September 26th, 2021
To say that this has been a difficult time for teachers is certainly an understatement. Our hearts are with all of the teachers and their students navigating the challenges that this global pandemic has presented, from establishing virtual learning techniques to implementing safe classroom practices. We have been so inspired to witness the efforts of teachers across the globe, continuing to rise to the most difficult of occasions and uplift their students through it all.
Wanting to know more about the trials and triumphs of teaching in the age of COVID, we spoke with one of our very own artists, mixed media artist and art professor Matt Flint. As he celebrates his 20th anniversary of teaching, he looks back with us on his most valuable experiences, from discovering his passion for teaching, to finding his teaching style, to inventing creative ways to continue to engage his students from afar.
Matt Flint first discovered his passion for teaching when he was in grad school for art. While studying art, Flint felt conflicted about his chosen art career. As valuable as a career in the arts can be, Flint felt an internal drive to help others in a more direct way. He had a discussion with one of his advisers, confessing his internal battle between wanting to work in a helping profession and wanting to pursue his love of creating art.
Fortunately, as part of his graduate program, Flint was required to teach a few art classes to fulfill his degree. This experience proved to be a life-changing experience for him. He found that he could balance his desire for helping others with his passion for art by teaching art. “It’s something that came a little naturally for me,” Flint says, “I didn’t realize that until I first started doing it, but I love sharing skills and ideas with people. I always felt like maybe I was meant to do this.“
A self-proclaimed introvert, Matt Flint confesses that the level of socialization that teaching requires can still pose a challenge for him. “I think sometimes as artists, we sort of live in a little bubble. This is especially true of painters… we’re the worst,” he jokes. He elaborates, explaining how many other types of artists, like ceramic artists, for instance, can often be much more communal, as they often share studio spaces. In contrast, painters tend to work in solitude. While he personally prefers this style of art making, teaching provided an outlet for him to help others as well. “Teaching forces you to meet people where they are,” Flint says, “It kind of got me out of my head and out of the studio and encouraged me to think about other ways to approach things.” Through teaching, Flint can challenge himself and others and truly make a difference, empowering others with creative skills, all the while continuing to pursue his own studio practice.
“I love sharing skills and ideas with people. I always felt like maybe I was meant to do this.”
– Matt Flint
Once Flint knew which vocation was right for him, he was left to decide which school system to devote his energy to. When making this decision, Flint remembers the words of Bill Gates reverberating in his head. Back in the early 2000s, Bill Gates spoke often about propping up community colleges. Flint felt the importance of that message: “community colleges are pathways to a much different future for a lot of people, breaking cycles of poverty through education,” Flint says. Besides, Flint did not particularly care for the politics and the overly academic tone of many four-year universities. “I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I was really helping someone out,” Matt Flint says.
Growing up in the Midwest, Flint was more familiar with many of the larger four-year universities around him. He’s since learned and appreciated how community colleges can provide a far more individualized experience for students, as well as a hub for the communities in which they reside. “They [community colleges] sort of hold their communities together,” Flint says.
Knowing that he and his wife had always wanted to live near mountains, Matt Flint set about finding the right community college for him to begin his teaching career. Eventually, he decided on Central Wyoming College in Riverton, Wyoming. It was a bit of an adjustment moving from Kansas City, Missouri to Lander, Wyoming, and teaching at the even smaller Riverton, Wyoming. “It was very different from anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Flint remembers. Despite the adjustment, Flint felt that he had finally found a place where he could truly make a difference in students’ lives.
Typically, Flint starts his classes with what he refers to as a “low risk, high reward” sort of assignment. He wants to get his students comfortable with creating. This semester, he had his students build their own brushes out of things they foraged for outside. He then instructed them to make different types of marks and form a sort of line inventory, all the while discussing different artistic concepts. Then they applied those concepts and mark making techniques to the canvas. Through this exercise, his students learned how to systemize, how to create templates, how to measure out ideas, how to build up their own ideas, and perhaps most importantly, how to play.
