John Gresens teaches visual art, ceramics, sculpture, jewelry design and other art courses at North Springs Charter High in Sandy Springs. He has been teaching for seven years and sponsors the school’s participation in “The Deconstruction,” a two-day, online international competition during which students deconstruct something and reimagine it as something else. North Spring students won the competition two years ago. For this year’s challenge, the students will deconstruct America.
Q: What attracted you to teaching at first?
A: I was given some bad advice when I was a young person. I was always the “art kid,” and I knew that I wanted to be an artist from a very early age. Someone close to me in a position of authority told me, “You’ll never be able to make a living as an artist.” I listened and I was occupationally derailed for a long time. After marrying my wife, who is an artist and was a sculpture major at the time, I realized that I had to create. In 2003, my mother died in a house fire and I had an epiphany. In a moment of extreme clarity, I knew that I wanted to be an art teacher.
Q: Has the appeal changed?
A: I think it changes from year to year. This is such a dynamic occupation that is subject to radical shifts annually. Changes in policy, administration, strategy and technology all have such an effect on teacher motivation. I’ve had some real struggles with all of the previously mentioned issues in the past. While I have to deal with the non-classroom issues, I’ve really embraced the idea that the focus is, and will always be, the student.
Q: What keeps you going year after year?
A: The personal connections with my students that I get to develop are so rewarding. To be able to teach a 14-year-old student and watch her or him grow, change, struggle, fail, triumph and ultimately leave at 17 or 18 with a stronger sense of who he or she is, is amazing. I smile knowing that I had a part in that!
Q: What do you think makes a great teacher?
A: A wise teacher told me early in my career that teaching is all about relationships. I believed it then and I believe it now. All of the best teachers I know really care about their students and they let them know that daily. The strategies may be different, but the caring and communication are constants. If your students trust you, you can teach them anything.
Q: What do you want to see in your students?
A: I want to see them engage with process, find passion in the content, and execute a strong, informed product. All of this while showing respect for others and the studio. The sum of this should produce an artist or at least an art appreciator.
Q: How do you engage your students?
A: Every day is another show. It’s like being on stage, banging out a performance worthy of appreciation. I try to make sure that my passion for the content areas is always strong and that I’m actively learning on my time. Being “on fire” for the material carries over in my lectures and demonstrations. I also teach an adult wheel pottery class at the Spruill Art Center on Monday nights. Teaching adults in a three-hour block helps me to solve more advanced problems and bring that knowledge back into the classroom at North Springs.
Q: Do you have a project or special program you use year after year?
A: Two years ago we participated in “The Deconstruction.” It’s a 48-hour global project where you bring a bunch of stuff together, tear it apart and reassemble it to solve a creative problem. We won the whole thing in 2014! The competition/project “went dark” for a year as the organizers reloaded. It’s back this year and we plan to participate again. This year the theme is “Deconstructing America.” Check it out at thedeconstruction.org.
I am also running a Maker Lab at North Springs. The whole student body will have access to my tools and equipment to satisfy their creative curiosities. I’ll have it up and running in the next month or so and it will be accessible a couple of days a week after school and at least one day before school. We’ll work collaboratively with science, some clubs and science teams to get them access so that they can learn and compete.
Q: Is there a “trick” that works to get students involved?
A: Have fun and tell them you care about them. Show them some passion. They might not completely buy in, but it’s hard to let down someone who explains their motivations and stays real.
Q: What do you hope your students take away from your class?
A: I hope that they will understand the challenges and beauty of communicating through objects and performances that are made from knowledge, wisdom, hard work and creativity. I also hope they will come out unafraid to take calculated risks for rich rewards.
Editor’s note: Through our “Exceptional Educator” series, Reporter Newspapers is showcasing the work of some of the outstanding teachers and administrators at our local schools. If you would like to recommend an Exceptional Educator, please email editor@ReporterNewspapers.net.