As a Teaching Artist, you’re contracted by schools, museums and other informal learning environments to do arts programming, which can involve something as simple as instructing a single workshop or something as involved as teaching a months-long class. Each contract is unique and the role itself can be quite unpredictable, so freelance illustration kept San Francisco-based artist Megan Leppla afloat during the summer months.
“It required me to keep my art making and teaching at a 50:50 ratio,” Megan says. “That made my role in the classroom one that connected kids to the arts community, and made the whole thing feel pretty special. I worked for Exploratorium, The National Writing Project, Common Sense Media, and DIY.org to create GIFs and illustrations… Teaching artistry was really magical.”
The artist spent about seven years in this magical yet unpredictable adventure before landing her current role as a full-time art teacher at a public high school in Fremont, CA. Compared to her Teaching Artist days, Megan now has more stability, more freedom, and a longer timeline for her teaching method, so now she has the opportunity to go further into her lessons and see students build on their skills. “This is the first time that I have the kids for a full school year,” she says. “That’s huge — and I’m really excited about it.”
Becoming an art educator happened organically. While studying photography in college, Megan volunteered for a photography museum in Florida and was eventually hired for paid work. Since it was a small nonprofit, she had to get creative with how she could contribute to museum growth and gain a bigger role within the organization. The museum had several workshops for adults, but, she says, “one thing that I noticed the museum was lacking was an education component for kids… and at the time I was taking this class on community art, so we ended up doing a lot of art [workshops] out in the communities and working with families.” It started out as a pet project with zero budget, but today the program is thriving. “That was a really exciting thing to help start, and it also started the fire within me to keep doing that,” she says.
As a first-year teacher, she’s still learning the ropes, feeling out the community around her school, and coming into her own as an educator. Each day, she often walks around her classroom to check in with her students and talks to the, individually about their progress. At lunch she has her door open so kids can come in and have a quiet space to work on assignments or personal projects. After school she advises a few clubs on campus: a zine club, a coding club, and an all-girls app programming club. It’s her favorite time of the day because it’s when kids get to spend time on what they’re interested in, and they’re also teaching and supporting each other.
“It’s like, ‘Why can’t the whole day be like this?’” she laughs.
I had a photo professor who opened up my mind in these really profound ways. It got me thinking and caring about other areas of learning outside of photography, and it got me more excited about school.
Megan didn’t have many art classes in school, so she wasn’t too interested in art while growing up. “I liked drawing,” she says, “but it wasn’t anything I thought about or cared about in a meaningful way.” It wasn’t until college that she started to think about art more seriously. “I had a photo professor who opened up my mind in these really profound ways,” she says. “It got me thinking about photography in a different way, and the potential to be doing something like that outside of school, and as something I was genuinely motivated to be doing. I was opening up to things in other ways. It got me thinking and caring about other areas of learning outside of photography, and it got me more excited about school, and that was huge for me.”
Another course that influenced her path as an art teacher was Community Art, where the professor who taught it was, as Megan explains, a very selfless “old-school hippie surfer dude.” She continues, “I loved seeing the way he was able to share his passion for art through teaching, and through true community development and community building. That was really eye-opening and got me thinking about how rewarding and fun that could be.”
And now Megan gets to experience it every day, firsthand.
Through her work, Megan hopes to explore more on how Art can be incorporated into other disciplines and how to integrate the subject into other courses. “For example,” she says, “right now at our school I’m working really closely with our History and our English teachers, to help us sort of bridge this cross-curricular programming for our kids … [to] find this common thread that helps kids to have this richer learning experience.”
You’re trying to help unique individuals understand sometimes really complicated subjects — and just because there’s a lesson plan or there’s this routine or formula, doesn’t mean it’s going to work. And so I need to be able to respond and adapt and make changes.
Technology’s impact on education also plays a part in Megan’s classes — not just because she teaches Digital Imaging and Design, but because there are California state standards involving a certain amount of required hours working with computers. The school is extremely diverse, with kids coming from a ton of different backgrounds, so while some students bring in their own laptops to class, others don’t even have a computer at home. “For some it’s totally intimidating,” Megan says. “They don’t even want to be working with a computer; they’d rather just pick up a paintbrush. And others are just like, ‘Ugh, a paintbrush is so boring, we need to be on computers making crazy stuff!’, and so finding a way to make it challenging for everybody but accessible for everybody… it gets complicated.”
So Megan finds ways to integrate digital and physical applications for her lessons. “I keep all of our projects pretty open-ended so there can be room for kids to explore how to interpret certain criteria or a certain assignment using non-digital tools,” she says, “but at the same time, as we progress throughout the year, I’m trying to push some of those kids who are less inclined to jump on Photoshop to be pushing themselves and challenging themselves with that stuff.”
Pushing students to their highest potential has somewhat of an equal and opposite reaction. Megan says part of being an educator is needing to be incredibly flexible, which is one of her biggest challenges. “You’re working with, you know, humans,” she laughs, “and you’re trying to help unique individuals understand sometimes really complicated subjects — and just because there’s a lesson plan or there’s this routine or formula, doesn’t mean it’s going to work. And so [I need] to be able to respond and adapt and make changes.”
And the challenges are totally worth it. In the end, she is growing as an educator and as an artist, and what Megan finds the most fulfilling about her job are the kids’ eureka moments and seeing them geek out on art. Even the students who are only taking the class because it’s a graduation requirement, she says, “they’ll have these moments where they’ll have this connection and I love that… and just seeing them get super excited about making art is so incredibly rewarding.”
With all the highs and lows of her work, Megan makes sure to take some time for herself throughout the day and draw. “I’m always in my classroom and rarely take the time to step out of my own bubble,” she says, “but I do make that time to have my own personal reflection and to check in with myself.” She also started a drawing project this year where every day she reflects on the day’s events and makes a representative doodle of what stands out most. “It’s just a way for me to assess my first year at this school, but also to realize that there are good days and there are bad days,” she says. And if she’s having a hard day she can look back on a drawing from a good day. “It’s all about having that balance.”
Check out Megan’s work at meganleppla.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @meganleppla.