teachers.
Tina: That’s right, Luke. And the November election is coming up where voters will have the opportunity to support legislators who support public schools. We want to encourage you to go and talk with your legislators and most important to vote. That’s it for this episode. And until we meet again, keep educating from the heart.
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Sharon: Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators