The following interview was conducted on September 18, 2019 by David Burton. 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.
David Burton (DB): Please tell me a bit about yourself, your childhood, especially your early experiences with art.
Bettyann Plishker (BP): I grew up in New Jersey. As a child, my artistic interests revealed themselves at a young age. I recall one time being sick and confined to bed. My mother had painted my bedroom a peach color I didn’t like at all. While in bed, she gave me a coloring book and crayons to keep me occupied. Instead of using the coloring book, I decided I would change the color of the room by using wax crayons to color the walls. Of course, she was horrified, but I achieved my goal because my room had to be repainted, this time a pale blue, a color I liked.
Another thing I did as somewhat of a naughty child, was to color a professional photograph my mother had paid a photographer to take. It was in sepia tones, and I thought the sepia tones dull. So, I got my crayons out again and colored the photograph to be more colorful much to my parents’ chagrin. At that point I think they realized I had artistic inclinations.
I was fortunate to have an aunt who was a school principal. She recognized my artistic leanings and paid for me to take private art lessons from an artist she knew. Beginning when I was in the third grade, I went to the artist’s house on a weekly basis for art lessons. As part of the lessons, at times, we went into the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and practiced sketching in front of the many dioramas. To this day, I can visualize sitting there. It made quite an impression. The lessons continued until I graduated from high school. The teacher’s name was Bertha Bennett. She had a great influence on me and my interest in art and she showed me what an art teacher can do to nurture young people. She was a major inspiration on my career choice.
My art experience in high school was not stellar. In art class all we did was copy calendar pictures. That was deadly. If you did a good job copying, the completed work was given to the school superintendent, the principal or some dignitary. That was your reward. I must say, if nothing else, I developed good copying skills.
I attended Douglas College, the women’s college of Rutgers University in New Jersey. I went with the idea I would major in Spanish and become a Spanish teacher. I liked Spanish in high school and had done quite well with it. In those years, women didn’t have many career choices. You were either going to be a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. I came from a family of teachers so becoming a Spanish teacher made sense, until I took my first Spanish class. I disliked the class, the instructor, and the fact that I was struggling to pass.
Fortunately, I also took an art class and it blew me away. It opened my eyes to a new world, a world that was very different from copying calendar pictures. I was totally taken in and immediately changed my major to art education which I have pursued ever since.
My undergraduate studio art education was unique. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was extremely fortunate to be at Rutgers/Douglas in New Brunswick, New Jersey, not far from New York City. Many of the studio art professors were practicing artists in New York. Some of the Rutgers/Douglas faculty members were influential in the direction art took in the United States in the early sixties. One of my professors was Roy Lichtenstein. Another was Alan Kaprow. Some of the graduate students who were there when I was an undergraduate included George Segal and Lucas Samaras. On occasion, Roy Lichtenstein would load up his station wagon with students and drive us into Greenwich Village where Alan Kaprow was conducting what was known as “happenings” which we as students participated in. On campus, the art department brought in artists like John Cage, the composer and Paul Taylor and his dance company to participate in happenings and performances that were mind-boggling to an undergraduate student.
As a result, I was introduced to a way of thinking about art and the creative process that was extremely controversial at the time but very innovative and forward thinking. We were taught to think beyond elements and principles of design and instead to think conceptually. I remember as part of Lichtenstein’s class we were to design a box. I was laboring over cutting forms and shapes out of some materials to create this box. He came over to my workspace and looked at what I had done. Then he took his arm and swept everything across my desk onto the floor. He looked at me and said, “Now, use your scraps!” It just opened up an alternative way of approaching things that stuck with me from then on. Without question, my undergraduate studio art experiences had a great influence on my thinking and on my approach to teaching.
DB: Let me ask you about your teaching career. What positions have you held and what have you learned from them?
After graduation from college I was hired to teach art in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. In New Jersey, each individual, town has its own school system with its own school board and superintendent, not like a large county-wide system. I was hired to teach in a secondary school that housed grades 7 through 12. It was a new position to the school. There was one other art teacher and due to an increase in enrollment, they needed a second. I was there for one year and during that year I received a great deal of help and support from the other art teacher. That taught me the value of collegiality.
During that year I became engaged to my future husband who was in the US Navy. He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. So, I applied for a teaching position in Norfolk and was hired over the phone by Ina Johnson, the art supervisor for Norfolk Public Schools. I began teaching at Northside Junior High School in Norfolk the following year.
At the time, my husband-to-be was with a squadron of ships returning from the Mediterranean. He was to be in port toward the end of October and the wedding was scheduled for the beginning of November. The ships came in one day as scheduled and were gone the next, destination unknown. It was the time of the Cuban missile crisis and the blockade of Cuba but that was revealed later.
