Interview with recent art education grad Edith Mendez

Edith Mendez, recent graduate of the UIC art education program

By Jen Delos Reyes

Recent UIC School of Art and Art History alumna Edith Mendez (’20 BFAAE) shares what her first few weeks as an art teacher have been like, what led her to teach art, and what advice she has for artists who are thinking about pursuing becoming an art teacher.

As one of the first cohort of graduates from the UIC Art Education program we are so thrilled to see you in the classroom after graduation. Tell us about your first few weeks as an art teacher, and how you have been navigating through teaching in a pandemic?

It’s been so unreal, and I feel very lucky to have found a teaching position, especially during this time. I am actually teaching at my old high school, J. Sterling Morton West High School in Berwyn.  I am happy to be where I am! The first few weeks have been filled with mixed emotions and an overall feeling of being overwhelmed. However, I’ve also felt a lot of support from my colleagues knowing that this is new for everyone, regardless if it’s their first year teaching or not. It’s been a lot of trying to plan and figure out how I’m going to teach my students art from home, how would they get supplies or even afford them, and letting go of a lot of goals or things I wanted to teach them but couldn’t because of remote learning. Creating a safe space and building a relationship with my students has also proven to be challenging through a virtual platform but I’ve found that being sincere, starting conversations with them, and sharing/asking them fun check in questions everyday has been helpful. The first month was the toughest because I didn’t know how lenient or strict I had to be in terms of assignments being completed and grading. I think it’s something I’m still battling with but am getting a grasp of. I know to be aware and be as supportive as I can be, even if that means that we might not get to cover as many units as I thought we would. I’d rather support my students’ mental health and home situations, and have them turn in a few amazing projects, rather than throw a ton of information at them and only receive work from one or two students. Now, teaching in a pandemic after spending my last semester at UIC virtually, has allowed me to understand and be more empathetic for both sides — that of teachers and educators and of students and their families.

What led you to want to teach art?

I wanted to share how art can be therapeutic and overall a tool or resource to help discover one’s identities. I didn’t have the opportunity to take art classes in high school but once I did in college, it really helped shape me into the person that I am today. I was able to reflect on my experiences, values, culture, traditions and make sense of who I was and wanted to be. I wanted to give this same space and experience to high school students. Art is often underestimated in its abilities to make an impact on society and individuals.

Where do you get your inspiration from as an artist and educator?

A lot of inspiration comes from my own experiences and identity. I think that working and making with what we already have and then finding similar artists is a great place to start. I’ve always wanted to teach my community, Latinx youth, so I’ve found that this starting point is relevant in some ways. I get inspiration from the different places and communities I’ve become a part of over the years and from the things people have shared with me; from different galleries, museums, to poetry and books on ways of thinking about art education.

Describe one of the assignments you have developed?

Themed Loteria is one of the most recent projects that I’ve developed. This semester, students learned about the widely known game of Loteria, often played and associated with Latinx culture. Contemporary versions made by artists were shared with students, including the most recent COVID-19 themed by artist Rafael Gonzales Jr. Students were then able to choose two cards from the original deck that they wanted to remake– focusing on the theme of neighborhood/community. They could choose to completely change the image of the original card or add new details to it, remembering to relate it to people, places, things within their neighborhood and/or community. This project can be done in any medium, including digital which is how we began our remote semester due to lack of art supplies at home.

Any advice for artists who are thinking about pursuing becoming an art teacher?

Become more involved in your community if you aren’t already! Do an internship, volunteer or work in a place where you can interact with people, students, and families. Go to different events on and off campus and observe how art is integrated and how art can be taught in many different ways.

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