Of his teaching assignments and curriculum, Flint says, “I’m constantly changing the things that I do in each and every class and the assignments that I get into. I’m not working off of a textbook. Instead, I invent my own assignments and processes, because I want my students to learn certain things in an interesting practical way.” He has learned how to give his students a lot of space when it comes to creation. “My students don’t paint or draw at all like me, and I don’t want them to,” Flint says, “I don’t push some sort of stylistic idea. Instead, I work on developing their skills, giving them a lot of things to work with, and talking with them about what it means to be an artist and how they see the world a little differently.“
Nurturing this passion for creative vision is one the most rewarding parts of Flint’s job: “I remind myself constantly that I’m pretty fortunate to get to do what I want to do in my art career and when you see students that are hungry for their careers, I remember being in that place where you see a hazy idea of what that might be. It’s inspiring, but it’s also a little frustrating for me because I want them to sort of be instantly successful, but I know it takes time.”
“Teaching forces you to meet people where they are. It kind of got me out of my head and out of the studio and encouraged me to think about other ways to approach things.”
– Matt Flint
This year, Matt Flint is celebrating his 20th year of teaching. Now more confident in his teaching than ever, he reflects back on his early teaching experiences with amusement, remembering vividly the challenges that presented themselves in such a different atmosphere than anything he had experienced before.
Learning how to teach is in itself an exciting challenge, but learning how to teach in an environment like Riverton was something else entirely. The county that Riverton is in is the poorest county in Wyoming. Many of the people that make up Riverton‘s population have not traveled very far outside of their communities and are bound by geography and economic circumstances. Because of this, many of his students are, unfortunately, not as prepared for the challenges of college as their college-aged peers may be. Flint elaborates, “The preparedness for college is not very strong here. Most students are very unprepared, not just academically but socially and culturally. Many times, they’re first generation college students. They don’t have contact with anyone who’s gone to school, and a lot of the time, they don’t know what it’s all about. Because of that, you kind of have to start from the very beginning on everything. It took me the first five years of teaching to figure out how to navigate that.”
When Flint first started teaching in this environment, he based much of his teaching off of the professors he had in the past. He quickly realized that the same teaching styles and methods that work in a four-year university, do not always translate to a small, rural community college. The context was too different, and he had to learn to adapt and figure out what brought out the best in his students.
“It’s pretty amazing what we can do because we’re a smaller, more nimble school. We’re able to respond to needs really very quickly.”
– Matt Flint
He began by asking a lot of questions. He switched his initial focus from the material to getting to know the students. He found ways to figure out what excited them, what they were scared about, and what they needed to keep them there in the classroom, learning and growing. In short, he learned that building trust between himself and his students was the first priority. Overtime, he’s learned to build that trust fairly quickly. This has required Matt Flint to develop a sort of cultural literacy, understanding the different backgrounds and cultures of his students in order to better serve them.
A large percentage of Flint’s students are Native American and an even larger percentage are female. Driving from Lander (where Flint lives) to Riverton (where Flint works) involves driving through the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the Arapaho and Shoshone Indian tribes inhabit a large swath of land. Many of his students live across the Reservation and in very sparsely populated areas.
His Native American students often have very large families, which take precedence in their lives. Flint explains, “Their home life might involve a lot of people living in their household: aunties, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas. Those relatives can be pretty far down the line in their family tree, too. It’s not necessarily just direct descendants living under the same roof, it’s any relation. A third cousin could be an “auntie,” so it’s a little more open ended. That’s the nature of communal living.”
Flint confesses that when he first started teaching, he was naïve to his Native American students’ living situation and had to quickly educate himself on those cultural differences. For instance, “if someone dies in the family, it’s a two week grieving process,” Flint explains, “There are very specific rituals and ceremonies they must observe that I was unaware of. A student would just disappear for a while when I first started teaching. I had to figure out why later. There’s just a lot to learn in that way.” Understanding and appreciating the cultural and familial differences of his students and their home lives was instrumental in learning how to best help his students succeed.
Reservations were hit particularly hard by COVID, as the virus took a disproportionate toll on Native American tribes’ lives, health, and economy. Flint was heartbroken to see how many of his students were forced to drop out of school or forced to stop attending class when they or their family members became sick.
“I taught pretty much the whole year with a mask on. It didn’t bother me too much — I kind of found that it was a new creative challenge. As an artist, you can adapt to this because we can adapt to anything.”
