Jennifer Leban

jen at home


Location: Elmhurst, Illinois

College: Elmhurst College; Master’s Degree from St. Xavier University

Currently Teaching: 700+ students in grades 6-8

Fun Fact: Married to an art teacher; Their dogs are named Motorhead and Dio

Twitter: @mrsleban

Her classroom in a sentence: I have a quote from the great Andrew W. K. up on the wall of my classroom that states, “You’ve got to do all the stuff that you love.”  So I’ll go with that.

Jen is in her 12th year of teaching art in suburban Chicago, and she’s really, really good at it. She’s National Board Certified, she’s got a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership, and she even has a really good blog you should probably check out sooner rather than later. Her students were pulled from art class last week to enjoy the wonders of standardized testing, and she took that time to answer some questions for me.

What was it that made you want to teach art?

I first thought about teaching art when I was a senior in high school.  I remember being in my painting class and looking up at my teacher, thinking, “Gee, I’d like to do what she does.” But I didn’t really consider it seriously until I entered college and had to declare a major – ugh – decision time!  I always knew that I wanted to work in the art field, and my father hit me with the old, “Hey, how are you going to earn a steady paycheck?  You can’t just paint portraits out on the street corner!” (I should clarify that my father is very old school, which is a polite way to say “politically incorrect” and “misinformed.”)  Therefore = art teacher.

What are your strengths as an artist? What role does your personal artmaking play in both your classroom teaching and in your own life?

I like to paint and draw, but I also really like the “smarts” behind art.  I like talking about art, and how art can challenge ideas and perceptions.  I like good design, and being able to point it out to students and co-workers and family members, and being able to explain WHY something is good.

I have an internal drive to create.  If I can’t create… if I can’t MAKE things, I think that I would die.  It is the force that drives my being.

What do you do outside of school to keep yourself happy and healthy (physically and mentally) and avoid getting overwhelmed or dealing with burnout? On a related note, what do you enjoy about where you live?

In the last year, I joined a roller derby exercise class, and it has changed my life.  I’m not an active person.  I kind of hate exercise.  Okay, I really hate exercise.  But I LOVE roller skating.  We don’t skate on teams, or have bouts – there’s no knocking each other over or anything like that – but we do practice skills and drills necessary for playing derby and being on a team.  Is a derby team in my future?  Perhaps.  But right now, I’m not ready.

I have a two-year old son at home, and a husband who is also a middle school art teacher (Shout out to Mr. Leban at Brooks Middle School in Oak Park!), and they help keep me very much grounded.  Nothing makes me happier than coming home to them each day.

It’s hard to tell you honestly that I have been able to keep myself from getting overwhelmed and from overcoming burnout, because I’m not really so sure that I have.  I honestly don’t know how many more years I have left in me.  I know it’s not the happy-go-lucky answer that people want to read, but I do feel burnt out.  Not by the kids, or by art – I love those parts!

But the recent societal shifts in beliefs about the value of teachers, the lack of professional respect, and the demands put upon us by administrators and lawmakers and new evaluation tools with bars set so high that no one can ever reach them… I am frustrated.  I am tired.  I’m really not sure how much more I can continue to push forward before I will finally say that I have had enough.

Where do you think you will be as a teacher in 5 years?

Ha – this is a funny question, since my comments above make me wonder IF I will be teaching in five years or not.  It really depends on how the trends in academics/law/education philosophy shifts.  If we continue down the current path, I hope to be doing something artistic completely outside of the school system and not teaching at all. If the trends can swing back to valuing the “whole child” and arts education and creative thinking (which is how I felt when I first started teaching 12 years ago), then I’m all for sticking around.  But I definitely won’t give up without a fight!

In the meantime, I continue to grow as a teacher by creating my own professional development and finding my own meaningful ways to learn.  There is a great group of art teachers on Twitter who are always willing to answer questions and to share and discover new ideas.  There are a ton of awesome art teacher blogs out there to read.  Go to your state conference if you can (my school typically won’t pay, so I feel many of you out there!), and make friends with other art teachers.  Do you have a local museum or arts alliance or business that you can make friends with and partner with on a project?  Put yourself out there!

It is so easy to grow stale as a teacher and repeat the same lessons over and over again.  I hate that.  I’m always looking out for new stuff.  I love Pinterest for simple ideas that I can adapt to different levels or concepts as needed.  I try to incorporate current trends and student interests.  For example, a couple years ago I had a lesson where we made clay cupcakes (a la “Ace of Cakes”), and there was another lesson where we drew “Where the Wild Things Are”-inspired monsters, and yet another project featured superheroes around the time of The Avengers.  Another good topic is Legos.  All day, every day.

Tell me about your classroom. What are you trying to accomplish with the way you set up your room?

I LOVE my classroom.  I have to spend 99% of my time here, so I might as well!  It is pretty darn organized.  I hate the “flighty, flaky, disorganized” art teacher stereotype, and I fight hard to dispel it.  There is a LOT to see, it is VERY busy.  But it is organized!  I fill it with things that I love, and my favorite art education posters – I like the ones that are clean and simple – those small elements and principle cards are the best!  My kids rotate through every 6 weeks, so I don’t have time to switch out bulletin boards.  They stay up all year.  I put up some non-traditional posters (like for video games or comic books or music) because I need kids to understand how art bleeds into everything!  I like having a lot of “things” to see because students can always find inspiration.

