When tasked with the assignment of interviewing one of my favorite teachers at Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), Ms. Palmer seemed like a natural choice. A very nice person and an experienced art teacher, she is always willing to help her students and comes around to each of us during class to see how we’re doing. Our art room is notorious for being cold until the heating is switched on and one time I was surprised to find that she had brought us warm drinks – something that remains in my memory. She regularly gives us feedback for our work and comments on how we can improve within a short span of time. This is my second year having Ms. Palmer as my teacher me and knowing she has been in Beijing for a long time, I knew Ms. Palmer would have some interesting responses.
What inspired you to become an art teacher?
Funny story, I originally went to college (Syracuse University in New York) for advertising, and when I felt disillusioned by it, I went to my college adviser and said to him "It’s all I ever wanted and I have no idea what to do now." He told me he thought I had a positive, nurturing attitude in our group critiques and I should try teaching. He sent me to a somewhat troubled school in Syracuse, NY, the kind where the supplies were locked up so that students wouldn’t steal them and stab each other outside class. As funny as this sounds, I loved it! The kids only wanted someone to listen, and I came in eager to do so, and to help them to use art as their voice. That was the beginning of teaching for me.
What brought you to Beijing and to Western Academy of Beijing?
I was teaching in The Netherlands and had a fair share of Japanese and Taiwanese students. One particular Taiwanese student, Toby, was brilliant. These kids knew more about Asian art than I did, as I came from a very Euro-centric background in art education. I wanted to be that art teacher that could offer more to all students of all nationalities. I had two choices: do I stay in The Netherlands, read about Asian art and learn about it that way or do I move to Asia to learn from experience? I made the right choice.
You’ve been at WAB for a long time; could you tell us a bit more about your time here and what made you stay?
I have been at WAB for 13 years total. I have stayed because I love the students, the energy of the school, the eclectic visionary nature of the people I work with. It is the kind of school that inspires teachers and students to "make the impossible possible" and to take risks. This is how I choose to live in my personal life, therefore doing this professionally is incredibly fulfilling!
What has been your most memorable experience to date?
Wow! I have so many! Can I share three?
1. I had a student writing his Extended Essay on Ai Wei Wei, so we went to his studio on a Saturday morning, knocked on his door and asked if he would let my student interview him, and spent the next hour having tea with him and talking about his art practices and beliefs. He is amazing!
2. The second most memorable was the creation of our Peace Park. The head of the school came to me with a parent donation and told me he wanted me to get professional artists to create sculptures for our Peace Park. I told him I would prefer if my students worked with those artists and made the works collaboratively. He agreed. At this point in time, WAB only went to Grade 10, so I worked with LaetitiaGouden of Imagine Gallery and we teamed my thirteen Grade 10 students with Chinese and International artists. The students and artists created collaborative concepts and ideas for their sculptures and then the students spent an entire week, ten hours a day, with the artists in their sculpting studios and in foundries, creating their works out of steel, fiberglass, copper, cement and stone. This experience for the students was a once in a lifetime and the legacy left behind at WAB is visible for all.
3. My art students of the class of 2014 had the incredible opportunity to exhibit their works in a group exhibition at the Today Art Museum. Working with one of the Today employees, I curated an exhibition, "The Opposite of Silence," which entailed my students’ works being exhibited throughout their third floor art space and the creation of a hard bound book of their works.
What challenges have you faced in your teaching career?
The death of one of my IB art students last year truly challenged me. A student who wanted to go to art college and to have a career in art, I was especially close to her. I had to figure out how to support her closest friends in her IB art class, allowing these students to grieve through their art or privately. I also felt it was important to create a memorial for this student and worked with a group of people creating a garden where her friends and family could come to remember her. It is always challenging when you are faced with a death, but she was so young and it came as such a surprise.
Do you think that WAB has made any difference in you?
Yes! Two things have happened:
1. I have become a better teacher in so many ways. WAB pushes teachers to find a deeper understanding in all that they teach and in doing so, I have refined my practice and continue to do so everyday. I think it’s important to be a life-long learner and as a teacher, I never rest on my laurels, but try to make changes and improvements to what and how I teach my students. In my time at WAB, I have been able to work with creative, talented people outside my discipline and in my opportunities to work with them, I have been fortunate to learn from and work collaboratively with them.
2. I have become a better artist myself. From my experiences with working with Chinese and international artists (through the creation of our Peace Park or through parent introductions), I have developed my own art practice. A sculptor at heart, I have worked with many Chinese and international artists on the creation of my own bodies of work.
Had I not moved to China, had I not come to WAB, I would not be the artist or teacher I am today.
Miguel Azzopardi is grade 11 student at Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). Currently working for the Inkblot student magazine as well as the student design group Graphite Design, he hopes to share his thoughts and views of events happening at WAB.
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