The following interview was conducted on September 6, 2016 by Amanda Barbee, a graduate student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association Distinguished Fellow’s Legends and Legacies Project, a project intended to preserve the histories of prominent Virginia art educators for posterity.
Barbara Laws taught in the Norfolk Public Schools for 42 years at elementary, middle, and high school levels, until her retirement. During that time, she also served for 8 years as an Assistant Principal and an Arts Supervisor for 15 years. She served in many roles in VAEA, including President of VAEA. She also has played major roles in NAEA.
Amanda Barbee (AB): Please tell me about your life and experiences in art education.
Barbara Laws (BL): I have a philosophy that I was fortunate to have when I served on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). I found it to be one of the most profound professional development experiences of my life, and I was working on my doctorate toward the end of that time. I had professional development as an elementary art teacher (whether it was “50 ways to use a crayon” or the like), and I had been teaching for 16 years. But I had all these parallel lives at the same time, and I was the only art educator working with 63 people on the board. Only half of the people on the board were even teachers. Jim Hunt, who was the governor of North Carolina, was the chair. We all worked toward a common purpose. I was the liaison to the other young adulthood standards committee, which had Brent Wilson, Chuck Qualley, and some other real dynamic people and teachers on it. I learned a lot through deep conversations with them about teaching practices and content, and professional development. From my 15 years as an administrator, this was sort of a Professional Learning Community, even before it was actually called that. When you engage around questions, we had some turning around to do. They had strong teachers but the art education piece of it was behind the times, and we needed to move forward. Creating meaning, teaching meaning with art, art-making, all of those kinds of things. My answer to whether there are too many cooks or the proper number of cooks is however many you can have an engaging conversation with. It depends on like-minded people, of if you have enough like-minded people, so that you can get something done. When I worked with my curriculum committee back in Norfolk, they were all “Look, something shiny!” We would all jump around. But their passion for what they do, and their conversations always had some relationship to moving forward in terms of how we do curriculum and how we make better instruction for kids. Does that make sense?
AB: Absolutely, that makes total sense. Thank you for that perspective. I appreciate it so much. Especially that last part. Occasionally when we are working together with like-minded individuals, sometimes the long version gets so very much in the way of the short side steps. The meandering sometimes brings some really good, meaningful, purposeful interaction.
BL: I’ve gone willingly into those side passes, and a lot of time, that’s the boring part of the silliness. And a lot of ways that is how it happens. We all know each other pretty well by that point. Through a lot of conversations, because we met every summer for a day or two, in order to look at where we were, in terms of our curriculum. What we needed to do was instruction. It was basically a sort of instructional league team. We get a lot of things done but with a humanistic sense of humor.
AB: I know the five basic questions that I asked you are simple, but how would you like to cover those? So the first question asked what led you to Art Education? When you look back, what initially brought you to this career? What has shifted over time? What has helped you thrive and grow?
BL: Well, it is hugely different. I have backed into a lot of things in my life, and I backed into art education. I went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I was going to major in Interior Design. My father suggested that I might do well to have a backup plan. I had a really bad experience in the art class so I switched to history. The professor called that to my attention and asked if I was crippled, or that I couldn’t see. I switched out of history and then my father died, and I moved back to Virginia. I enrolled in Old Dominion University. Art was my first love so I went back to work. It was during the late sixties and early seventies when you kind of did your own thing, and they didn’t teach you an academic art background. So, if it feels good, do it. I managed to graduate. I was in sales but didn’t like it. I don’t like to sell things. I can sell art education because you’re not asking people to pay for it. I applied to teach art, and I ended up teaching my first 5 years in Norfolk Public Schools at a camp in Chesapeake on the intercoastal waterway. Every Monday was like the first day of school. We had Title 1 kids who came to school from Norfolk to our cabin on the water. It was really quite crazy. I taught art under the Physical Education Department. Then I taught for 18 years at multiple schools. I guess what I most remember was realizing that I wasn’t prepared to do what I needed to do. That wasn’t the most important thing to me. But I didn’t have anyone to mentor me. I think that is a common experience, particularly in a lot of elementary schools. We are all onesies. I have always been a loner. That is another philosophical underpinning of mine. I think as a teacher. I used to almost interview for that when I was hiring art teachers. You have to be a sponge because things change. I was in Norfolk Public Schools for 42 years and it was not the same when I retired. It’s very important to be a learner as well as a teacher. I also think that it’s very important to learn so that if you are experiencing difficulties, they are the same difficulties that the kids are experiencing. It reminds you and it keeps you more aware and more tuned in. And another thing is the shifts and what is important to you. I went into the classroom and thought it was very important to be there and see the impact you are making on the kids. But when you shift from the classroom to Administration, or to larger roles in VAEA or other places, then you can see the opportunity to educate others and teach others. I guess that’s another part of the question to answer. I was an Assistant Principal for eight years, and I loved it. I have a mixed bag of stuff.
