Imagine walking into a classroom in New York City ready to teach art. Waiting for you are 38 students, eight over the state’s capacity. Ten don’t speak English, 15 have special needs and six haven’t eaten all day. While some might throw their hands up in frustration, Emily Pelton embraces the opportunity to help these students realize their artistic potential.
“Teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding,” said Pelton, an art educator at Frank McCourt High School in Manhattan. “As a teacher, you have to do everything in your power to make sure each student feels valued and accepted in your classroom. You must see each student as a unique human being and form positive relationships with them to meet their needs. You can’t see students as ‘bad kids,’ you have to see potential in every student and truly believe that they will accomplish amazing things in life.”
Pelton considers her career as an art educator at a school in New York to be her greatest professional accomplishment so far. Before securing this position, she studied for several teacher certification tests, spent two years teaching at Title 1 public and charter schools in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, and developed a professional network via accepted unpaid internships and job fairs. While it was difficult, Pelton says she’d do it again “in a heartbeat.”
“I wake up excited to go to work everyday,” she said. “My days are full of inspiration, laughter, creativity and amazing learning experiences that keep me motivated as a teacher. What I enjoy most about teaching art is being able to work with young creative minds and providing them with the tools and opportunities to grow into talented and innovative artists.
“One year, I had a student who came to class and complained for weeks about how much she hated art. She would get frustrated and walk out of class. Other days, she would cry because she thought she was bad at art. I knew this was only because she wasn’t being patient with herself, so I worked with her every day on ways to improve her craft. She ended up becoming one of the top students in my class. On the last day of school, she gave me a note that read, ‘Ms. Pelton... This class took me on an amazing journey with art… I remember the first day I came to class and complained about how much I hated art; however, as the school year progressed, I began to love art. I realized that all I needed was patience and resilience, this class taught me that. Thank you for always believing in me, tolerating my moods and never giving up on me.’ This letter really reinforces why I love teaching art.”
Pelton’s motivation to become an art teacher stems from a similar experience she had with Hope Palmer, her high school art teacher, as well as the lessons she learned while studying at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS).
“Ms. Palmer changed the way I saw art!” said Pelton.
“Art didn’t always have to be still life; it could be sculptures made out feathers and iron! It could be mixed media paintings of crazy faces! It could be performance-based drawing! It could be anything I imagined!"
If I could impact just one student’s life the way Hope Palmer impacted mine, I would be honored.
“After graduation, I pursued art at CCS. This was truly the best five years of my life because it was a time of self discovery. I had the opportunity to study with two amazing professors, Gilda Snowden and Robert Schefman, whose enthusiasm and expectations challenged me to always do my best. Along with teaching me how to be a more talented and skillful artist, they taught me resilience, dedication, and accountability. The skills I developed at CCS have made me a more knowledgeable artist and teacher prepared to offer my students rich and engaging lessons.”
In the future, Pelton hopes to build more connections within the New York City art world.
“I want to expand my classroom into New York City,” she said. “I want to get more professional artists involved with my students, incorporate more museum/exhibition trips with my students, and create public art pieces for our city like murals and mosaics.”
Outside of the classroom, Pelton enjoys working on her own paintings and workout out.
She said, “Teaching can easily consume your life, so it is important for me to have balance.”
To see more of Pelton’s work, check out www.emilypelton.com.