Trinity. Joan Dooley. 2009 National Geographic World in Focus Merit Award.

Joan Dooley is a teacher at Los Angeles High School No. 9, an inner-city public school that focuses on visual and performing arts. Before finding her way into teaching, she spent over 12 years as a professional curator with the Getty Museum. When she’s not teaching, she practices her own photography and has won recognition from National Geographic and Women in Photography International. According to Joan, her style is best described as “decisive moment meets Jan Vermeer.”

JOAN DOOLEY: I’ve been teaching full-time for 14 years. I teach Photography and more recently, Stop-motion Animation.

The most rewarding thing about teaching has to be the magic moment when I witness a “student breakthrough.” Those breakthroughs can be huge, like when a student discovers (sometimes for the first time in their lives) that they have a talent for expressing themselves in a unique way. Or it can be small, within the context of a particular lesson. These breakthroughs are what art teachers live for.

Personally, I love to enter contests, especially those with judges I admire and respect, and each win helps to validate my direction and encourage future work. So before my students submit work to the Scholastic Art Awards, we have several review lessons to determine the best work and portfolio development. We also study and analyze the work of previous Scholastic Award winners through group discussions and written responses. The work of Award-winning young artists is incredibly inspirational and raises the bar of achievement not only for my students but also for myself. The program has had a great impact on many levels: I’ve watched students’ artwork break through to new heights. Several of my students were awarded summer scholarships to attend renowned summer art schools through the Alliance’s Young Artist Awards program. These opportunities are transformational in the lives of my students and open up new pathways in the arts for them.

I attribute any success I’ve achieved to feeling passionate about what I do and to caring for the success of my students, both as young artists and citizens of the world. But teaching also has its challenges. Teaching a lab and equipment-based curriculum requires expensive materials, and it can be a struggle to fund and maintain that equipment in a large public high school. My classes are also very big – I typically teach about 240 students in six classes. It’s important to enlist the help of your students whenever possible when managing supplies and equipment. You definitely need to learn to manage behavior in the art room, but time spent in that area has great payoffs; you’ll be surprised when your worst behaved student becomes your best artist and even friend for life.

My best advice to other teachers is: Don’t lose your passion. Make sure you keep practicing your art. Don’t let all the relatively minor annoyances (paperwork, red tape, administrative snafus, order forms) dampen your spirits. Stay focused on the “prize” – your students – and on helping them find their voice in art.

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