– Matt Flint
Because the Reservation was so impacted by COVID, vaccination efforts have increased dramatically, not just in the Wind River Indian Reservation, but in Reservations across the US. Now, the Wind River Indian Reservation is the most vaccinated place in Wyoming. “Anytime you drive by the Reservation, there are mobile vaccination clinics and a lot of incentives being advertised for getting vaccinated. Native Americans were a very high risk population, so most of my native students are now vaccinated and always wear masks,” Flint says. “I taught pretty much the whole year with a mask on and we were able to social distance because we have a pretty large studio,” Flint continues, “It didn’t bother me too much — I kind of found that it was a new creative challenge, and that’s how I think about anything like that. As an artist, you can adapt to this because we can adapt to anything.”
When schools switched to virtual learning, Flint had to adapt his teaching style once again. The geographical distance between him and his students that COVID created made maintaining the casual personal connections that he builds with his students more difficult. He began switching to a lot of photo-based essays and teaching lectures online. Flint would teach his classes from his own home studio, setting up demos like mixing paint for students to follow along at their respective homes. He would offer demonstrations and lectures and then allow his students the space to create on their own. Flint even began developing online worksheets for understanding composition that he hopes to one day turn into full workbooks.
“I’m more focused when I come into the studio… and I honestly think it’s due to teaching. I’m digging deeper into the fundamentals with my students. I take that right back into my studio, and then back into the classroom again. The two end up feeding each other.”
– Matt Flint
For his students who were able to continue attending class virtually during COVID, their challenges continued. Because of the vast landscape of Wyoming, internet service was not a guarantee for many of his students, complicating their virtual learning experience. Here, we see the inspiring efforts of community colleges rising to the occasion: “Our school did a really great job setting up internet hotspots all over the place,” Flint says, “It’s pretty amazing what we can do because we’re a smaller, more nimble school. We’re able to respond to things really very quickly.”
While virtual learning presented new challenges, it also presented some new opportunities. “I taught a color theory class last semester as a hybrid class,” Flint says, “It was the first time I ever did something like that because we have a satellite campus in Jackson, Wyoming, so I got to teach to the Jackson students and my Riverton students at the same time. That was such a cool and interesting way to teach. It opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities.”
This style of virtual learning worked well for his students who had already mastered many of the fundamentals. However, for his students who were just starting out, it was a real challenge for them to acquire supplies and learn some of the basic techniques. To help his students practice the fundamentals at home, Matt Flint went above and beyond. He packaged up individual supply packages and drove them all across Riverton, the Reservation, and the far reaching rural Wyoming landscape to his students’ homes. “This is what we do in community college,” Matt Flint says “this is why it’s so different.” Regardless of the challenges and obstacles that this past year has presented, Flint continues to find ways to be, not only his students’ teacher and mentor, but their greatest cheerleader… even if that means acting the part of a desert Santa Claus, delivering art supplies throughout the land.
Between driving around supplies, teaching online lectures, and juggling five different classes in one semester alone, one may wonder when Matt Flint has time for his own studio art practice. Flint explained that he has two different art studios, one right outside of his back door and the other one in the house behind his home. Even with the busyness of the academic year, Flint observes that he tends to paint more often and even better during the school year than outside of the academic year. “I’m more focused when I come into the studio,” he says, “and I know that I don’t have as much time. I even seem to hit on new and interesting ideas in the fall and winter, during the school year. I honestly think it’s due to teaching. I’m re-introducing fundamentals each and every year, so I’m digging deeper with my students into those fundamentals. I take that right back into my studio, and then back into the classroom again. The two end up feeding each other.”
With his teaching and painting so inexorably linked, it naturally follows that the more comfortable Flint becomes in the classroom, the more comfortable he becomes in the studio, and vice versa. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been teaching for a while or I’m getting a little older and more experienced, but I feel the most comfortable teaching that I’ve ever felt before. The same is true with my painting. I feel more comfortable than I’ve ever felt before. It’s not to say that there’s no struggle or challenge, but I think that maybe I’ve developed a little more clarity. I don’t claim that I have it all figured out, but I just feel more confident now than ever before.”
To hear our artist say that he feels more confident teaching and painting now more than ever before, in the midst of a global pandemic, is inspiring beyond belief, awakening in us a hope and an optimism not only for the bright young students that he teaches, but for the future of our world. If every young artist finds a teacher like Flint, then the world is soon to be a much brighter place.
Thank you to Matt Flint and all of the educators who have persevered through the challenges of this year, reminding us how a great teacher can make all the difference in the world.
Written by Veronica Vale