AB: I guess that is a very nice jumping off point for you into the other realm of education all together?
BL: I do this orientation for the Old Dominion Humanities Program because my Master’s degree is in the humanities. One of the points that I make for them is that it all fits together if you make it fit together. You might not think that a Master’s in Medieval Culture would prepare you for a doctorate in policy studies but it actually does! And actually being on an art cart for all of those years (because I was mostly) prepared me to do the set-up and bug-out that you have to do during art shows and exhibitions. They are just required events. I am a very good planner because of the art experience. I just think things are connected.
AB: Art on a cart! Not that I would wish that on any teacher but the skill set that you require from that experience I would like to give to everyone. Do you know what I mean?
BL: I would too. I think they have to go through that experience. I know a lot of teachers who whined about their cart being too heavy. And I just looked at them and acknowledged that I did it, so get over it! I had a place in one of my schools where I could lean over into the metal cart and ride it down the ramp.
AB: Make the best of the day!
AB: You’ve directly tied into my next question quite well. Specifically for you, you said that you were an Assistant Principal. Would you say that was one of your milestones? Or did it lead into another part of your career. What would you consider your milestones?
BL: I don’t think of myself as having milestones. I think of them as stepping stones because they are all different experiences. You have seen my resume—it goes in 15 different directions. I was fortunate to have mentors. I have had lots of interesting opportunities. They all fit together. I did not have a lot of opportunities within the Art Department in the beginning but then I had opportunities with the (Virginia and National) Art Education Associations. That fed into my opportunities with the Norfolk Public Schools which fed into what I was able to do outside. So it was kind of backwards and forwards. Some of my stepping stones go back to getting my Master’s degree, being a part of our art education associations and being president of the Virginia Art Education Association (VAEA). Also, being on National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. And then I got to finish my career doing what I really wanted to do—teaching at the university level.
I’ve just been able to complete my doctorate. My major advisor was down here (in Norfolk). I was getting my supervision stuff and I had so many things to do, I had not met any prerequisites at the Master’s level. I did take a lot of extra classes. I almost had an advanced certificate, so I went ahead and finished that. During my last course, the professor who turned out to be my major professor said, “I read your paper on the evaluation process used by the Leader Academy for the National Art Education Association.” (I had been critiquing it in my paper.) He said, “Come with me! Just take 24 more credit hours, and we will figure out how to get it done so you will not have to commute up here all the time. Let’s make that your dissertation and you’ll be done.” That will never happen again. It’s a one-time alignment of the planets, so you have to go for it.
AB: What advice would you give future teachers?
BL: You have to be interested in things other than school. What we do is hard; teaching is really hard. I think of it as a ministry. I am a servant leader, not an autocratic type of leader. I saw being an Arts Administrator as a service and as a support for the schools. In order to be a really good art educator you have to be an all-the-time leader, and you have to know things outside of art. You really need to read broadly and you have to connect with your profession. The biggest thing you can do is pick other people’s brains and make that a habit. You know, that is really critical because the more that you can know, the more you will know for your students, and the more you will feed yourself in the long run.
AB: That’s actually one of my favorite things for advocating within NAEA. It is simply advocating so that our preservice members go and do it now. I was in the classroom for several years and I was placed in a position to be part of the (NAEA) Pre-service Division, and attend NAEA again. Talk about bringing life back to something.
