Jackson Elementary art teacher discovers benefits in volunteering
Working for free allows small class sizes, ideal schedule
Now that she's not being paid, Jackie Robbie is enjoying teaching a lot more.
As the volunteer art instructor at Jackson Elementary, “I get to do what is important to me,” she said. “I'm able to teach a subject I've always enjoyed. And I don't have to go to meetings.”
The results can be seen by the public usually twice a year at Penrose Public Library, such as the 70-piece show in January in which three-dimensional clay shoes were among the eye-catchers. A visitor to Robbie's classroom will observe the small class sizes, the sizeable storage area for diverse art projects and Robbie's amiable, hands-on teaching style.
For 33 years in District 11 - the last 15 years at Jackson Elementary - Robbie was a full-time classroom teacher. She liked the work, but not the politics and the stress, and especially not the cutbacks on the arts.
“Art has been deemphasized to the point of non-existence,” lamented Robbie, whose bachelor's degree was in art. “We're teaching basic skills at the expense of everything else. We'll have a generation that will have competency and no imagination.”
So when she retired six years ago, she came up with a plan for Jackson Principal Anne Dancy: She would teach art as a volunteer, following a schedule in which she would alternately take half the students in each class in grades 2-5, allowing her to see every student once a week. This would have the side benefit of allowing more one-on-one instruction, both for herself and the classroom teachers.
“ 'I don't want to be paid; I just want my materials (for art projects),' ” Dancy recalled Robbie telling her.
The principal didn't need a lot of convincing. “Jackie was a phenomenal teacher here, one of the finest I've ever encountered,” Dancy said. “And then she's an artist. When you combine the two, you have something very powerful.”
Lacking school funding, the cost for art materials is covered each year by the school's parents group. According to Dancy, fund- raisers, especially the butter braid sales in the fall, are used to provide money for paints, clays, brushes, paper, etc.
And Robbie is appreciative of the help, which she said is liberal enough to allow her to obtain quality equipment, within reasonable limits. “I can buy what adults would use,” she said, noting as an example that she has a higher grade of paints than might be found in some elementary-school art classes where funds are super-tight. Also, she pointed out, “Having a nice expense account makes for showier projects.”
It's not just the money, either. “The parents make me feel like this is a valuable thing,” she said. “That's the best support of all.”
In her schedule set-up, she teaches four hours a day, leaving two hours for preparation and cleanup. This extra time - along with class size, work/storage space, quality materials and lack of full-time job pressure - contributes to her success more than her teaching abilities, she modestly said. For example, elsewhere in the district, she knows of multi-school art teachers who only have push carts for storage or, having no designated classroom, must conduct art classes in such unlikely locations as a teachers' lounge. “The program I devised allows me to do what others can't,” she explained.
Her teaching philosophy is “100 percent success,” she said. “This is one area in a day where a student should feel successful, no matter what.”
A recent class involved printmaking. The youngsters had no way of knowing how their creations would look until nearly the end of class, when the top paper was peeled off. “They actually do look good,” one second-grader said to another with genuine astonishment.
Standing with her students eyeballing their accomplishments, Robbie passed no judgment on the different works, just attempted to alert the youths to prints displaying good uses of color and form. Then she asked them to think about the work they liked the best and point to it. Fingers pointed in a variety of directions. With that, class was over.
As for herself, Robbie has created art pieces from time to time, and even sold one here and there. But personal accomplishments are not her goal. “I get joy at seeing students' projects develop, not from just seeing my own,” she said. “That's why I'm a teacher.”
“She's able to help every child realize there's an artist in each one of us,” Dancy said. “I never want her to leave.”
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