An Interview with Elementary School Art Teacher, Joanna Bourque

by Julia Bourque
An Interview with Elementary School Art Teacher, Joanna Bourque

As a child, Joanna Bourque lived to doodle, draw and paint. Her mother and grandmother's refrigerators served as galleries for her work.

Today, 30-year-old Bourque continues to doodle, draw and paint. But it's her job as an elementary school art teacher at Spring Brook Elementary School in Naperville, Ill.

Interdisciplinary teaching methods were at the core of Ms. Bourque's double major in education and art at North Central College in Naperville. Before teaching at the school level, Ms. Bourque wanted to explore alternate teaching venues, and served as a School Programs and Exhibits Specialist with the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. "This experience at the museum really made me a better teacher than I would have been if I had gone straight into the classroom," she says.

"Every art lesson I teach is related to something involving math, science, social studies, history or other core classes," Ms. Bourque notes. "This way, art isn't just painting or drawing; it's something bigger that helps the kids grasp what they're learning in their other classes, too."

Ms. Bourque & Her Career

Tell us about your career. How did you get into teaching? How did you get to where you are today?

My career as an elementary art teacher is satisfying and challenging. It continually gives me new things to explore and think about; I'm never bored. I love my job! I can't say I've always known I wanted to be an art teacher, but ever since I was young, I had different people encourage me to use my artistic abilities, such as my mother and grandmother. My high school art teacher also really inspired me and helped me pursue the possibility of teaching art. Throughout college, professors also kept reassuring the fact that this is what I was supposed to do.

I've taught at Spring Brook for six years now. On average, I see about 140 children a day, 700 each week. Before teaching at Spring Brook, I worked as a School Programs and Exhibits Specialist with the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. Upon graduating, I wanted to explore alternate venues for teaching, which led me to the museum field. This experience at the museum really made me a better teacher than I would have been if I had gone straight into the classroom. I saw up close and developed exhibits that truly exemplified the interdisciplinary art education I learned how to teach.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

One of the most amazing things about being an elementary art teacher is the ability to be a part of a child's life from kindergarten through fifth grade. You see them change and grow. You have a relationship with them, and they keep coming back to see you as they get older. As high school students, they can still remember the projects they did in my room like it was yesterday. It's gratifying to know that I have been a part of their lives.

What has been your personal key to success?

To never stop learning. To always be a student of life.

What has been your greatest success? Biggest setback?

I feel I have many great successes every day, every moment I'm teaching a child. Every time a child really gets what I'm teaching and that understanding really shows through what they produce, I feel I have succeeded. Each day is as great as the next.

My biggest setback was having to adjust to the fact that in a classroom I don't have all the colleagues I had at the museum to bounce ideas off of. I have to take the initiative to network with people in my profession, whereas before I had these people surrounding me.

What are some favorite projects in your lesson plan?

My favorite projects are the ones that are centered around the school musicals, which are creatively written by the music teacher. The students are singing about it, acting it out, and the art that is produced has so much more meaning to them; it's part of something bigger. Each student gets to be involved just as much as the other; they all feel as though they're a part of this big experience. This also becomes a personal art project for me, because each year's musical theme is different, and I have to develop an idea that fits in with the theme and one that all students, no matter what level, can produce something and feel successful.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I've not yet gotten my master's degree, and I'd like to. I haven't decided if I want to get a master of fine arts, which would require me taking time off of my job, or if I want to pursue a master's in art education.

Education Information & Advice

How did you decide to study art education at North Central College?

Because I'm from a small community, where I graduated high school with 127 students, I felt very comfortable with the smaller student population at North Central College. With that small population, I had a one-on-one relationship my professors. They were really involved with my education and always available for questions or mentoring. As a teacher now, I know because they had fewer students they had a lot more of themselves to give to their profession. That's always a good thing. Another great thing about a smaller student population is the fact that I could be involved in more extra curricular activities because it wasn't as competitive. There weren't sororities or fraternities; students really didn't have the need to join them. People made friends and had a sense of belonging in their extra curricular involvement.

North Central is not ranked among the top art schools in the nation, but it was the right school for me. My esteem needed to be built up, and I needed to grow and mature into a confident artist. North Central helped me do this through its nurturing art program, and made me the confident art teacher I am today.

Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?

