Teaching to UX: How does it relate?

Teachers are expert empaths, curriculum designers, researchers, and analyzers. There is so much overlap between these roles. Here’s how:

A teacher’s desk with a bulletin board filled with art on wall behind.
A place I rarely sit!

The portfolio of skills needed to teach is vast. Underestimated as it is, teaching can be somewhat of a precarious job that involves intricate balance between many parties of people.

In an organization, the teacher is expected to improvise past their trained competency. Things just need to work as best as they can in the time and resource that one has, no matter what. Therefore they wear so many hats: researcher, communicator, advocate, counselor, designer, content creator, scientist, analyst, problem solver. Pair this with a level of expertise as a subject matter educator and you not only have these skills but many more. As a visual arts educator I also became an installation artist, stage designer, fundraiser, group coordinator, liaison, docent, publisher, and master artist.

My role as a visual arts teacher is similar to a designer. Iterations, fast paced decision making, multitasking, harsh criticisms, conflicting priorities between users and stakeholder are second nature, a given, an expectation. After many years letting go and thinking with empathy comes to us without much thought.

A cluttered cart with paint supplies.
My daily spread of mural making materials. Having students work on murals is perhaps one of the fastest paced aspects of the job. It demanded 24 kids paint cooperatively on one wall with fast drying acrylic paints. To properly do this forward planning, delegation of work, and quick decision making is required at all times!

Much of the work we do overlaps with the practices of designers…

I would never be able to do my job if I knew nothing about who I serve. I need to know past simplistic demographics such as age, gender, race, and location just as designers must in user research. At the beginning of every school year I need to craft the right conversations to get the most out of how to relate to my students, I look at what is happening and has happened in the places they live, I ask myself what they might connect to the most. As I continue to teach, I am informed more about them: their talents, what they want to know, their challenges, and their personal traits (motivations, goals, pain points). This drives my pedagogy or the manners or practices in how I teach.

I’ve never taught a lesson that worked out the first time. Even lessons that functioned in years past become outdated and irrelevant to other groups. The iterative process is the practice that designers and teachers cannot go without. There is difference in an eduction that was developed decades ago and one that had been updated to meet current needs and interests of users in response to their current world. Even on a daily basis iteration happens in the classroom. The first class might be getting the weakest lesson, the last class of the day the strongest as I’m constantly iterating and revising best practices of the day.

So much of a teacher’s work is data. Even as a visual arts teacher it drives my practice. I use my research and iterative processes to see if my lessons have met standards. When I look or think back on the work produced or how much my students processed the tasks they completed it can usually be quantified into percentages, scores, or milestones; aligned with objectives and formal and informal assessments. How many students can grasp a pencil for more than three minutes? What percentage of students relayed three details into their drawing from the story? What level on the rubric did the student reach in their command of the medium?

A child’s felt storyboard with various characters made of felt with googly eyes glued on.
A storymaking feltboard made by Kindergarten students.

Various Understandings of Teacher and Designers

Teaching a creative subject means my work is interpreted various ways by various people I work with in a school. We all know that not everyone sees teachers and designers equally. Sometimes I feel as if visual arts teaching has a dual role- visual aesthetic, and improving how students access information. Here’s why:

UI designer:
On behalf of many teammates (classroom teachers who teach core subjects such as math, reading, language arts) there are numerous questions and comments such as:

“Can you design a backdrop for the play?”
“You are brightening the hallways, I never knew our kids were so amazing!”
“Can you re-create this lesson? It’s such a traditional past-time for childhood!”

I was there to beautify. However speak to an admin (principal, reading interventionist, or a different picture arises…

UX Designer:
”I see that visual arts can boost test scores, let’s integrate curriculum to get these results that can show up in our data.”
”Our students don’t seem to have translatable skills when they do their work. Writing straight on a page is difficult for them. Can you work on better guidance for developing their motor skills? Art can make it fun.”
”Multiple access points to the curriculum could help them be engaged and want to learn the core curriculum, can you design lessons to build motivation for our visual thinkers?”
”We have so many English Learners teaching visual skills will really help them succeed.”

Speaking to admin seems to be such an idealist effort one possessed by hopeful and innovative leaders. Speaking to other stakeholders presents yet a different viewpoint….

Meeting preconceptions of stakeholders:
”They love art and idolize you. Paint, clay, drawing whatever it is, it just simply brings them joy.”
”I was never good at drawing. Glad some other people know. Just not my thing.”
”Art is kind of…for losers. There are more important things to do rather than just drawing or studying weird people.”
”If it wasn’t for art my kid wouldn’t come to school. It’s the only thing they respond to. I don’t get it.”