One day, early in the crisis, I was summoned from my classroom to the principal’s office. He asked me to take a seat and proceeded to tell me he had received a message that I was to call off my wedding. How the message got to the principal is a story for another time but as you can imagine, I was devastated and frightened. That same day, Ina Johnson who had hired me appeared at my classroom door. Realizing the gravity of the situation and my mindset, the principal had called her. We were on the brink of war and avoided it only because of back channel communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev. My art supervisor realized it too and she was there to offer counsel and support and to help me compose myself. I can still remember thinking, “You know, that’s what I’d like to do, be in a position to offer support to art teachers.” She was an idol for me, a model to emulate.
I taught at Northside Junior High School for three years, took time off to have a child, and then returned to teach at Norview High School in Norfolk.
As a navy wife I moved frequently among duty stations. We were fortunate enough to be stationed in Germany, and then in Naples, Italy. I didn’t teach formally in those places but taught adults privately. There were always dependents and military personnel who were interested in learning to paint and I enjoyed working with them.
Later, we were stationed in Alameda, California, near San Francisco. Returning to the United States, I realized I had been away from teaching for a while and needed to update myself. There in Alameda, I pursued a master’s degree in art education at the California College of Art in Oakland, California.
When we transferred to the Washington DC area, I had difficulty finding a teaching job. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) was not hiring art teachers when we arrived. It was six years before I was hired as an elementary art teacher with FCPS. My first teaching assignment was to cover four different schools and a total of 84 different classes that met in a rotation. I only saw students seven times during the school year. Each year as more art teachers were hired the teaching load was reduced.
I taught in the elementary program for ten years until a supervisory position opened and I became an area art resource teacher. I oversaw art teachers in one area of the school division. In time, I became the Art Instructional Specialist for FCPS and held that position for ten years.
While in the specialist position, I also taught as adjunct an art education methods course for those pursuing an art teaching career. I taught in the program at George Mason University for five years. Following that, I taught art education methods in the certification program at the University of Virginia satellite campus in Northern Virginia for five years as well.
DB: How have things changed from when you started in teaching until now?
BP: I think now there are over180,000 students in the FCPS system. There are close to 200 schools. When I retired, there were around 325 art teachers. It was my responsibility to recruit, interview, hire and place all the elementary art teachers. When Roger Tomhave and I started in the fine arts office, I was the Art Resource Teacher and he was the Art Instructional Specialist. We realized that the elementary art program needed to grow, but the staffing wasn’t there to support growth. Slowly and incrementally, we began to build the elementary program so that art teachers were seeing students more frequently. When I started in the system, we saw each elementary student seven times a year. Roger and I were able to increase delivery to once every three weeks, and then once every two weeks by slowly increasing the staffing which we had to fight for. There were a little over 50 elementary art teachers when I began, and when I retired, there were at least 150 elementary art teachers. That was something I felt good about.
There was a Fairfax County arts advocacy group, but I can’t take responsibility for that. That was basically Roger’s idea. The community was on board with all arts in the schools, including visual art, music, theater and dance. We had parents and business owners we could call upon if we needed advocacy. For us, the most effective approach was to show administrators how an increase in art instruction would benefit the teachers, the staff and the students.
We focused on designing arts instruction that was interdisciplinary and proved to administrators that we were integrating the arts with other subject areas. That, in turn, influenced curriculum development. Our elementary lessons were aligned with grade level course content in other subject areas. At the same time, we were careful not to compromise the arts to other disciplines. We walked a fine line, but I believe we were successful.
I remember attending a leadership team meeting where the discussion centered on whether to increase staffing for the elementary art program. There were several administrators present who spoke in support of the art program because they understood it was designed to help students transfer learning from one discipline to another. It was specifically developed to do that at the elementary level.
At the secondary level, to maintain and grow was different because it meant increasing enrollment in art courses. We wanted the program to be current and the courses to be exciting to attract student interest.
At the time, middle school enrollment in art was diminishing. It became incumbent upon us to find a way to expand the program and increase enrollment. We reviewed the course offerings, found them wanting and redesigned them so they would have value and appeal to young adolescents who would be excited by them.
In addition, we considered prerequisites. Did we need them or not? Often, they prevent a young person from taking an art course because they do not want to take the prerequisite. In some cases, the prerequisite may not be necessary. Those were some of the issues we dealt with. In the end, I believe we achieved our goals. For the most part we maintained or grew the FCPS art program K-12
DB: I recall that curriculum development was pretty important there with you and Roger. You and he made presentations about curriculum at the Virginia Art Education Association annual conferences every year for quite a while. I recall the emphasis was on interdisciplinary approaches to art.
