Ashley Cavadas rushed over from Queens on a Thursday to talk to us. Hailing from New Jersey and a graduate Teacher College’s Art and Art Education Master of Arts program with teaching certification, Ashley now works as an art teacher at PS 78 in Long Island City. She spoke to us on a breezy afternoon about her journey to being an educator, her love for art, and her plans for the future of her school’s art program.
You obviously love teaching art now. When did this passion begin?
I did my undergrad at Lehigh University, and I was not involved in education at all. I studied theater and art. I did a lot of design for theaters, set design, props, costumes, basically anything that kept me off the stage. I took art classes, and I did a lot of painting. But I never really thought art education would be something I could do.
After college, eventually I moved to New York, and I worked in theater and film for about five years. While I was doing that, I was feeling a little bit lost and thinking that I was missing something, so I started volunteering at a place called Art Start, which does art classes at homeless shelters around New York City. The first one I did, I fell in love. While I was doing that, I started getting more interested in art education. I did this program called Learning Through Art, where I was an assistant art teacher for a year in Washington Heights teaching second graders. So that is what brought me into art education. All of this came together, and I thought I should go back to school and get a masters because you can't really teach without it. I applied to two different schools, and when I got into TC, I thought, ‘This is the best place to do it.’
What was it about Teachers College that made you sure you wanted to study here?
The main thing would be the specifics of the program. Especially for me, I didn’t come from an education background at all, so I really liked the program and how extensive it was with all the different classes: artistic development of children through adolescence and the processes and structures of materials and art history and art education history and all the studio classes. I didn't see that in many other programs where you get to do so many different things for one full year.
Then you get to do one full year of student teaching. TC pushes you to do more. The hours we come out with are way more than the NY State requirement. I got a lot of teaching experience, which for me, not coming from an education background, was something I really wanted. I worked with kids from age two to 16. You can't get that everywhere. When I was applying to jobs, I felt like I was more prepared than I would have been if I had gone somewhere else.
What were some of the highlights of your two years at Teachers College?
One of the highlights for me, because it was so long since I’d been involved in making my own art, were the studio classes. Those were amazing. I still miss being in the studio. My studio professors can probably attest that I would be in the studio for hours and hours. I wouldn't want to leave on a Friday night. I think as an art teacher it’s so important to keep making your own art. I loved that chance to build on my own craft, and then I would get ideas for my students and just build up that excitement in me again.
Student teaching was also a big highlight for me and a huge part of the program here. I was lucky that I had two really amazing placements. For one I was working in a public school in Manhattan with middle and high school, and my second placement was at a school with kids with special needs. They were such different placements. That was the first time when I was in it and thought, like ok I can do this. So even in those days when you're teaching 5 classes by yourself without your co-teacher, it made me realize I can do this. I’m ready.
That’s a great feeling. Once you felt ready, how was your experience looking for jobs and preparing for what comes next?
When I look back at it now, I'm glad it's over. But I felt very prepared. I felt like I was a really good student, did all of my work, did student teaching. Once I started applying for jobs I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I went to six or seven job fairs. And I'm the type of person that I don't want to settle. I was offered a job before I took my current job. And I went in for lots of interviews, but I wanted the job to feel like a good fit for me and not just jump at the first job offer. I ended up getting my job the first week of August and started working the last week of August. It was pretty close. But I knew I would find something. I got lucky in that I found a job I was excited about.
That feels like a really realistic job search process and with a happy ending! What is your current job like?
I work at PS 78 in Long Island City. It’s kindergarten through eighth grade, split between two buildings. That community is growing at an insane rate right now, and it’s hard to keep up with the size of the neighborhood. Because there are so many kids, I only teach kindergarten, first, sixth, seventh, and eighth. I’m assuming at some point that might change, but right now I’m the only art teacher in the building, which is a bit of a challenge.
I’m also lucky because I know other schools have a tight art budget, but my principal hasn’t said no to any of the supplies that I’ve needed. At TC they stressed going above and beyond and doing engaging projects with the kids, which can be hard if you have limited materials, but I don’t have that problem right now.
That’s really wonderful to hear. So do you feel like your school prioritizes art well?
I think it’s hard because I’m the first art teacher that my school has had, but my school has been open for about 15 years, so I think they’re learning how to prioritize art in the system. I think as a specials teacher, it’s always hard. Are you going to be a priority over math, science, English? Unfortunately, probably not.
I do know that the other teachers at the school, whenever they see me hanging up art, are always so excited to see it. My principal always comments on the art on the wall. Last year I did the self-portraits with the sixth grade and my principal saw them and ordered picture frames for all of them to hang up on the wall. It’s definitely a community that appreciates art.
Can you talk more about that? Why do feel like art is so important to have in schools?
The other day one of my students was like, ‘Oh my gosh you have to be creative every day in here!’ I love when kids say stuff like that. I was like ‘Yes!’ That’s what it’s all about. In my opinion, art uses every single part of your brain. You’re solving problems every day. I put math into my lessons, even though they’re tricked into doing it. There’s science and history. We look at maps and things like that. Reimagining different things. You’re combining everything into one. And I get so excited when they realize it. But most of the time they’re doing it and not even aware of it.
It sounds like you have a lot freedom within your program. What is that like for you?
I’ve taken that for granted a little bit. I do have a lot of freedom. I follow the Blueprint and the National Core Art Standards, but my curriculum is very open. I’ve never had my principal say ‘I need you to do a landscape,’ or ‘Have the students do self-portraits this week.’ There’s a lot of freedom, which I really love. I have freedom in terms of what materials I want to use and projects I want to do, when I want to do it, etc. I like that I can see something and apply it that week. And sometimes it fails horribly and other times it’s amazing. I enjoy the learning process and I like having the option to try new things and figure it out.
That’s great that you have the opportunity for trial and error. That probably makes teaching much more exciting and allows you to be more creative! What would you say is your favorite thing about being an art teacher?
With the little kids, my favorite thing is seeing them discover something new. I love that moment when they do something and they’re like, ‘Look what I did! This is amazing!’ When that happens, I am so excited for them because they’ve discovered something new that they are able to do that they weren’t able to do before. And when you’re 5 or 6, learning to glue or learning to cut in a straight line is a pretty big deal. Getting to help that process and getting to witness them, I love it. Seeing them be so proud of an experience I helped them through is really exciting for me.
With the middle schoolers, it’s a bit different. I have this one kid who was saying, ‘I don’t like art. I’m not good at it. I can’t do it.’ He was doing a drawing and did it really carelessly, so I said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ So we did it again and it was slightly better. And then he came into class the next day with an improved drawing and he said, ‘I like art now! I can do it!’ That’s my favorite part with the older kids. Getting them to realize that they can do it. That transforms the whole classroom.
I love that. Do you have a dream for the future of your art program?
I would love for every kid in the school to have art. Making it so the whole school faculty, administration, and teachers, understand the importance of art and really do value it and make it more of a staple at the school. I want people to think ‘PS 78, they have an amazing art program.’ I work really hard to create a diverse and exciting art program for the kids. They’re doing painting and sculpture and printmaking. I want the kids to be really engaged and excited about it because then the parents will get really excited about it and the community will get really excited about it, and it will only grow from there.
Any advice you would give current or prospective art ed students?
One thing I wish I had known is not to put so much pressure on finding that dream job right out of school. You’re going to change as a person and you’re going to change as an educator, the school is going to change. It might be your dream job one year and then the next year it might change. Seek out multiple opportunities. Cast a wide net. See what comes and see what feels right. Don’t get stuck on one thing. Expand your goal. And if you get a good feelings about something, then pursue it and see where it leads you.