A Year Gone By: Surviving Grad School

by Gina Plaitakis

Now that I have gotten over the initial hurdles, school is getting easier.

Happy 2011! I can’t believe my last post was so long ago but time just seems to fly by faster these days. I’ve gotten a number of requests over the past year asking what I’m up to so finally here I am. Currently I’m in my second year of school and have just completed 20 credits of the 48 total I need for my master’s. I’m on winter break right now but will start the spring semester in two weeks.

Here’s an update from the past year: Last spring I took the second half of the Foundation Program, which was very intense, and I had a few weeks when I was ready to quit again. I shed a few tears and told my husband I was done, but he encouraged me and took care of cooking dinner for a couple weeks until I got through it. I faced a lot of demons from the past taking that course because it really made us dig deep into our psyche and make art using methods derived from Lee Strasberg’s Theatre and Film Institute, where my professor had studied acting. We learned methods for teaching art using the Strasberg philosophy, and it’s something that I think my future students will benefit from because I know it helped me a lot in my own art making.

Last spring was also a challenge because I had decided to take not one but two courses, as well as be a student teacher in a high school. My second course was an elective art class called Creative Concepts. It was fun and a nice break from the heavily focused writing I was doing in the Foundation class. I got to work with clay and a neat material called Plaster Craft, as well as various other materials. The Plaster Craft is something I will definitely use in the future as an art teacher and I saw quite a few students using it in the high school. It’s a fast-drying sculpting material that can take any shape you want if you build the right skeletal structure to support it. As a grad student, part of my grade was based on an additional art project that I was responsible for researching and learning on my own. I became very interested in Ojos des Dios (also called an Eye of God or Mandala), which are circular wall hangings made by wrapping different colored yarn to create patterns. They are traditional in many indigenous cultures such as Navajo, Tibetan and Mexican and have various meanings, all related to spiritual beliefs. They can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them and can be taught to children of all ages. For my final project, I made an eight-sided, 12-inch one, but they can be made with as little as four sides or as many as 12, and can be three inches big or 36 inches big. It’s all up to the skill and ability of the artist making it.

Another thing I discovered last spring is that I really like teaching the high school students. At first I was a bit intimidated but then I realized that teenagers are really just kids in bigger bodies. It’s a bit more challenging to gain their trust, but once you do they can be fun. One thing I learned is that if you aren’t real and sincere they will know it and won’t have respect for you. If you aren’t secure and know who you are, they won’t have faith in you and it will be really hard to teach them. High school students are at a very vulnerable stage in their life. They may act like they know everything but in reality they are not so sure. Many students need guidance, encouragement and someone to believe in them. A teacher is often the person who can make a difference in their life. I know from personal experience that if it wasn’t for my own high-school art teacher, I would never have thought of applying to art colleges and, as a result, would never have been accepted to Cooper Union. Had it not been for her guidance, encouragement and faith in my abilities, I would not have realized my fullest potential at that time in my life. Being a teacher in high school can be very rewarding.

I took a summer course called Child Psychology and Child Development. It was a fascinating course; my only regret was that it went by too fast. The summer courses try to squeeze five months into five weeks, so they are really intense and stressful. I had two 75-question exams, a 20-page paper and a presentation to complete during the course. Had I taken the course during a fall or spring semester, I think I would have gotten more out of it and enjoyed it more. I probably will never take a summer course again after that experience unless it’s something less writing-intensive like painting.

This past fall I had two courses in special education. I have to say this was by far the easiest semester. Both courses were writing- and reading-intensive, with a chapter reflection due every week. I had two chapters to read (one for each class) that averaged about 40 pages each, but it was easier to handle then my previous courses. I really enjoyed learning about behavior and learning disabilities and various teaching strategies. As a result, I’m considering getting an additional certification in Special Education.

For the coming semester I have registered for a life drawing class and a course called Art and Autism. It’s hard to believe that I’m starting the second half of my second year already. Now that I have gotten over the initial hurdles, school is beginning to get easier for me; I’m finally getting the hang of it and not struggling as much. I have a 4.0 average with all As so far. Taking only two courses per semester has helped. I know I’m very fortunate to be able to take my time. I don’t have the added stress of having to go to work during the day or having to worry about finishing quickly. My family is not depending on me financially and so that’s how I can do it. I thank the universe for all of its blessings and will continue to try and make the most of it while it lasts.


by Gina Plaitakis | Sunday, January 23, 2011 | Career Change, Becoming an Art Teacher, Buy or Start a Business, Dream Careers

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