Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lighting the Way for Others

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. ~William Arthur Ward
Painted paper collage art project for children- Alyson Champ

I've had a regular teaching gig for about seven years now. Although I have been teaching music and art privately for decades, it wasn't until 2003 that I first set foot inside a real classroom. There was nothing quite like standing in front of a class of twenty or thirty energetic children to make it painfully obvious that I really didn't know anything. OK, maybe that's not entirely fair. I do actually know quite a lot about making art. But knowing, and being able to impart this knowledge effectively to others, especially children, are not at all the same thing. Teaching is in itself an art. And just as a great work of creative genius is something marvelous to behold and is not easily forgotten, so it is with great teachers. A great teacher teaches you in way that makes you want to learn. He or she inspires you to go beyond the set lesson, to strive and to experiment. No, I'm not claiming to be one of these rare creatures. Most of the time, if the kids enjoy the project, have learned something, don't have glitter glue in their hair or paint on their good clothes, and the classroom isn't on fire, I call it a good day. Great teachers are memorable. I have had a few truly wonderful teachers in my life, and one of them was my high school art teacher, Mr. Tilley.

Mr, Tilley was an Englishman, transplanted to Quebec, who somehow found himself responsible for the art program at Chateauguay Valley Regional. How he came to be there I never knew, but during the five bleak years I spent as a high school student, I was awfully glad that he was. The art room was a haven to the school's social misfits and creative weirdos, of whom I was obviously one. My friends and I lived in that room, spending every free moment there - and Mr. Tilley let us. He certainly wasn't a strict teacher. He explained and assigned projects and then pretty much left us to ourselves. We did things in whatever order we wished and as long as we did our work and made a reasonable effort, he was happy. Help was always available if we needed it, but mostly we were responsible for ourselves and left to learn at our own pace.

And boy did we ever learn. We explored everything from three point linear perspective, to traditional lettering, basic elements of graphic design to Carolingian calligraphy. We hand lettered diplomas and made posters for local events. We painted in the style of the impressionists, the cubists, the fauves, and the pointillists. We studied colour theory and art history from cave art to modern art. We learned a great deal and we learned it painlessly, or so it seemed to me, because it was fun. Now, when I look back over the past (gasp) thirty years, I am shocked not only by how much he taught me, but by how much I have retained and continue to use.

I have read that the skill of a great teacher is like a candle: it burns brightly and in so doing consumes itself to light the way for others. Mr. Tilley has been dead for many years, but his light lives on in all of us whom he taught. One teacher in a rural high school helped to create the careers of many professional visual artists, graphic designers, illustrators and photographers. He also helped to foster an appreciation for art in countless others. Mr. Tilley probably could not have guessed how far reaching his influence would be. That's the thing about being a teacher. You never know whose life you are changing.
Mr. Derrick Tilley, CVR yearbook 1982


  1. What wonderful words about Mr. Tilley, Alyson. I (and I'm sure many others) feel the same way about him, and think of him very often. He was very good to all of us, challenged us, talked to us like people, encouraged us, gave us a 'home' at school, had faith in us, and TAUGHT us a hell of a pile of stuff, as you said. Thanks so much for your eloquent acknowledgment of a very special man. I wish he was still with us.

  2. He changed my life. I earn my living as a professional photographer because of Mr. Tilley's influences. He taught me to understand light & shadow, the rule of thirds, composition, attention to detail, and how to discover and pursue my passion in all things visual. I too, think of him very often, as I was also one of the "social misfits and creative weirdos" who actually skipped other classes to hide out in Mr. Tilley's art class - not to goof off, but to work on projects, a sort of self discipline. He never said a thing to anyone that I was there, sitting in the back, quietly working away for most afternoons. I think he knew that I was destined to be self employed. I was just a kid. He created the magic that lives in us today. Thanks you Alyson, I'm now fascinated and want to learn more about how he did end up teaching in Canada- what made this man such a powerful influence on soo many of my closest incredibly talented friends. I'm most interested in witnessing the future of Alyson's students, and am completely honored to have had the experience of sharing a class with Alyson Champ, Mr. Tilley and Erica Taylor.
    Long live the power and respect of creativity!