By Jan Alex
You probably wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that the majority of high-school students in America don’t address any of their teachers by their first names. Most teachers and students have little interest in fostering such comfortable relations with one another. But here at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, in Bridget Farnack’s ceramics room on the Willow Grove campus, things are different.
I’m here in the ceramics room to talk to Bridget about being a teacher — what led her to this job and what it is that’s most satisfying about teaching art. For me and countless other students, her room is a special place on campus. I’ve come here during one of my free periods, the last period of the day, and Bridget has no scheduled classes. But, as always, her room is filled with students using their free time to catch up on work and catch up with friends.
A group of students sits around one of the well-used long wooden tables, speckled with spilled paint, glue, clay, and every other artistic medium that a freshman could possibly spill. They chat and do work, while just a few feet away a several junior boys throw on a few of the twelve or so wheels that dominate the room. For those unfamiliar with ceramic art, students attach pieces of clay to the wheel and shape it using water, tools, and their own two hands. This is called throwing. On the chalkboard walls behind them, drawings and diagrams serve as references for beginning throwers, and a shelf of pots by former teachers, students, and outside artists serve as inspiration for those who have gotten the hang of things.
A lone student works at the trimming wheel in the far corner of the room, and others mill about the buckets of glaze, pondering how they will finish their last-minute pieces for the student art show this coming Monday.
This is a busy time of year for Bridget, who besides serving as a 3D Art teacher for freshmen and the Ceramics teacher for the rest of the high school, has filled the role of advisor to a group of senior boys for the past four years.
Guiding a group of rowdy teenage boys through high school sounds like a challenge, but part of the reason Bridget teaches high school is because she appreciates the close relationships she has with her students — closer than those she would have in a college setting.
She says, “I don’t think that teaching college is as rewarding as teaching high school because you see those people only twice a week and they are so busy trying to jam everything into the class that you don’t ever get to really know them. It’s been nice to get to know the senior class. I feel like really know all of you guys after four years.”
The boys she advises definitely feel the same way, and they all agree that they could not have gotten a better teacher as their advisor. Senior Noah Chandler says that, to him, “Bridget is the teacher who’s not a teacher.” He adds, “Bridget is able to talk to us as a friend rather than as a teacher, maybe due to her being younger or her hipster attitude. This makes it easier to talk to her and for her to get to know us.” What he says is not unusual to hear from one of her students: Bridget is a friend first and a teacher second.
Part of the reason she connects so well with her students is because she is not so far from being a student herself. She graduated from Temple’s Tyler School of Art with an MFA in ceramics and art education and almost immediately found herself teaching here at SCH. The fact that she is so young has an undeniable effect on her ability to relate to her students. She is hip, fashionable, and in many ways more savvy with social media than some of her students. For example, she has an active Instagram filled with images of her art, and she encourages students to seek out images of work by contemporary ceramic artists in order to find inspiration and direction for their own work.
Often it is Bridget herself who serves as an inspiration. She is a practicing artist, and the ceramics room serves as both her classroom and her studio space. Her work sits right alongside that of her students on the drying racks. Although she still finds time to produce a solid stream of beautiful work, she doesn’t shy away from discussing the conflict between being a full-time teacher and an artist: “If you want to teach, it takes up 98% of your time, so you have 2% of your time to make artwork, unless your really good at micro-tasking… and I’m not so great at that. So you do kind of sacrifice getting to make your work for teaching.” Despite this struggle, she still maintains a personal website and an etsy account where she sells her vibrant, colorful and functional pottery, and you can often find her at the wheel during her brief moments of free time.
What she loves most about being a teacher, however, is getting her students to talk about art. Her attitude fosters a unique sense of openness in her classroom, and people aren’t afraid to say what they mean. She talks with students about her own work and their work in a candid manner meant to promote authentic dialogue, and when it results in thoughtful observations, she couldn’t be happier.
When I asked her what makes her happiest, she told me a story about how a student criticized her work, saying, “When you guys feel comfortable enough to give me criticism in such a casual way, I think that’s a really proud moment.”
It may sound strange for a teacher to be proud of getting criticized by her own
students, but then again, here in the ceramics room, it’s ,“Bridget”, not ,“Mrs.
Farnack”, and things are done a little differently.