I expect kids to do their own set-up and clean-up, so I make everything easily available and easy to see.  Students work in tables.  Four tables, four sinks.  It works out pretty nicely that way.  The only part I dislike is that my room is a long rectangle and we have to bunch down to one side when I use the SMARTboard so that we can all see.

What are your strengths as a teacher? What do you do best? On the flip side, what are you trying to do better?

I am good at structuring and organizing a lesson – being able to see the potential for chaos, the “pitfalls” of a project.  I guess I have had a lot of experience with some students who like to do the very minimum amount of work possible, so I plan for that at the very beginning of a project.  Because of this, I sometimes find it hard to loosen up!  I have to work to find fun at times.  I get angry when just a few students can make one classroom experience miserable for the rest of the kids.

I am pretty good with classroom management.  I don’t like to write detentions, because that punishes me!  I have to stay after school with you!  And I want to be at home with my son and husband.  So I try to make sure that our business gets done in the classroom without incident.

The other aspect of teaching that I am trying to do better is to not take things personally.  A lot of decisions in schools are made that negatively affect art class, and it often feels like an attack on me.  It’s hard to discern between the two at times.

What might be a weakness you see?

In middle school art, I have to be a jack-of-all-trades.  So I know a little bit about a lot of different types of art.  I wish I knew more about ceramics; I wish I knew more about graphic design on the computer.  And just last week I was thinking that I’d love to learn more about felting so that I could decorate my sweaters.  Oh, and sewing – I’d love to make my own clothes.  Can I go back to school and be a fashion designer, too?  I told you I liked making things :)

Where do you stand on the neverending art teacher debate: Process, Product, or both? Why?

I guess I’m both, because choosing sides is hard!  Once I pick a side, someone gives me really compelling evidence as to the other, and I want to change my mind.  I guess I lean more towards the process side of the debate; however, students are all about the product!  So I can’t just ignore that.  Honestly, a lot of parents have been trained to expect product, too.  I guess it’s up to the art teachers as a whole to change that though, right?

I feel like the learning really takes place during the process.  Even epic fails can become epic learning moments in art.  You learn what NOT to do the next time around!  The product is really just evidence of a successful series of processes.  You learned how to make a “thing” that looks the way you envisioned in your head.

My school has a multi-needs special education program in our building, so I do a lot of process activities with them.  I sometimes couple the process with a take-home “product” (something with heavy reliance from an assistant, or partially made by me as an example), just to include the student in what the rest of the class is experiencing.

What do you want students to take away from your class? What do they learn, and how do they develop after spending time in your classroom?

This is middle school.  I only see students for six weeks.  I want students leave my class excited about art, and hungry to make more art.  So many students get scared away from art in middle school (and never return to an art class again) because they haven’t yet developed the skills to create the images that they can imagine in their minds.  It is a very self-conscious time.  These are the adults who say, “Oh, I can’t draw!” or “I can’t even make stick people!” – they gave up.  I hate that, and I don’t want students to lose the love of art.

As a secondary skill, I want students to leave my class looking at the world around them in a more creative way.  I want them to think about composition and good design and why they like the things that they like, and to be able to articulate it to an audience.  I think that being a creative thinker is key to success in the modern world.

For you, what determines your success as a teacher? How do you determine success for your students?

The best classes are never obvious to me until the following day.  It’s when a student says, “Hey, yesterday in science class, the teacher mentioned radial symmetry and I told her that we talked about it in art class,” or “I was watching TV last night, and I saw a painting by that artist we talked about with the melting clocks!” …because it means that I got into their brains and made them think about art outside of the classroom! Muahahahaha!

How important is art history in your classroom? What role does it play in your planning and teaching?

I absolutely think that art history is an important piece of the curriculum.  I like to use it primarily as an inspirational piece.  As in, “We’re going to paint some portraits, and they’re inspired by the portraits of Andy Warhol,” but they’re not necessarily an “Andy Warhol” style portrait with multiples and silkscreens and bright colors…

I do feel like I fall short in the art history category.  It’s the first thing to get cut when I’m short on time, because students (and I, who am I kidding?) want to be hands-on!  We want to make stuff!

I try to do an art history tie-in to projects whenever possible.  Currently, seventh grade students study surrealism before drawing a landscape in a surreal theme.  They also create a black-and-white drawing inspired by Op-Art graphic designs.  Eighth grade students learn some of the history of 8-bit video games before beginning a portrait lesson involving pixels, which is pretty fun.  And sixth grade students look at how the old masters used perspective in renaissance paintings before drawing a room interior using 1-point perspective.

self portraits

Lastly, what traits/habits/skills do you value most in your students? Why?

I love students who are unapologetically themselves.  I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence at that age, so when I see it in my students, I want to cry tears of joy.  I worry that middle school will suck the confidence out of them, and make them too self-aware.

I love students who have a sharp sense of humor and will laugh at my jokes.

I love students who are compassionate and help others.  They are the first to step up to help out their classmates.  They are kind and always have a smile to share.

student work at museum


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  1. Jennifer – I love this! I follow you on Twitter and always find myself drawn to you and your husbands resources! Honored to be on a list with you!

  1. 14 for 2014: Jennifer Leban via Tim Bogatz | Art Class With LMJ

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