Professor Leoni Schmidt – Tertiary Teaching Excellence Teaching Profile
Teaching profile by Professor Leoni Schmidt (Dunedin School of Art, Otago Polytechnic) – Award for Sustained Excellence 2011
Teaching has been my beloved occupation for more than 30 years. Everything else I have done in my working life has consistently fed back into teaching, whether my own or that of others.
Wherever I turn, it is to teaching that I return.
In the context of a vibrant tertiary art school where students are continuously adapting to constant change in national and international contemporary practices, a teacher has to be vigilantly flexible. The worst possible strategy is to come to such sessions with pre-conceived ideas; the progression of a student’s work has to be driven by their own emerging understanding of their studio project; and everything else – including their writing component – has to be carefully aligned. Also, each project is likely to be wildly divergent from the next.
Kathryn Mitchell, MFA alumnus, 2011
I constantly adapt to the student’s own individual learning style and needs. This relates directly to the way in which my teaching life commenced. I started teaching as a 20-year-old at Lovedale College of Education in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. When I worked there, the College exclusively enrolled African students as that was the time of Apartheid in my first country. My students were mostly older than myself. They did not want me there. They did not want to learn from me. I did not know how to teach them. I was young, inexperienced and scared.
The College had appointed me because by that time I had majored in English and they needed an English teacher. But, I had no experience of teaching as a craft, an art, a discipline. However, I had no choice but to find solutions. One of these was to adapt the English texts to African environments. Walter Mitty became Thabo Sisulu; Hamlet became an African chief’s son. When art was added to my teaching portfolio, I painted a large hall bright orange and green to hide the dilapidated and dusty surroundings allotted to so-called ‘bantu education’.
Learning started to happen and, travelling with my students to small villages for their work experience sessions, I found joy in primary school children’s enthusiasm for learning; trust was established between me and my students as we jointly negotiated the dearth of teaching materials in dingy huts. Most of the time we took the children outside and made do with sitting in circles on the ground so that learning could take centre stage. Hardship for those children and students faded into the background in the face of learning’s redemptive force.
Later, I started working as a lecturer in art history at the University of Johannesburg. By that time I was completing my Master of Arts in Fine Arts degree. Art history had – alongside English and painting – been my major subjects. Whenever a course presented problems, going back to basics was indicated and a fine arts education provided tools. Mapping out ideas with students in giant wall drawings, for example, provided them with a visual frame of reference within which they could understand art works. My passion for the role of drawing in teaching practice was born. This led to a focus on drawing history as a background for other visual arts practices in my doctoral thesis, material I could later feed back into my teaching.
When my family emigrated to New Zealand, new challenges for teaching came my way. It is hard to be an immigrant. People share common understandings that one is not privy to; codes of living and doing are different; expectations are uncertain; the ground shifts beneath one’s feet. Teaching yet again became strange to me: I had to relearn some of its parameters.
Adapting knowledge to the New Zealand context was new and exciting. Teaching a course on ‘art and race’ was a special privilege as I could share in-depth South African experiences with students and this allowed them to open up about their own prejudices so that these could then be ameliorated through productive dialogue in the classroom.
Clive Humphreys, Principal Lecturer, Dunedin School of Art, Otago Polytechnic, 2011
My teaching life changed with the 1997 NZQA accreditation of the Master of Fine Arts degree at the Dunedin School of Art at Otago Polytechnic and later with the further accreditation of a suite of other postgraduate programmes. Linking with prior experience of postgraduate teaching in South Africa, my focus shifted to teaching on levels 8 and 9 in research methodology and alignment of studio work with international contemporary arts practices.
Teaching within the wider community also remains part of my work through constructing a weekly public seminar programme for a changing group of around 50-100 attendees.
Bridie Lonie, Bachelor of Visual Arts Programme Coordinator, Dunedin School of Art, Otago Polytechnic, 2011
My pedagogical field of ideas ranges between the phenomenological philosophy of Paulo Freire and the poststructuralist position of Michel Serres on education. Freire argues that education entails our “being in” our world, completely involved with it, not outside or distanced from it. (Paulo Freire, 2004. Pedagogy of Indignation, Boulder CO: Paradigm.1 He also frames his ideas about education through an acceptance of the inevitability of change and risktaking when our being in the world is always a being with others.
Being a migrant, it resonates with me where Serres considers education as a kind of ‘departure’, as it means leaving one’s comfortable home and becoming uncomfortable in the act of encountering others.2 He comes close to what bell hooks explains as ‘…yearning [which] transcends boundaries of race, class, ethnicity and gender and builds on empathy and love for the construction of solidarity and coalition.’3
Karen Taiaroa, MVA student, 2011
Dialogue presupposes the presence of others. Thomas J. Sergiovanni’s concept of ‘community’ expands on this where he recommends that educational leaders should focus on enabling learning communities based on discussion and trust.4 I have slowly gained trust within the teaching community in New Zealand. Joining in around the communal table, the plate I can bring to the feast holds both gratitude and the ongoing wish to serve my community here.
Apart from planning and designing undergraduate and postgraduate courses over many years, I have also been directly involved with national projects such as when I was Director of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Art Educators Conference in 2009.
Dr. David Bell, Senior Lecturer, University of Otago, College of Education
My professional development and research always underpin my teaching and external examination of students at other institutions as well as reviews of programmes elsewhere contribute to my currency in teaching.
Formal external peer feedback, 2011
Alongside my own teaching, I am at present in a leadership role as a teacher and in this capacity I mentor other teams of staff members across Otago Polytechnic on their research and its interface with teaching.
Dr Margaret Roberts, Drawing Lecturer, National Art School, Sydney, 2009
Wherever I turn, it is to teaching that I return.
I have given much to teaching in my life and it continues to return much to me: it always keeps me involved with others and grounds me in their specifi c situations and needs; it is an ethical practice critical of the disowning of others; it challenges me to depart from the comfortable and to yearn – always – for dialogue with others. Finally, it surrounds me with the support and respect of community. What more can any person ask of a beloved occupation?
1 Paulo Freire, 2004. Pedagogy of Indignation, Boulder CO: Paradigm.
2 For a review of Serres on education, see Michalinos Zembylas, 2002. ‘Of Troubadours, Angels and Parasites: Reevaluating the Educational Territory in the Arts and Sciences through the Work of Michel Serres’, International Journal of Education and the Arts, 1999, 3 (3) and http://ijea.asu.edu/v3n3, pp.1-21 posted in 2002.
3 Ibid., referencing bell hooks, 1990. Yearning. Toronto: Between the Lines.
4 Thomas J. Sergiovanni, 1999. Building Community in Schools. San Francisco: Josey Bass.