I would have taken advantage of the study abroad program at our school. Because I worked to pay for my own education, I always felt I could not take the time off to take advantage of this opportunity. Looking back, the little bit more money I would have taken out in loans (to study abroad) really wouldn't have been that much in the whole scheme things.

Based on what you hear in the field, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious art education schools, departments or programs?

In the Midwest, the Art Institute of Chicago probably has the highest ranking programs. Others include Northern Illinois University, Indiana University and Columbia University in Chicago.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in certain areas of art, such as painting, drawing or art education?

If you're specializing in a certain area of art, you have a certain art career in mind. There are many facets to art, and I believe you should really look into the strengths of the specific art field you want to go into at each school. You shouldn't be at a school pursuing design if the school specializes only in fine arts.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

In my field, the field of education, it's more about the connections and relationships you make while you're student teaching. I'd say even if you weren't in education, that the real-life experiences through internships and other things and ability to show future employers that you know what you're doing really helps you get the job. Once you're in those internships or interviews, it's really up to you to prove you can do the job; that means more than a GPA, more than what school you've graduated from.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree? Is it necessary?

You have to want to do it. If you don't want to, you're not ready. It's necessary if it makes you better at what you do.

Do you have advice for prospective students considering a private school education?

Do it, especially if you're looking for a more well-rounded education and one-on-one experiences with your professors. Don't be turned away by the prices. Apply for scholarships, grants, financial aid. Your education is going to cost you money wherever you go. Go to school where you feel most comfortable, no matter what the cost. If I had spent a lot of time looking at other schools, either private or public, I probably would have ended up at a school that would have cost me less. I don't necessarily think that's a good thing. I really gained a lot from my private school education, and the money I paid is well worth it.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

My responsibility is to offer a safe and nurturing environment where students are not afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. I have curricular goals that my students must reach by the time they leave elementary school. I have to manage the supplies, organization of over 700 students' projects. Sometimes I feel like I'm running a small business.

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

Overall, my responsibilities go beyond teaching art curriculum and cover all aspects of education. I use organizational, interpersonal communication, disciplinary and mentoring skills every day, not to mention the art skills that are required. I have to be proficient at teaching the elements and principals of design through drawing and painting. I also integrate math, history, social studies and science into different projects.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

The most challenging thing is meeting the needs of the 700 students I see each week. I think you can teach a lot when delve deep into it. You can't necessarily dig as deep when you have so many children to teach.

Best tip for a novice elementary art teacher?

Pace yourself. Realize you can't have everything all at once; a good art program takes time to build just like any other business. Set reachable goals for yourself and celebrate those successes as you go. Don't worry if you don't reach them all right at the start.

Career Information & Advice

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about art education in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Of course, I think that is true with any career. You can't excite others about what you're doing if you're not excited yourself.

What impact has the Internet had on art education, if any?

As a teacher, we have millions of lesson plans at our finger tips and the ability to network with teachers across the world. Students can manage art portfolios online with Artsonia, a digital portfolio website where student work can be submitted, then viewed by friends and relatives. Through the Internet we are able to communicate in ways we have never been able to before. Art communicates, and the Internet is just helping that communication in a broader spectrum.

What do you think will be the hottest careers within the art field over the next decade?

I think with computers becoming such an indelible part of the way our society works, a degree involving some sort of graphic design will lead to any career you choose.

How is the art education job market? How do you think it will be in five years?

I think that really depends on your geographical location. More of the metropolitan areas have better art programs because they have more available local taxes to support them. In areas where schools are dependent on state monies to fund art education programs, I don't know how secure the arts are. I'm sure some states may consider those programs the first to go when cuts need to be made. I hope people will see the value in the hands-on and problem solving skills needed in an art-making experience. These lessons give students life skills. That's why interdisciplinary art education is so important; it incorporates every subject. The students aren't just making holiday turkeys and finger painting.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

It helps to know somebody. I hate the fact that sometimes that is what is comes down to, but in reality you have to network. Ideally, you'd be hired for your great qualities and job ability, but getting your foot in the door is sometimes dependent on who you know inside.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the art education profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

Being a teacher is a definite lifestyle. You're surrounding yourself with children and continually being a mentor. You need to make sure you're morally grounded when you take on this career.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Joanna Bourque personally, click here.

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