Inspirational Educators – Teresa Gilfillan – I LOVE Hearing Kids ask, “Do we have art today?”

I have been teaching Elementary Art for three years at Pioneer Park Elementary in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I previously taught conversational and business English for Berlitz while living in Switzerland. I also have 5 years of experience in substitute teaching at various schools including a long-term position in youth corrections.

Why did you choose to teach as a career?

For me, teaching has always been about making connections with other people, especially young people. I feel the greatest contribution I can make in my lifetime is to be present when someone is in need, whether that need is educational, emotional or social. As a teacher, our primary objective is not necessarily transmitting knowledge, but helping people discover how to make connections in their own lives to the things that are not readily accessible, and to help them develop skills to solve their problems confidently on their own in the future.

I think I chose a different path than a lot of teachers in that I decided later in life (35 years old) that I wanted to go back to school and get an art degree so that I could teach in a subject matter that I was most passionate about. I had always wanted to be an artist growing up, but shrugged off the idea as impractical. As a young person, I lacked the confidence in my own art to feel that I could make a viable career out of art. As the years passed and I had more experience in various teaching roles, I realized that art was something that crossed all boundaries, art is universal and beneficial in many ways both seen and unseen. I developed the idea that I needed to share my love of art with young people who also might be suffering from issues with confidence, belongingness, and connectedness, as I did. That is what drove me to step out onto that ledge, start over, and begin life anew on a path towards teaching art as my career.

Share your proudest teacher moment.

My proudest moments in teaching happen every time a child beams with pride at something they have made, when children view themselves as successful and when they get mad that the bell rings and art time is over. I love hearing kids ask me “Do we have art today?” I know that for some kids waking up and thinking about what things they will do in my class is what puts the spring in their step as they walk out the door and head to school. That is what gives me goosebumps, and that is what I love about my job.

What is the most important educational gift parents can provide for their children to help them be successful learners?

In my opinion, there are many educational gifts that parents can give their children. First and foremost, parents can exponentially improve their children’s lives both in and out of school by simply reading to them. Research has shown that reading at home is the single most influential factor in helping a child begin a successful educational career. Secondly, as an art teacher, I would request that you give your children ample opportunities to use scissors, glue and paint before they come to school. Many children on their first day in art class tell me that they have never NEVER been allowed to use scissors. Those children who have used scissors before, become adept so much quicker than those that have been forbidden to using them. Some children are even afraid of using scissors and must be coaxed and carefully trained that the scissors are not going to harm them if used properly. Please let your children paint from time to time. They benefit from just having an unstructured opportunity to explore with paint. So many kids I meet have never held a paintbrush! I think of all the missed opportunities of beautiful expressions trapped in preschoolers who never get to let them escape onto paper or canvas.

Who is most Inspirational Teacher you’ve had?

In my life I was lucky in that I had many inspirational educators, I cannot name just one. Every year there were teachers that I relied on to encourage and believe in me especially when I did not believe in myself. Some of them care so much about their students that they will likely even be reading this now some 30+ years after I left their classroom. I don’t necessarily remember much about the content of what they taught so much as how they made me feel. I thank them daily and try to honor them and their gifts by carrying that same spirit of compassion and kindness forward into the generation that I now teach.

How many hours a week do you spend completing all of your duties related to your job. Are there any extra duties that people may find surprising or not consider that you have to complete?

I spend a great deal of time completing my duties as an educator. I am by contract in the school from 8:00-3:45. On top of teaching, I grade assignments which can take anywhere between 2-5 hours a week, input grades into our online grading system. I have 300 students and input 4 grades per quarter, 1200 graded assignments every 9 weeks. That equals another 2-5 hours per week. Additionally as an art teacher I photograph on average 60% of the artwork my students create and upload it to Artsonia an online art gallery for students and parents to share their work. On average I upload 75- 100 images per week. That can take a few more hours. I also have required professional development courses that I take. And I take work home, write lesson plans and contact parents all outside of regular hours. So on top of the 40 hour work week, I usually put in between 10-20 more hours “off the books”. Oh I forgot about all those extra things I get asked to do because I am an art teacher, bulletin boards, design plans for murals, face painting, displays framing and various volunteer duties. People who think that teachers get the summer off, have no idea what we do all summer long as well. Most of us are taking professional development classes and preparing lessons for the next year to get a jumpstart so we don’t have to try and cram 80 hours into a week.

What do you think is a fair salary for teachers? Keep in mind the argument that celebrities make millions and teachers are always struggling?

My feelings regarding fair salary for teachers is irrelevant. If money was the goal, I would have chosen differently. Altogether I have 2 Bachelor’s degrees and am 3 courses away from my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction. I could have spent the same time and probably less money training in a more lucrative profession, but again, I am not in it for the money.

Have you ever paid for supplies for your classroom?

I pay for supplies for my classroom on a regular basis. Fortunately, my district has been generous with funding arts materials. We have enough paints, paper, clay, water colors and other consumable supplies. Some things I pay for out of pocket and on the fly, examples would include epoxy to fix student’s clay projects that get dropped in the hallway, odd miscellaneous objects like chicken wire for installation armature as well as special things that I see out in the world (Oooh ooh… 4th graders would love to use those metallic sharpies on their Gustav Klimt projects!).

If you had a wish list of needs for your classroom what would the top three things be?

One thing that I spend a lot of money on are books. I try and read to the younger kids for five minutes every time I see them. Often I will pick a book that fits the lesson, like Fish is Fish for watercolor sea pictures and Where the Wild Things are for monster drawings. I have bought probably 50 books with my money to create our own library for art reading and inspiration in class. If I could wish for just one thing it would be for people to donate a copy of their favorite books for us to use as inspiration for art.

If you would like to donate a copy of your favorite kid’s book to this Inspirational Educator, please email her here: Teresagilfillan@gmail.com

I was honored when asked to take part in this series, even though I don’t think of myself as an inspirational educator. I thought of how many hundreds of thousands of people do this job and how much more inspirational many of them must be. I think of myself as striving to be one of them, but forever on the path. I will never stop trying to improve my heart, my appreciation, my compassion and my patience for the younger generations. Someday I hope to be worthy of being that inspiration.

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