BL: I think the first time that I attended an NAEA conference was in 1980 in Atlanta. I have missed only one convention since then. It was so good for me to sit down next to someone at the Elementary Division breakfast and have a conversation. There were not many Elementary folks there at that time. The convention was much, much smaller then. To have a perspective of someone from the other side of the United States and have that conversation about what it was like in their school and what their situation was, I have not had many of those types of conversations. You need them because you find there are a lot of things that you really have in common, the struggles that you have, and the way you connect for support. Social media can do a lot of that now in extremis, but we did not have that opportunity then. You also see the possibilities because they do things differently. I am one who sees that we are all in this together and that our brains can all work together. That’s back to what we were talking about earlier about how many people are too many. You can’t have too many if you can herd them. But it’s best if you herd them loosely, even though that’s a challenge.
AB: This feels like a trick question: I have never gotten anywhere near the same answer. It must be why it’s asked to you so often. The question always offered very good responses. It’s one that I would like to have. Will you answer it based on you own context? It is a simple question but it can be the things that we think about as we grow as professionals, in addition to the nitty-gritty of the everyday.
BL: You also grow in the context of art educators as you constantly think about what you do, why you do it, and how you do it, because you have to be an advocate for art education all the time. The other advice is that when you go into a school, make friends with the secretary, the custodian, and the cafeteria manager. And then the principal. Another bit of advice is always make a deposit before you make a withdrawal, and that pertains to everyone. That kid with the gleam in his eye, if you have an opportunity to make a deposit before you make the withdrawal, then you are good.
AB: I would add the Media Center Specialists. I am currently trying to romance both of them at both of my schools.
BL: Yes, I would add them to my list.
AB: I am working on getting comfy-cozy before I ask her to show artwork other than prints and posters. I’m really excited; my class was all huddled around my computer looking at this really great website put together by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for Matisse’s paper cut-outs.
BL: All of the carpenters were my best friends when I was the Art Administrator. The carpenters were my buddies. They were the ones who carted all of my exhibition panels around. So I always sent them thank-you notes. I also sent a thank-you note to an electrician who came out to fix something in my office. He drove over to tell me that no one had ever thanked him before that. Can you imagine? Isn’t that sad?
AB: Absolutely. I mean, we get our thank you’s in some way, shape or form, and that sustains us. I cannot imagine not having that.
BL: They are somewhat invisible.
AB: You actually just answered what sustains you as well, which was a portion of my next question.
BL: Actually I have quite a bit more to add to this. I think part of what sustains us, and you can see my accomplishments and accolades, are the ways in which we contribute to make a sustained impact. That would include the Leader Academy, working on the national art education standards, working on policy, and working on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
AB: Have you had anything to do with the new NBPTS iteration? I am coming up for renewal now so I noticed it looked quite different.
BL: Oh, well, this was a while back when I was involved so that means you are one of the babies. There is nothing there (in the new iteration) from when we started. I haven’t even looked at it closely I am not sure that I favor the changes, from what I understand. Some of that kind of stresses me and because I cannot make a difference, I am moving on. I did what I could to start. I spent 7 years doing that.
AB: That was transformative, so thank you. It was transformative in my classroom.
BL: Well, good, good. I hear that, and I am always glad to hear that it was. People say that it is one of the most powerful professional development experiences that they ever have because it forces you to be reflective. We really thought about that. If you want to have a conversation about that, the names are there and they had different opinions about things. I was the only art person on a board of 63 people, but if there had been one more of me, we would have been over-represented, because I did not let anything pass.
AB: What I’m doing now is looking for renewal. It feels very different, and I could not tell you if that is where I am positioned in my career and the work that I have done to look into education and my own practices, or if it really is a kind of shifting. I think maybe it is a combination.
BL: We fought having any kind of pencil and paper test, any test-type thing. I think they moved into the project-based assessment, to a degree. I cannot remember the language anymore, but I remember the assessment.
