I have not stepped foot in the halls of a high school during school hours in over 10 years. Initially, everything seemed pretty true to form, aside from everyone having his/her own laptop and a smart phone. Lunch hour was still the same balance of chaos and control, even more so were the halls in between class periods – like a Jackson Pollock of noises, bodies and puberty.
The minute you walk into Mollie Potter’s classroom, there is a very contrasting tranquility. Whether it is the neatly lined rows of empty tables ready like blank canvases, the organized walls of previous art assignments or the instrumental yoga music, you immediately feel a particular kind of focus. This is a place to create, and I want to stay. Forever.
Potter sees 170 students come through her classroom each day; some with a burning passion for art, and some just with a burning need to fill a fine art credit. It is interesting, she comments, the students who are more focused on science or physiology or becoming a doctor are the ones with the steadiest hands. No matter the student’s place on that spectrum, the talent these kids possess is amazing – a statement Potter makes multiple times, noting their steady hands, thin lines and immaculate detail.
Potter graduated in 2013 with a degree in Art Education from USF, and is now in her second year of teaching at Washington High School. She credits art with being one of the few things that got her excited about school growing up, and is passionate about helping other students, who may not feel they have an academic place, find one in art.
When she isn’t in the classroom, Potter enjoys kickboxing, book club, singing on the worship team and painting. An artist herself, she paints all year. During the less busy summer months, she likes to participate in shows and other exhibitions. She has sold and commissioned over 70 art pieces in the last three years, and has had work displayed at places like Zing and Monks. As an abstract painter, she draws inspiration from every day things, particularly quotes. Even though she is in the classroom five out of seven days of the week during the school year, one of the perks about being an art teacher is the ability to create along with the students. Often she and other teachers will collaborate together in order to demonstrate a certain technique. The students love it. -TZ
What led you to teach?
I remember how excited I was to learn about art in middle and high school. It was really one of the only subjects that made me excited to be in school. I know there are a lot of students who feel that way, and I want to make sure they have the opportunity to invest in something that excites them. I also feel like art is a place where the kids who don’t fit the mold of the average academic student can be involved.
What do you hope to teach to your students?
Outside of what is in the curriculum, I want my students to know how to reflect upon themselves as people, as they do with their artwork. As artists and human beings, learning how to take and give constructive criticism, keeping growth and tact at the forefront of your motive is essential. This transfers over to every part of life, whether it is a personal relationship, talking to an employee… etc. Art teaches students how to react and respond. It is also important that they know how to make a mistake, think critically, and come to a responsive conclusion calmly. My goal is that each of my students leaves my room willing to experiment with and expand their perspectives in order to appreciate what they see around them, even if they don’t agree with it or necessarily like it.
Tell me about your teaching style.
I try to create a calm, creative and fun atmosphere in which art students can be their thoughtful, experimenting selves. I keep the lectures to a minimum, the demonstrations to a maximum, and guided work time to an equal maximum. I put research and implementation at the top of my priority list. Anything I ask of my students, I make sure to ask them to show me that they can do it, as well as tell me about how they would do it. I understand that I’m working with 150+ students every day who are each at a different place with their art making, as well as their ability to talk about their art making. Just because they can’t demonstrate the idea yet, doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t understand the concept.
What is your favorite medium to teach?
I love teaching in both painting and drawing.
Who are your favorite artists?
My favorite local artists are Ceca Cooper and Sara Odens. I also really love Banksy and Degas.
If you weren’t an art teacher, what would you do? What is your dream job?
I love being a teacher. I love languages, culture and all facets of expression. Dance, music, art, literature, and the stories that people have make me feel so much. I guess if I could be or do anything, I’d be someone who experiences everything deeply and fully and tries to contribute as much as possible to the people around them. I don’t know if that counts as a job, but I think I could at least probably work on implementing it in any job I have. Being a teacher is a good place for someone with goals like mine. You’re constantly forced to improve yourself, as you’re surrounded by hundreds of students that you have to get to know on an individual basis in order to find out what they need from you, so that they can improve themselves. Being a teacher, specifically in high school, is a job that is full of all of the things I love.
What type of art do you personally enjoy making?
I’m lucky enough to have a space in my house for a studio, so I paint a lot on my own. It offers me the alone time I need to recharge after a day full of students. I have a Facebook page called ByMolliePotter and just had my first business cards made up, which was an exciting step!
What keeps you teaching?
This is only my second year teaching, but this far, it’s been great seeing how much education transforms kids into adults. My teaching partner, Shonette Devitt, always tells her students (and now I tell mine) that you can lose your house, your friends, your hair, all your money, and everything else, but you can never lose what you know. In America, a lot of our kids take education for granted. They think formal education is a natural right, because they just don’t know any better, so they can be pretty ungrateful. I guess that keeps me teaching, too. We all forget that people fought big time so we could have the freedom and the opportunity to know whatever we want to know for free. We tend to be a little bit spoiled here. The kids who come to Washington High School from other countries, where education is not handed out to every single person under the age of 21, keep me teaching. Some of those kids come in and have never had a formal education at all. They’re expected to catch up and graduate in four years or it’ll go against our school’s graduation rate. They’re heartbreakingly inspiring even when most of the time they don’t catch up. Generally, I’m here because of the students who are 100% committed to learning and see the massive gift that it is, the students who are doing their best to keep their heads above water, and the students who are way under the surface struggling to get a breath of air.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered by my students as someone who stood up for them, advocated for them, and was always on their side working in their best interests, even when they didn’t like me for it. I would also like to be remembered as someone who was brave and fought for herself and her fellow humans. I take my advice from Cinderella, who said, “Have courage and be kind.”