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Teaching Illustration

This week, a new semester at Parsons begins in what will be my fourteenth year in the Illustration program. When I first started teaching, I was a bit nervous because no one ever really taught me how to actually do it—I was just kind of thrown in. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what makes a successful course and I’d like to share my tips and general thoughts with those of you beginning to teach.

Don’t judge teaching by the first year

The first thing you should know is that you shouldn’t judge the experience of teaching by your first year alone. As every teacher knows, class years tend to have a “feel” or “vibe” to them. Some years, the students are really motivated and hard working. Other years, not so much. So, if your first year isn’t a rousing success, don’t despair—it may actually be them, not you. Give it another year to see if you like it before bailing.

Preparation is key

Don’t even think about strutting into class without preparing, so that you can “wing it” and be “the cool teacher.” Students hate this. What students actually want is a teacher who has a clear, crystalized game plan. They want to have confidence that their instructor is leading them in a specific, planned direction. To facilitate this, you should have a very clear vision of what the class should be, not just overall, but from week to week. Know what your goal is for every session and make sure there is enough time allocated to achieve it. If you’re doing a demo, go over it in advance to make sure everything works and there are no technical glitches. Provide handouts when relevant. Organize guest lectures if appropriate. All of this boosts the students’ confidence in the class and helps them create better work.

Put it all in the syllabus

Speaking of preparation, your syllabus is the key to your entire class. Don’t shortchange your students (or yourself) by skimping on it. A proper syllabus should have:

  1. A complete outline, broken down by session, of what will be covered that class and what the homework will be. This gives students a clear idea of where the class is headed and gives it structure. (Of course, you’ll probably have to deviate from your outline slightly because of the reality of teaching, but it should still be a pretty good guide.)
  2. An explicit writeup of all classroom policies. Nothing is too small. This could cover anything from how work is to be turned in, what qualifies as acceptable behavior, cell phone use in the classroom, attendance and lateness policies, you name it. If it’s all in writing, students can’t fein surprise when you inform them that, say, you’re not accepting their late assignment—it’s right there in the syllabus.
  3. Ways to contact you and what times are best. Students should know how and when to contact you if they have any questions throughout the semester.
  4. Grading standards. Students should know what type of work constitutes an A and what constitutes a lesser grade. I tell my students right away that a C is for average and if they want higher, they’ll have to deliver above average work. It actually works.

Don’t just explain how, explain why

Too often, teachers give out assignments without actually justifying their reasons for doing so. This is a misstep because it makes students feel like you’re just randomly creating projects. Instead, you should explain why you’re assigning this specific homework. Putting an assignment in context gives students an understanding of the role that project plays in the arc of their education and career.

The first day sets the tone for the entire class

How many classes have you been in as a student where, on the first day, the teacher takes attendance, goes over the syllabus for twenty minutes, and then excuses the class? I can certainly vouch that I was in a ton of them in college. This is not only a time-waster, but a big flaw. The first session is where the entire tone of the class is going to be set. To facilitate this, you should have a lecture or activity planned. Students will understand right away that the class is not going to waste time and will be worthwhile to attend.

Communicate in a timely and effective manner

There’s no way around it, answering student emails is a drag. But, as a teacher, you have to realize that teaching doesn’t stop once you’ve left the building. Students will often have questions and follow-up. Try to answer all student emails within 24 hours, even if it’s just a short response. Your students will definitely appreciate it.

Give your students a sense of ownership

One thing I always ask my students throughout the semester is if there’s anything we haven’t covered yet or won’t be covering related to our class that they’d like to talk about or do. Even though it’s my class, I want to empower my students and give them a sense of ownership in their own education. If there’s something they actively want to learn, I try to find a way to get that into the class. Throughout the semester, check in with your students to find ways to empower them.

Be flexible

While you have your own goals as a teacher, your students may have different goals. I would encourage you to be flexible in your assignments and rules as they relate to individual students. For instance, if you’re making a promotional mailer as an assignment but a student wants to make a short animated project because he’s gearing up for an animation career instead, let him, so long as he posts it and promotes it. (They key to the assignment isn’t about an actual mailer anyway, it’s about promotion.) So, if you have a student who’s on their own track and is highly motivated, consider bending your rules and assignments to allow that student to flourish.

But don’t be too flexible

Real talk: students will straight up lie to you and try to take advantage of you if you’re not careful. They’ll hand in assignments late and concoct crazy stories to explain it away. They’ll plagiarize other artist’s work. They’ll skip significant amounts of class only to be shocked when they discover they’re failing because of it. There are just some things you can’t be flexible on. It’s no help to students if their actions don’t have consequences. So be firm in your policies.

Don’t force your style on them

As an artist, you have to be extra careful to be objective during critiques. Too often, I’ve seen student work that looks way too similar to their teacher’s. It’s because the teacher keeps pushing everyone to think and work like him or herself. Big mistake. Good teachers help students become their own best versions, not clones of the teachers. So, whenever critiquing, take a step back and think about whether you’re being objective or not. And, if you’re not, acknowledge that to the student. Something like, “I think X would be better, but I’m a little biased because I tend to prefer X” goes a long way.

Involve your students as much as possible in discussions

Class discussions and critiques are long—and even longer if yours is the only voice. Whenever possible, involve students as much as possible. It can be hard sometimes to get them to be conversant (artists are notoriously shy), but if you create a safe environment where people feel free to speak their mind, it can go a long way. So ask lots of questions and try to coax more words out of them. For instance, if a student says, of another’s work, “I like that piece,” I ask them more about it. What drew them to it? Why that piece over the others? Getting past the initial, “That’s cool,” is super important.

Keep students advised of their grades at all times

I used to withhold any grading until the end of the semester, allowing extra time for students to rework projects if necessary. I put a stop to that after a student was shocked to find that she was failing on the last day of class and caused quite a commotion. It was a big headache. Since then, I’ve used the tools the school provides to keep students apprised of their grades at all time. (At Parsons we use a system called Canvas.) I highly recommend this. This way, students never have any doubt about how they’re doing and it may encourage them to do even better, seeing their grade rise and fall. Yes, it’s a pain. But, trust me, entirely worth it.

Never change a grade (unless for a very good reason)

Speaking of grades, once they’re submitted stick to your guns. You made that decision for a reason. Students may complain, beg, demand, make crazy excuses, or threaten you to get you to change them. Don’t. The only reason to change a grade is if there was some extenuating circumstance that absolutely warranted it. And, if you’ve been grading them throughout the year as recommended above, you’ll have all the ammo you need to back up your assessment.

Don’t be creepy

Finally, this last one should go without saying, except it really needs to be said: don’t be a creep. Seriously. Do not. Behave like a professional, keep your hands to yourself, and be respectful at all times. There have been a number of gross teachers I’ve taken classes with in my life—from the pervy high school art teacher who gave all the female students massages in class to “help them relax” , to the pervy college instructor who seemed to always cozy up to one young lady in every period. Its disgusting and it’s unfair to every student. (Not just the ones on the receiving end of the grossness but also the ones who have to witness it and who’s education is lacking because of unfair attention spent elsewhere.) Don’t be that person. Recognize the power dynamic that plays into the teacher/student relationship and conduct yourself accordingly. We’re watching you.

Summing up

If you stick with it, teaching is an incredibly rewarding experience. I can’t tell you how excited I get when I see a former student flourish and become a successful illustrator. Giving students the tools they need to do that is essential. And, I believe, if you follow some of the tips I’ve outlined above, you’ll be able to help them.

Have a good semester and I hope your teaching goes well! (And, feel free to leave any of your own tips in the comments below.)

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