The opportunity to contribute, to give back to the association in which I received so many opportunities, it feels good to stretch and grow. Sustaining your passion is one of the ways to stretch and grow. Another is to give back to other people, which is what my mother used to say. She called it “passing it forward.” That has now become a well-known phrase in our culture. But my mother always said that when I was growing up: “You can’t ever pay somebody back, so you must just pass it forward.” So, that’s what we do, when in fact we are going to talk about people who have supported the efforts of my own. Years ago, Tom Hatfield (former Executive Director of the NAEA) took me on just as I became President (of VAEA) in the mid-1980’s. He had a kind of philosophy of adopting or mentoring, and he expected the people that he mentored to mentor others. It was a self-sustaining type of thing. I have taken that pretty seriously, and I have decided to drive a lot of people kicking and screaming into leadership positions. I think when you watch people grow and they become what they can be, that also sustains you.
AB: That’s lovely, absolutely. I really like to hear the stories about “kicking and screaming,” but those are yours to treasure.
BL: My successor is only 32 years old. She has had nearly 4 or 5 years in the classroom. She is going to be really great. She was my intern for the afterschool programs during the end of the Spring semester. I that that made me feel better, and I was happy that she got the position because she knew the operation of the office.
AB: Would you like to share more about what you’ve learned about yourself and how you’ve grown? What are some of the things that you have developed that perhaps you did not have when you began your career? What qualities do you admire in your colleagues?
BL: I have developed a lot more tolerance and acceptance and patience. I want things done yesterday. Kids used to drive me nuts, but I have learned that there are times that standing back and letting things happen and addressing them as they are going along rather than trying to force something that’s not going to work is often the best way to do it. I don’t think that I would have done that when I first started. In fact, I know that I didn’t do that when I first started. I think we would have talked about the fact that I am a learner, and actually I have always been that. I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always been a thinker.
I am an INFP (Introvert/Intuitive/Feeling/Perceiving, on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test), so that is what we do.
I admire Cherry Gardner (Fine Arts Specialist for the Virginia Department of Education). She has a way of working things through. I am pretty much shy and fairly introverted. I do not have trouble speaking in front of people. It’s not as if I cannot do the other stuff. But I am not a “cold-call” type of person, if that makes sense. Cherry is a real schmoozer. She gets people educated toward what they need to get done. I admire people who can actually do it with great facility, who are able to woo and charm and be wonderful. For me, it is an effort, not that I think I have to woo. But I admire that. Otherwise, there are a bunch of people who know a lot more about art education than I do. I know a lot of practical stuff, but I know that I am not well versed theoretically. That is part of what I am doing this summer, (working on Virginia Department of Education Fine Arts Sample Curriculum, supervised by Cherry Gardner).
I have great admiration for Pam Taylor and David Burton (Professors of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University), people who keep us honest in terms of what is good for kids. I am nearly 66 years old, and I’m not going to change these habits that are part of my personality. I am actually pretty happy with where I am and who I am. I have been offered a lot of opportunities and done a whole lot of things. I guess that I would not change anything but that does not mean that I do not admire what other people do too.
AB: I understood one thing that was part of your way of growing, when you were saying that you did not mind selling art education because you didn’t feel that you’re asking anyone to pay for anything. Does that end up being your largest exception to your perceived inability to “woo”?
BL: To a great degree! I think that is very perceptive of you. The difference is that when you go to sell somebody something, it is not because of your passion. It is because of what you want. In fact, it may be even something you don’t want because you’re selling it.
AB: Who are your personal members of “This is Your Life”? Whose voices would you want to hear?
BL: Well, it’s interesting. I did write some names down. Because I have had a long career, I have had lots of people who have helped me along the way, who have been mentors, colleagues, friends, or critical friends, and so forth. I mentioned Tom Hatfield. I would not have done many things without his help. After I received the award for Elementary Art Teacher, he nominated me for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, as an executive. He also put together the Leader Academy. My mind thinks policy anyway. I have done that for a long time, since I served in student government, my whole life. He knew that and kind of tapped into it. Sam Banks (former Art Supervisor of the Richmond City Public Schools and former President of NAEA), as President with just one person between us in the NAEA Southeastern Region Vice President, he was always there for me. He’s wonderful!
