Swift Creek Elementary School
This interview was conducted on March 19, 2018 at Swift Creek Elementary in Chesterfield, VA, by Oscar Keyes, a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Introduction: The hallways of Swift Creek Elementary are covered with wonderfully sophisticated works by young artists. Every project from Jimi Herd’s art classroom feels alive and animated, almost as though it’s ready to jump off the shelves. However, once you meet him, it becomes clear that the energy in the projects is only a fraction of the energy in the person. As charismatic as he is thoughtful, Jimi Herd is a force of an art teacher and it was my pleasure to interview him for this project.
O. K.: How did you get into art education?
J. H.: Throughout my childhood I was known as that kid who could draw but wasn't really great at sports. The thing I loved the most was drawing and painting. I think I was just like a lot of kids who seem to gravitate towards that, and that kind of followed me through high school. I had difficulties with some of my art assignments high school and got really discouraged. I decided to not take art anymore until college which is where I decided to get back into the arts because it was always my passion.
During my time with the printmaking department and the sculpture department at VCU, I discovered that I also loved volunteering. I decided to get into art education which was a good blending of volunteering and my passion for the arts. I switched into [VCU’s program in Art Education]. I just really fell absolutely in love with all of the colleagues who I was meeting. I really felt a family atmosphere there. You know the teachers and the students and just what we're learning about! I student taught in Chesterfield County and completed my undergraduate degree. I just had a great time and that's where I’ve been [in Chesterfield County] ever since.
O. K.: Tell me about that first placement in Chesterfield County. How did you come into that position?
J. H.: Ah, yes. Well, I need to back up a little bit first. I remember walking into the first day of my first art education class at VCU, not knowing what to expect. On the table, I saw glitter, toilet paper rolls and all that kind of stuff, and I thought I was just so above that. At the time, I was coming from painting and printmaking, and I guess I still had some kind of connotation of what art is and what crafts are. I didn’t really understand. I probably decided I was going to teach in high school, or maybe college. I just went through the whole program with that in mind.
Even when I did my first teaching in elementary which was my first placement, I believed I was going to be a high school teacher. During my time in student teaching, I guess in my mind, teaching in elementary was just something that was required of me to get through to get to my goal of becoming a high school art teacher. That changed a lot when I met Sarah Matthews, who was my mentor, and actually, she still is. Sarah Matthews is still an arts teacher in Chesterfield County; she completely changed my view of what elementary was all about. It’s wasn’t what I thought it was beforehand, which was being really craft-based and making these really cookie-cutter-type things. It is really where a lot of the real creativity starts. It was really where so much of this really powerful, honest artwork was being produced because of what she was bringing into the classroom and how she was teaching.
I really had a lot of fun; it was one of the first times my life that I had a job that was truly fun. I truly looked forward to going to work that day. My wife said to me, “You seem to really be enjoying this. It's really fun. It fits your personality. And I think you should probably teach elementary.” After I graduated I decided to definitely interview for elementary and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
O. K.: How long exactly have you been teaching and where do you see the trajectory of your career going?
J. H.: I’ve been in the classroom in the classroom for 11 years. The trajectory of my career right now is headed into leadership roles. I just finished up my Masters in Educational Leadership. And throughout my time as a teacher one of the things I've really grown to value is the connections I've been able to make with families and teachers in the school and being able to work with the teachers and to work with the families. I really want to really continue to be better about it as I've really enjoyed that part of it.
I decided to get my Masters in Education Leadership to gain more knowledge about how the complete school system works and to think about how an art teacher can change that and enrich the entire school community. What I'd like to do is head in the direction of school leadership and then hopefully eventually county visual arts leadership. Each school district in Virginia's School Division has either a visual arts curriculum specialist or what they call a fine arts curriculum specialist which covers both arts and music. In Chesterfield we have one supervisor for art and another one for music. Basically, that person is in charge of recruiting teachers, doing a lot of interviewing and providing professional development to all the teachers as well as monitoring and writing the curriculum. Also, the supervisor recruits teachers to modify the curriculum as well. That's the person who is going to be the biggest advocate for the arts and to provide assistance to teachers when needed, just like a school-based administrator would be there to support all of their teachers in that building. They would also need those specialists at the county level. I would be someone who can advocate for a really strong budget for the arts, as well as help find funding for a great idea or a special project in the visual arts that a teacher wanted to produce. I would also be able to help with the grant writing or anything like that. The art supervisor is someone who is integral, not only as an advocate for our teachers but who also to help set the vision and the mission for all the art teachers at all different levels. Just sort of to help lead the way.
As a teacher, the goals and the policies shape a lot of what you’re going to be able to cover. You don’t want your vision be totally out of your focus, so it’s important to build an understanding of your vision. I've always been a really strong believer in access to art for everyone, and I feel as though unfortunately the visual arts and sometimes music are seen as having this mystery around them. A lot of people feel like they can't access art, as though they just aren't a part of it or don’t understand it, and that the visual arts are something that only certain people can do. At my core as a teacher over the years I really truly believe that art is something everyone can participate in and everyone can do it in a lot of different ways. My vision is being able to create more of a situation or more of an environment where everyone could participate in the arts, not just in a passive way but more of an active way. I think that really begins in kindergarten and builds up an involvement in the arts from the very start.
O. K.: You’re getting to see a complete cycle of students go through school this year, right? What’s that like for you in terms of how you see your career?