Stakeholders will feel all types of ways just as users…

Meeting the diverse preconceptions of users:
-“My faaaaavorite claaaaaass!”
-”I can’t draw.”
-”What are we going to do today? What are we doing? How?”
-”Ugh. I can’t do it. I suck. I hate this.”
-”I never thought about it like that. Neat.”
-”I’m only here because I have to be.”

Users however are the center to this whole structure. How do we engage them? How do we get them to persist through unsureness? How do we meet their needs?

At the end of the day the parents, the admins, your teammates can and will have their own goals, but the bottom line is the user engaged, fulfilled? Are they able to access the information essential to them? Have you convinced them your product (lesson and curriculum in whole) is worth it? Are they motivated to come back?

That level of problem solving is the core of teaching.

Three students working with mosaic tiles. They are laying them on grid paper to create a picture.
Students create pictures on a grid to plan an outdoor mosaic.

Let’s also not forget teachers are teachers are masters of designing responsively according to multiple formats. Can our designs, or lessons, withstand the conditions given to us?

Anyone can design a picture perfect pinterest blog post that makes a nice product. However, teachers are the ones that will be integrating the trends and interests of children and parents, producing those products they crave and tossing the essentials to why kids even learn visual arts. I design for all these conditions:

Everything is based on standards
I’m obligated to connect this to standards mandated by the state and district. (They usually overlap, but they must be defined).

I’m obligated to make everything I do accessible to every learner that comes through my classroom. It’s not just the law, it’s the understanding that seeing people with disabilities live a life of constant inequity and giving them art brings them happiness since art is a place for people who don’t fit in. I live for that. In addition, all the ways you make something accessible can make it easier and more joyful to everyone no matter the condition.

Arts Integration
In addition to teaching visual arts, I also teach core curriculum using visual arts as an arts integrationist. This can make or break if a kid even responds to math, language arts, and science. It can be the difference in not just confidence but if a child considers themselves competent enough to pursue the content. Integrating arts has been theorized and proven as a catalyst to children learning core curriculum.

A child’s painting of a solar system.
An artistic take on the solar system, this lesson integrated the arts into core science curriculum.

Class size
Are a lot of students absent? Is the group large? Is the group combined with age levels unexpectedly because two teachers called out sick and a shortage of subs? Are there paraprofessionals helping the special needs students? Is it just me today?

Meeting Them Where They Are At
No sleep, hungry, burnt out, brain fog after standardized tests, are all common conditions my users learn through. In many cases I have to work through trauma, behavioral issues, and the like especially in inner city conditions where communities become heavily impacted by chronic amounts of depravation. I meet my learners where they are, I can never push them away.

Multiple Intelligences
We call this Universal Design for Learning but past the educational jargon in every lesson there needs to be something for everyone. What is in this for visual learners? Folks who learn through moving their body? Folks who learn by listening? Logically and procedurally minded people? Creative and imaginative people? Everyone must be engaged.

Places Besides a Classroom
I design for school assemblies, parent groups, newsletters, learning demo days, lesson studies (colleagues observe lessons built through a lengthy process to theorize best practices), and even recess school yard fun.

Three children painting on an outdoor chalkboard with chalk paint.
My practice doesn’t stop at the classroom door. It is applied to all areas of the school and beyond. In this instance admin requested a space in school yard where younger kids could engage motor skills, sensory play, and artmaking.

My job is only as good as the quantity of what it provides.

I am only present as an educator in a school if: the budget allows, the parents like me, and the data shows I’m of use. It’s disheartening to think of art education like this. However, it’s just the reality. So the bottom line means that I am:

Actively thinking about how my work boots data points: participating in data shares, immersing myself in stakeholder meetings, theorizing ways I can build stamina for standardized testing and teaching milestones are all things I actively contribute to.

Contributing to the emotional needs of the community I serve and work with:
I’m checking it with families and colleagues, making them feel welcome and a wanted presence and useful role, solving conflicts with empathy and diplomacy, my communities’ issues are never someone else’s they are mine too.

Managing a budget prudently and resourcefully:
My classroom has a large budget that needs to be balanced and used wisely. This involves priority, inventory, and balance. Understanding smart use of my resources is central to how the product comes out. Sure we can produce products made of garbage or squander funds to overcompensate a lack but it requires balance to understand the realistic workings of creative product. I’m always asking myself what can I give or take?

That’s how this profession has always been and that’s an important mindset visual art teachers possess. There are preconceived ideas of what art education can be, versus what I see and experience as a creative.I feel this role as an visual art teacher overlaps quite a lot with a UX designer: taking an understanding of industry-led organization, mindsets of stakeholders and teammates, and a wide array of skills to create a product that has users finding a usefulness in what we have to offer!

A placard reads: “I became a teacher for the money and the fame.”
A sarcastic placard of why I became a teacher. ;)



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Melanie Ogunwale

Melanie Ogunwale

User Experience Designer. Part of a long line of Expert Rollerskaters, Artists, and Green Thumbs.