A Love Letter To Educators: What I Learned Going From Teaching Higher Ed to Elementary School

My resume is a wild one. I’ve worked in feature film animation, as a swim coach, a bookseller, and, these days, I spend most of my time as an author and illustrator. Here’s even more context on where I’ve come from, I was raised in a family of artists, I struggled in school, and my mom has her Doctorate in Education. This means that even though I didn’t love school myself, I spent a significant amount of my childhood in and out of a college classroom with my mom. I grew up having to teach and reteach myself things I learned in school. But mostly, I grew up knowing that teaching is a talent and a very special skill that not everyone pocesses. It’s because I struggled in school though that I wanted to become a writer and, yes, a teacher when I grew up (amongst many other things). I educate with my stories as a storyteller through illustration and writing. I consider myself to be an educator… however, what that means hasn’t been as clear to me as the path I’ve followed for storytelling.

For three years I’ve taught Illustration at a higher ed public institution. I started in Spring 2020 and that first semester could not have proved more difficult. Walking Illustration seniors through their thesis project amidst a pandemic was wild. Teaching through the unknowns of vaccines, safety, and a looming recession was even more challenging than I could have dreamed.

Everyone gets into teaching for different reasons. I got into it because I struggled in school and because those teachers who made a positive impact on me are some of the most influential people in my life. I got into it because I have a career history with a wide breadth of experience that I wanted to share. I felt I needed to be a teacher because art is a crucial and fundemental building block to the human experience and Colorado isn’t known for it’s art schools… so I thought with my wide-ranging background of experience and understanding, I could bring something unique to the classroom.

Part of being an author and illustrator is doing speaking engagements. I’ve done speaking engagements at preschool through college levels, from Title 1 schools to elite private schools attended by the children of tech millionaires. I’ve spent countless hours inside schools and classrooms, always in awe of teachers. I’ve been in awe of teachers my whole life, from my mom to all the teachers who took their lunch hours to reteach me the things we learned in class (Hi Mrs. Penna and Mr. Davis). Through all of this I have learned that it doesn’t matter where you are as a teacher, in higher ed or at a private preschool… all teachers know that even though teaching sounds like a simple job description, you are constantly adapting to situations as they arise. Whether it’s because students need you in ways you can’t expect, or because you have to reteach things when you realize a lesson isn’t hitting home the way you need, or maybe it’s because a student is having a bad time at home and that trickles into the classroom. Teaching is complicated, always changing, and never predictable. Being a teacher is difficult no matter where you are, but what I know from experience is that families with money have more access to art because we have made experiencing art a luxury, not a necessity. I’d argue art is a necessity.

Art should be accessible to all, but the reality is it isn’t. It isn’t accessible because if you are living paycheck to paycheck, you aren’t going to spend money on a museum or extra paints for your kids. And whether we like it or not, the kids at the private schools I’ve gone to have more funding to pay me to visit their schools and speak to them so they can learn from a professional. People with money also have more access to higher ed art education. Its true, many many people go into debt each year getting a higher ed education. Despite this, the teachers I’ve met in poor public schools have always been the same caliber as the teachers I’ve met in extravagantly funded ones.

As each semester as a higher ed educator continued, I learned over and over again that higher education isn’t widely accessible due to rising education costs… something that was already nagging my conscience.

One day last year a friend and I had a wonderful talk about giving back to our community in need, and afterward she followed up by sending me a job listing at our Title 1 elementary school. They wanted a part time art teacher. The light bulb flicked on. I crunched the numbers and discovered the pay wasn’t notably lower than my college-level teaching position once I accounted for hidden fees (can we please get rid of paying to park on college campuses?) and I checked in with my moral compass. Getting to provide an art education to kids who hadn’t had an art teacher in years felt like a positive change. I applied to the job, got my teaching license, and I’ve spent the last school year teaching K-6 elementary art.

I have traded the more prestigious role of “University Lecturer” for the less glamorous “Part Time Elementary Art Teacher”. But I wouldn’t change that for the world right now.

Being an elementary teacher is everything you hear it is:

It’s criminally underpaid – really? 20 kids in a classroom from 8am – 4pm every day of the work week with few breaks and near constant need of attention, not to mention they need to learn and prove that they’ve learned, you need to check in with admin regularly, you deal with parents, and class being interrupted by kids wetting themselves, and, and, and… teachers should be paid 4x what they are now. Teachers shouldn’t be wondering how they will afford housing in the community they teach in.

It’s physically demanding – I stand for hours on end every school day.

It’s emotionally exhausting – sometimes you care so much about the kids and their well being you have a hard time leaving it at school… I’ve had many a good cry this year over kids I see in heart wrenching situations.

It’s scary with the way politics are – let’s pass some God Damn gun reform NOW and stop banning books for insane reasons.

It’s so rewarding – watching kids learn and grow is fascinating and awe inspiring.

You learn from them – I thought I learned a lot from the college kids, but wow do the littler ones keep me on my feet. I can’t ever predict what they are going to say and do and they are always teaching me how to rethink phrasing things and rethink how I explain concepts. Because of this, I’ve learned a lot from them!

It makes sense to me there’s a mass teacher exodus right now. With the physical and emotional toll of the job and lack of financial security in a housing market that is pricing out mid-class workers, how are we going to keep teachers in their jobs? I don’t blame anyone for leaving it. It can be thankless and draining.

So if you’ve gotten to the end of this, I just want to remind you to thank a teacher today, this week, and every day. Go the extra mile for a teacher to remind them how valued they are. Be kind to them and patient when they mess up, they’re human too. Teachers deserve a lot more than society gives them both in credit, monetary value, and respect. Don’t call them a hero, because hero is a word we use in place of actual respect – show them respect by fighting for them to make a living. Fight for teachers to get paid more, show up and speak out for them. But most importantly don’t stop recognizing them for the complex work they do.

Thank you to every teacher from pre-school to Higher Ed for doing what you do. No teacher gets into teaching for the same reasons, but every teacher has experiences you just can’t get without teaching. Thank you to my teachers for modeling so much of what I hope I embody myself in the classroom, specifically Mrs. Jensen, Mr. Davis, Caitlin, Mrs. Weiss, Mrs. Petit, Mrs. Strain, Mrs. Guajardo, Mr. Mora, and so many more.

3 Replies to “A Love Letter To Educators: What I Learned Going From Teaching Higher Ed to Elementary School”

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Anna Strsin says:

    Beautiful Lily💕 very proud to say I knew you when those struggles were real for you! So, so proud to call you my student!
    Love always!!
    Anna…AKA Mrs.Strain

  3. Rosemary Jensen says:

    Lily, What a lovely letter to teachers. I am so glad you are discovering the teacher in you. I admire your work so and am delighted to say I own all your books! Your influence is spreading more widely than you realize. I am so pleased to be a part of your life story.
    With Love, Rosemary Jensen

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