Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
When Katie Pourcho started teaching, she thought of success as accomplishing high-level goals, like creating detailed curriculum plans or crafting the perfect classroom displays.
Now, Indiana’s 2020 Teacher of the Year says she looks at success differently — in the small moments building relationships with her students.
“My definition of success today considers the collection of moments in a day to be more valuable than the measurable outcomes in a school year,” Pourcho said.
Pourcho teaches art to students in pre-K through second grade at North Elementary School in Danville, a district that’s asking voters to approve two tax increases on Election Day. She shared with Chalkbeat how she’s planning for a community art project after the votes are in.
Pourcho also explained how she connects her lessons to students’ cultures and how community support gets her through each day.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
I remember feeling utter joy as I entered my elementary school art studio — I believed it to be the most magical classroom in the school. As I grew older, I became enamored with art history. The inspiring lives of artists and fantastic traditions of cultures around the world fascinated me. I experienced the restorative and expressive power of creating art, and I am beyond blessed to embolden students with the courage to create.
How do you get to know your students?
As an art teacher, I get to know my students through the art they create. Often their work incorporates something personal about their lives. I love listening to their stories as they work on projects. I especially enjoy getting to know kids outside of school during summer art camps. These weeks provide precious extended time getting to know my students.
On occasion, I enjoy the great honor of leading a family on an art gallery tour during First Fridays at the Harrison Center for the Arts. This is a blast as I get to see kids and their families interact with artists and experience professional art firsthand!
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
I adore teaching second graders about plein air painting. Plein air is a French term that describes landscape paintings painted outside in the open air. During this lesson I bring in my own plein air easel called a pochade box. At first this easel just looks like a wooden box. I ask the students to wonder what my equipment is and how it is used. I open the easel and place it on the tripod. Then, I slowly pull out my brushes and paints. My students have such fun guessing what this curiosity might be! We look at a few paintings of Vincent Van Gogh’s and learn that he was a plein air artist. I then take an excited class outside to do some plein air drawing of their own.
The lesson is inspired by my own love for plein air painting and Vincent Van Gogh. Thanks to the Lilly Endowment Teacher’s Creativity Fellowship I received in 2016, I experienced the great joy of painting around Europe in the footsteps of Van Gogh. It was a dream come true! I returned absolutely thrilled to share what I learned with my students.
What object would you be helpless without during the school day?
I would be helpless without my community! Encouraging notes from co-workers and students, end-of-the-day chats with Ms. Vicky, our custodian, and surprise muffins left on my desk make up just a few of the many ways the people in our school care for each other.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
I teach the small town of Danville, Indiana. This tight-knit community celebrates in big ways. Homemade scarecrows line the town square in autumn, lights swing down from the courthouse during the winter, and folks drive in from all around to celebrate the spring and summer festivals. The whole town is a bustle of excitement as the entire community brims with school pride during the annual homecoming parade. It is a sight to see.
In this election, our community will be considering two referendum questions placed on the ballot. Our district is requesting the community’s support behind two much-needed actions. Regardless of the outcome after all the votes are counted, I’m planning a collaborative art project where teachers, staff, and families create painted wrapping paper. The paper will be used to wrap windows, desks, and doors around our town: a visual representation of wrapping our town in love.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
From the onset of my teaching practice, it was important to me that the curriculum I wrote covered a diverse range of experiences and expressions. I created a large world map that takes up an entire wall outside of my classroom. When introducing an artist or cultural artifact to my students, I post a picture of the artist or artifact on the map.
One day while introducing kente cloth from the country of Ghana, one of my students lit up. She shared that her grandmother was, not only, from Ghana, but she had woven kente cloth.
I reached out to the student’s mother, and she graciously allowed her daughter to bring this family heirloom to school. It was beautiful to see my student well up with family pride as she honored the work of her grandmother. Moreover, it exposed the rest of her class to a tangible real world connection.
Since then, I have sought out artists and cultural artifacts that directly connect with the lives of my students.
What part of your job is most difficult?
The balancing act of being an artist who teaches and a teacher who creates is a tightrope walk. I pour so much energy into teaching children in the elementary art studio that I find it hard to maintain the creative flow as I stumble into my own home art studio. Straining though it may be, the acrobatics it takes to teach lifelong learners and be a lifelong learner is worth the leap. I am a better teacher because I create, and I am a better artist because I teach.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
I began my first years as an art teacher rearing and revving to share my passion for the world of art with my students. I nerded out over comprehensive curriculum maps and clever teaching methods. I believed success as a teacher meant stunning classroom layouts, beautiful student work displays, and seamless instruction.
While those are all important attributes of a highly effective teacher, my definition of success today considers the collection of moments in a day to be more valuable than the measurable outcomes in a school year. Chatting with a student while I tie his shoe, providing the creative outlet for a student who just lost a loved one take priority over writing a publish-worthy lesson or creating an elaborate bulletin board.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
When it comes to reading I am all over the place. I have a stack of books I’m “in the middle of” next to my bed. Emily P. Freeman’s book, “The Next Right Thing: A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions,” is currently lying open on my kitchen table, and Andrew Peterson’s [young adult novel] “Wingfeather Saga” is downloaded on my audiobook app.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
I can still remember the day when my high school art teacher, Mrs. Wisehart, looked at me — her overly eager over-achiever — and said, “You know, ‘Moonlight Sonata’ wasn’t Beethoven’s first composition. It takes a lifetime to create a masterpiece.” I’ve carried that golden nugget of wisdom with me ever since.
Correction: Nov. 8, 2019: This story has been updated to correct the composer of “Moonlight Sonata.”