BP: That was true regarding the elementary program. What we did for middle school was to introduce a 3D Exploration course that was specific to working with 3D materials. It took off with middle school students because the idea of working with sculpture materials and ceramics was very appealing. It became a successful offering.
Then we introduced a Computers in Art course which hadn’t been done before, and that too was appealing. We had to design it in such a way that it didn’t compete with the high school Computer Graphics (Level One) course. It had to be something different. We designed it as a combination of studio practice, technological application and research. That registered well with administrators, the course was approved. Those two courses led to increased enrollment at the middle school level.
DB: How did curriculum development work? Was that through professional development with your teachers, or things that you and Roger developed?
BP: The way curriculum development works in FCPS is that it is developed by teachers under the supervision of their department supervisors. The county funds it every summer. There are curriculum development projects going on in all disciplines. Each summer there is a focus per discipline. It usually took three years to develop a curriculum. Teachers developed it the first summer, then revised the second summer, field-tested it, and then finalized it the third summer. It didn’t happen overnight. There were teachers who liked developing curriculum and who were good at it. They applied for the different curriculum writing teams. It was one part of the job I really enjoyed. Although I liked all of it. It was very fulfilling.
For me, it was rewarding to push people to think deeper. Going all the way back to that experience at Rutgers, I wanted them to think as I had been taught, “out of the box”. The biggest challenge working with teachers and with young people is to lead them to think on a higher level, to think conceptually. That’s what I felt I was able to do with curriculum development. It’s like a chain reaction. You inspire teachers to think conceptually, they develop curricula based on concepts and consequently, students learn to think conceptually.
Early on I realized there was a problem with content in the works students were producing. In my first years as the art instructional specialist, I would review the artworks submitted to our Scholastics Art competition. I saw still life after still life after still life in both drawings and paintings. I remember thinking, “Something’s wrong here.” Art is about something. The artworks were well executed but the teachers were not teaching ‘something’. They were not teaching kids to think, to express ideas; they were just teaching skills. I didn’t know quite how to address this. We were changing the curriculum, but the teachers were not applying it.
I called Marilyn Stewart (Professor of Art Education at Kutztown State University in Pennsylvania) and I said to her, “I don’t know what I can do about this but I’m wondering if you can help?” I explained the situation and invited her to speak to the secondary art teachers. She centered her presentation around the phrase, “What’s the point?” She just kept coming back to that phrase, “What’s the point?” It became a mantra. Teachers began to understand there was no point to a still life if it didn’t connect to the student’s experience. It didn’t give them a chance to have a voice. It was a skill-based exercise designed by the teacher. There was no point. I think “What’s the point” led to a change in the direction of the FCPS art program. A direction that continues today. Not everyone gets it but if enough people get it, then there is a measure of success. I felt good about that and still do.
DB: A teacher may not “get it” initially but over the course of, say, ten years, they will slowly evolve and develop themselves. It’s gradual; they don’t see it happening. I think it’s very interesting that your early experiences at Rutgers resonated all the way down the line. I know how important curriculum development was in Fairfax County Public Schools both for you and Roger. Perhaps if you had gone to a different college, it might have been completely different.
BP: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. I didn’t fully realize it at the time. It’s only after the fact that I realized it. I guess that’s what an education is supposed to do for you. It opened my thinking to a different pathway. I’ve never lost that.
After retirement, I had the opportunity to work as a consultant in Loudoun County Public Schools. I worked with some of their teachers to revise the art curriculum. They designed an entirely new curriculum which is very, very different than what they had before. It is concept based but getting them to apply it will take time.
DB: That’s where the professional development comes in. If you have the curriculum on paper, then somehow those incremental steps have to be introduced in different ways to different people over a period of time.
BP: I was fortunate in my position that the money and the opportunities were there to conduct professional development. I understand it is not the case presently. When I retired, I found I missed the work. I missed the challenges to my thinking, having problems to solve. I was fortunate to have adjunct teaching positions and to work as a consultant for a while. I continued to present at VAEA and NAEA. For the past six years, I have been training artists for residencies in FCPS middle schools for the Arts Council of Fairfax County. I just finished conducting a seminar for “teaching artists”.
I guess the most fulfilling aspect of my career has been to watch young teachers and others I hired over the years achieve great heights. I take great pleasure in seeing people like Tamra Ferreira, (FCPS Coordinator, Fine Arts), Aaron Stratten, (FCPS Art Education Specialist), JeanMarie Galing, (FCPS Fine Arts Resource Teacher), Kara Drinkwater, (FCPS Educational Specialist Fine Arts Projects) and Andrew Watson, (Alexandria City Public Schools Fine Arts Instructional Specialist) all active and successful as leaders in the field. It makes me feel good about the future.
DB: I want to thank you so much for this interview. I have really enjoyed it.
BP: Thank you.