Kirstie Hein Sadler
This interview was conducted on February 19, 2018 at Binford Middle School in Richmond, VA, by Oscar Keyes, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Introduction: For this project, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirstie Hein Sadler, an art educator with over twenty years of teaching experience in Virginia. As both a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Masters in Art Education program and a regular site placement for VCU secondary practicum students, Kirstie has a strong connection to the VCU community. She has also been instrumental in my own ability to collaborate with Binford Middle School for the service learning component of our Computer Technology for Art Education course. It was wonderful having the chance to observe her in her classroom and witness her dynamics with her students.
Oscar Keyes (O.K.): So how did you get into art education?
Kirstie Hein Sadler (K.H.S).: When I was in high school, I had an art teacher who inspired me. I may have been a junior, and I decided, “I want to be an art teacher like you.” But that was before it became something serious.
I ended up going to George Mason for my first year, but they didn’t have art education. You would have to major for art for four years and then come back to do another four years to get your education degree. This was in 1992.
I ended up not liking that idea and transferred to Appalachian State because they had an art education program and I loved it there. Really loved it there. I had amazing professors who really nurtured us. I graduated from Appalachian State in 1998. I graduated from high school in 1992, so I took the long way!
There was an interesting dynamic there, that’s kind of similar to the city here [in Richmond]. You’re going out to rural areas for your student teaching and your methodology practicums, and you get to understand how poverty works there. There are differences here (in Richmond), but also similarities.
O.K.: So how did you come to Binford Middle School?
K.H.S: Well, my parents live in Richmond. So, in my moment of panic over “Where do I go and what should I do?”, I came home and started applying for jobs. I just could not compete with VCU Art Education graduates. I ended up taking a job teaching summer school in Chesterfield and decided to apply to the masters’ program at VCU. And I made it in! I taught three-quarter time while taking classes full-time. It was really good and I loved it.
They had a lot of off-site studio classes that would be graduate level classes at area high schools which was interesting. I met Dennis Winston, who taught in the Richmond Public School system at the time. Dennis is a print-maker. I took a class with him and we just got along great! He is probably one of the biggest reasons I ended up staying in Richmond.
VCU was a very different program back then. It seems like a much more evolved program now. It feels much more dynamic now, like there’s so much possibility. It’s been fun to keep such a close relationship with VCU. It’s awesome because it helps me imagine that these new things are all possible.
O.K.: What’s that like to keep a relationship with VCU?
K.H.S.: It’s been good! It’s been very good. About six years ago, when VCU practicum students would come in (to observe and teach), it was hard at first because I’d have to give up a whole section of classes for a time. But I would learn so much by having them in my classroom, and hopefully they’re leaving with a lot of good experience, too! As far as them coming into our school now, they’re really pushing them with the core subject teachers (at Binford) and giving them experiences planning cross-curricular and arts-based lessons. I know our teachers learn a lot from them and really value them coming in. They’ll say, “Send me another one!”
O.K.: I guess that’s a nice segue into asking about your career as a teacher?
K.H.S.: As I said, I started in Chesterfield at a middle school and loved it. I had a really close co-teacher who was like a mentor with whom I shared space. I was kind of scared to come to Richmond. Actually, I was totally scared. Because culturally, I was from suburbia and a military family that moved a lot but I didn’t know what urban meant.
I had done a workshop at the VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) that was all about African-American art in the Harlem Renaissance and I met a lot of Richmond (city) teachers. They convinced me to apply to schools here. I needed a full-time job. So, I applied and ended up teaching full-time at two elementary schools in Richmond. They were both hard. One was a little less hard than the other, but they were both challenging. They were also good at the same time because a lot of learning went on. There was a little bit of culture shock just learning how people interacted with each other.
And then I met the art teacher that was teaching here [at Binford] during a holiday function. I told her about how I missed teaching at a middle school. And she said, “Oh, you do!?” (laughs) “Are you crazy?” Then she shared with me that she would be retiring, but that she would like my name because she would help me get in there. I lived in Carytown and would always walk by and thought it was such a pretty school. I could just see myself there. It worked out where I came and interviewed with the principal and she had recommended me. And so, I ended up here and that was in 2002. I have been here since.
O.K.: Wow, that feels longer than it should.
K.H.S.: I know! Every year is different, and I have grown so much in so many ways. I feel like we’re in a really good spot now as a school and feel like it’s a functioning school with everyone doing their part. We had several administrators who would come in and then leave. Just a revolving door of “I’ll just work there for a year and then take off,” so there just wasn’t investment in the school. But now with our arts-integration program and a principal who is a former art teacher, it couldn’t be better. It’s just amazing!
O.K.: What is it like being the art teacher in an arts-integration program?
K.H.S.: It’s chaotic! (laughs) It’s good. I’m looked at as an expert for many things which was pretty hard the first year. Lots of “Help me do this! Help me plan this! Can you come teach masks on Friday?” You know, some really outrageous requests. So, it really helped learn to say, “Sorry. but no. And, Sorry. not sorry. but no.” But it has been really nice to watch my colleagues grow and really all of us grow together. And now, how we learn to plan collaboratively, cross-curricularly, where it’s all equal parts.
We had our last showcase on Thursday night, and I was almost in tears because it was just so amazing! Even if I had nothing to do with it, you could just see all that is happening. And you can see the learning is there and that [the students] get it. Like it’s happening. It’s really cool.
O.K.: Is there an experience that you return to or reflect on often?
K.H.S.: Oh, the transformative power of art. Middle school is such a transformative time for kids. I mean, we’re all constantly growing. But just knowing the role that art has played in our school’s transformation has been such a great anchor.
Six years ago, this was a really hard place to be because of reasons like behavior issues and school administration that didn’t appear to care. And I could only know that I’m going to do my small part in this little space to make really good experiences for kids. Then I tried to get it (the artwork) out of here (gesturing to the classroom) and to put it out on the walls (throughout the school). There was a fear that it was going to be ripped down and sometimes it was. But it was important to get it out there and to empower kids. That transformation piece is really important to me.
O.K.: I’ll try and wrap this up. In what ways have you made a contribution to the field of art education?
K.H.S.: In terms of contributions, I think just having an open space and being available for my classroom to be used [for student teaching and teaching practica]. Just by providing that access, whether by making my own classroom available or even having our school as a whole involved.
O.K.: How have you changed over the course of your teaching?
K.H.S.: I’ve become much more confident. I’ve also come to understand and appreciate kids more. But there is just a mentality of talking at kids and teaching at kids instead of just allowing them to be themselves. The default is often “Sit down, be quiet! Shh! I can’t even think!”, which I’m sure you’ve witnessed. Knowing when to step back and recognize when they’re on their own is necessary. Just learning more about everyone and realizing just how important our time together is. Trying to make it meaningful and relevant so that something stays with them.
O.K.: I’ll ask one final question. Why do you think teaching art in middle school is important?
K.H.S.: It is so important because it’s a space where they can just relax and be themselves. It gives them opportunity for creative expression which they might not get anywhere else. It exposes them to a bigger world but also where you can see connections about what’s going on in society with art. It’s rich. And it gives them tools that they’re losing with technology—like the tactile making. The joy of making is just so important.