Chuck Qualley (former President of the NAEA), Tom Hatfield and I planned his (Qualley’s) presidency on a cocktail napkin at an airport after leaving the Virginia Art Education Association conference. That was really cool! Faye Uber, who is not in art education, was at the camp when I was there. She was a Title I math resource person for the district. She was a person who ultimately had more of an impact on me in terms of my career in the public schools than anyone else around. She was a friendly face when all of the craziness of teaching art under physical education became insane. At the end she was the principal of my school when I was finishing up my doctorate. She threw me out of the nest when she said, “You need to go and do something else. You’re done, and you’ve done your time as an art teacher.” And then when I became the Instructional Specialist, she was on the panel when I interviewed for the Art Coordinator job. She has been sort of a thread all the way through, and she is still a friend. We meet for beers periodically. She has a wicked sense of humor. Other people who have impacted me are my students and my teachers. I have 64 teachers I work with. I learn more from them than one can imagine. I learned from everybody that I have worked with. I think those are the names but I’ve had such opportunities along the way, I have learned from all of those people and all of those experiences. I have learned from organizations, and I still do! I am learning from the aspiring and inspiring teachers I have in the classroom right now. It is what we do. And so, I have been significantly supported where it made a difference in my career through the opportunities I have had. That is one type of thing.
The other piece of it is just having an impact on me. Students have always had an impact on me, from the littlest one on. If you listen to them, then they change you. I really do believe in community. I do believe that the job that art educators do is too hard not to have a community. Over the years I have been very fortunate.
AB: It seems as if you had the ideal community many times. When you needed to go and do something else, as your principal urged you.
BL: She said that! I said to her, “You know, I really am going to miss you,” and she said, “You’re outta here; you can’t come back.”
AB: It is wonderful that you can say how much you’ve felt supported throughout your career. That is really fantastic! Do you think in any way, shape, or form, that is the type of person that you are, the person you have been raised to be?
BL: My mother was actually a negative role model.
AB: Really? The quotes of hers that you shared seem very inspiring.
BL: Yeah, and she had her moments, but…
AB: Moms are great at sayings. That does answer the question, in a roundabout way…
BL: My husband has always been really supportive. You know, he and my sister, and my in-laws have all been really great.
AB: It seems when we run across people in these realms with leadership and education, educational leadership being exactly where these two paths meet, if ever there is anything to take us all off of the common mission of where we want to go and where we all want to succeed and have an impact, something that is at least going to gain some traction, the only thing that I find sometimes gets in the way is a lack of support among colleagues. It seems as if that is almost something some of us bounce back from easier than others, or maybe not bounce back. But what you describe sounds so very positive.
BL: It’s not like I didn’t have negative stuff going on too. You didn’t ask about that, like when I would be stomping my feet behind my desk in the Art Coordinator’s office. You do that. I also had a lot of sleepless nights, really worrying. And nothing would make me more frustrated that people treating my teachers badly. I really fretted over that. I do have my negative moments. And I can certainly be a Grumpy Bear. I think some people take it personally when other people go out but I don’t take it personally. It’s not going to make a difference. If I am negative toward my teachers, it can certainly make a difference in them, so, ultimately I think you are right. The person who is following me in the (Art Coordinator) position wears a kind of “raincoat.” I have told my teachers to follow that advice as well. You may not take it personally; you have to let things just roll off, because if you take them personally, you cannot deal with them. You have to step back to deal with them. It’s never about you. The person is generally telling you something about themselves, not you. So that is kind of where I am.
AB: You have been kind enough to walk me through the stepping stones of your career. You have talked about the framework and the personality style that you operate from, which gives me a tremendous insight.
BL: I decided to teach this drawing class at Old Dominion University. I hadn’t done that before. I have been an administrator for 15 years. I have been working all summer on my syllabus. I have both prospective classroom teachers and elementary art teachers in my class. It’s a challenge to jump on the horse and, as my mother used to say, “dash off madly in all directions”.
It brought to mind the range of art instruction that people have, wherever they left off. I think a lot of these people have never drawn observationally before. (You know, we start that with kindergarteners in Virginia.) My university students do it willingly, but a couple of them were very stressed to begin with, and we talked about it. It was good to be reminded of that, of what people go through. Adult learners are even tougher to teach than the kindergarteners. The whole college experience is totally different with the 8-page syllabus and the expectation of the need to know those clearly laid-out expectations.
AB: It’s been heaping spoonfuls of food for thought and I know more gems will pop up as I transcribe this, so I can’t thank you enough for this insight into our field.