J. H.: Ha! Yeah, it’s pretty awesome! Next year will be my 12th year as a teacher, so my students who are kindergarteners my first year are going to graduate from high school. To me, that is a really important milestone because those kids who started that first day have now gone full circle through our K through 12 education here in Chesterfield. I just think it's pretty neat and it makes me really reflect on it.
O. K.: What are some of those reflections? I’d imagine you’re a pretty different teacher now than you were when you started.
J. H.: Actually, I would hope that I’m as close to the same as when as I started. I'll tell you that for any teacher who's really thinking about going into education and becoming an art teacher, nothing beats those first five years; they are just magical. I think every teacher will say the same thing. It's just a great memory that you look back at and it definitely was for me. I think after the first five years there's a lot of other great things that are happening, other milestones you're reaching, but there's also this push that you have to remind yourself constantly and push yourself constantly to make an effort to change the way you think about teaching. I feel as though that I've made that effort in a lot of ways. But that same spark that started me is something I really want to continue to have, especially if I go into leadership. I want to be able to take that spark with me and never forget it because I think that's opened the door for all of us to want to do those big ideas. In reflecting on those twelve years, it’s also just a big portion of someone’s career, and what’s been accomplished. Hopefully that answers your question.
O. K.: I have to ask you about the role of technology in your classroom. Especially with something as cool as the projector and the sandbox in your classroom! But also, how you’re navigating a really interesting moment in art education, where technology is entering that space and how you've seen that change in the last 12 years.
J. H.: In terms of technology I think that it’s been here since the beginning. You see this great new possibility and you want to jump on it. You want to explore it. You want to see how it's going to benefit teaching. And I think that I have utilized some different things that I feel have really enriched the classroom. I also feel like I have tried out some things that perhaps didn't work as well and have had to change. I think the biggest shift has been in terms of students’ questioning. I think students question more than they used to and they are asking more questions over the years. I think the reason why is because information is so much more accessible to them. Asking a question usually doesn't take that long to find an answer anymore.
I think the ability to ask more questions is easier for them because they know they can find the answers very quickly. It's helped with the idea of processing curiosity in trying to understand some of the special tools that we've used in our room over the years. I really love using the iPad for photography and it's great for the elementary kids since the viewfinder is the whole screen. And I think it's easier for them to think about composition that way. It's really immediate and really good for teaching composition and also for sharing and then quickly reviewing because it's so immediate.
In terms of the sandbox, I really like augmented reality because I think that it’s a good merger of seeing how the digital and the natural world can interact in a creative way. The sandbox is a good tactile, creative tool to show the possibilities of “Wow, this is possible! With the right innovations and the right programs.” I think it's also a great time for breaks, especially for students with sensory issues. It’s also a great station for opening day. It’s really nice to have a lot of the technology that we use here in the art room; it enriches what we're doing, so that we can still be really focused on those tactile and real mediums.
Two years ago, I was able to hear Dennis Hwang, who is one of the people from Google who came to VAEA to talk to us about his hiring process. He looks at people's portfolios and he says he always looks for people with a strong background in the real materials before they can alter it digitally because he wants people to be able to understand what chalk pastel feels on their hands before they try to make a pastel picture on a tablet. I think at the elementary level we're still working on handwriting, right. We're still working on those real things. It's important to combine the two as far as the digital and the natural world goes.
O. K.: What about what do you feel like you’ve learned from your experience teaching?
J. H.: Gosh, you know teaching teaches me every day that there is so much good in the world and that we're all completely, 100-percent blessed to be a part of it every single day. Every day I leave in a better mood than when I came in. It's one of those things. It’s like most people go to work and are just waiting to get off work. But I go to work and I feel energized because it's just a reminder of the good that's in the world right now. Everybody has their good days. Everybody has their so-so days. And everybody has those days they wish they could do over.
But the majority of my days, as a teacher, they remind me that this is important, this just being a part of the world. I think I’m reminded of that because of the conversations that I have daily, the reminders that I get from my students about what's good in the world. When you immerse yourself in that, and are talking about it, thinking about it, then it reminds you of that goodness, too. That's what I would say, that [teaching] is a career that keeps you happy, really happy. I’ve been completely happy the last twelve years and it’s just been so awesome.
O. K.: Even if you were ready to give up on art, art wasn't quite ready to give up on you.
J. H.: I was going to give up on art, but it’s wasn’t quite ready. But you know, I've had a lot of reservations about going into a different role because I really enjoy what I've done so much and what I'm doing right now. One of the things that I've really been fortunate with because, for some people, it takes a really long time for them to get into a role. It takes time until you get into a job where you can say to yourself, “You know, I was meant to do this.” I found that out after a couple years. This is fun and I feel like I'm here to do this. This is something that I enjoy so much and it's so fun and so meaningful. So even if my role changes, I don't want to see it as walking out of the classroom. But, I guess, I see that role as being a part of the classroom, the art classroom in general, just in a different way. I’d be coming from the viewpoint of being another person who contributes to the art classroom, just not necessarily as a teacher. It has been tough in a way for me to kind of fathom because I do feel like I meant to do this, to be an art teacher. I feel as though we all have to consistently push ourselves to step outside of that comfort zone.
That’s why I've made that effort to push myself into looking into what's next. I feel that if I could retire here, I would be completely happy. But would I be as effective as a teacher, twelve more years from now? I don't know. How amazing could it be if I did go and do some other things and then maybe at the end of my career, I’ll come back in the classroom. Maybe I’ll still end my career as an elementary art teacher. And end my career work right where it started. I think that’d be pretty cool, too.