On August 23, TAG Member Programs Coordinator Jackie Huang led a panel on teaching as a side hustle with TAG members Mauricio Abril, Lindsey Pollard, and Angela Sung. Panelists shared how they got started, the challenges they’ve faced, the rewards of teaching, and more.
Having taught all ages over the years, Lindsey Pollard currently teaches at CalArts and works at Cartoon Network.
How did you get into teaching?
Abril’s first opportunity came as a referral from a colleague who worked at CGMA and could no longer teach the class. After Abril had been teaching at CGMA for a few years, ArtCenter reached out to him with an offer to teach.
After teaching at CDA, Sung took the opportunity to start her own classes and then her own school.
Pollard was going to school in Vancouver, BC, and a person who was teaching at another school across the street stopped teaching and Pollard had the chance to take over. When she came to L.A. she was approached by a Vancouver colleague now working at CalArts. “Once people find out you teach, word gets out,” she says.
Abril adds: “Online schools are one of few places where you can reach out and say I’m interested in teaching. These are my skill sets. Or I have a class I’d love to teach.” He says these schools are willing to keep a roster, and you may be able to substitute even without a referral. He suggests reaching out and offering a simple, quick intro explaining what you’re qualified to teach.
Do you decide what topic to teach, or does the school choose the topic?
Once Abril started teaching design at CGMA, he noticed they didn’t have a composition class, so he suggested it. In his experience, a school is open to hearing an idea, but they’ll want to discuss the feasibility of it. But usually, he says, it’s more about what’s available. A school offers you a subject and asks if you want to teach it.
In Sung’s experience, schools usually ask you to take over a teacher’s class but give you leeway to do it your own way. At her school the leaders talk to each teacher individually, ask what they are interested in, and help with the curriculum. “We’re trying to do things differently,” she says, “making sure teachers are really passionate about what they teach.”
Pollard says that CalArts offerings have changed with the needs over time, and with those changes, teachers have a lot of freedom to design what they’re teaching. As the industry has changed, she notices that the classes are more student driven. But even so, the teachers have basic requirements that the school requires them to follow.
Do you need any special certifications to teach?
All of the panelists agree that special certification is not needed.
What surprised you about teaching?
Abril was surprised by the energy it takes. He wasn’t expecting that. He loves being with his students, but after teaching a class, he’s exhausted and can’t think about doing anything else. “If you’re looking into teaching, think about what your schedule is before and after the class,” he says.
Sung adds that she’s always exhausted after teaching a class, but she’s too wired to go to sleep. She says that breaking down your process and conveying it to your students is very exhausting and can feel kind of like therapy for yourself. Every class is different, there are many different types of students, and the ways you convey information can differ. Sung watches recordings of her classes to see where she can improve. “After class, I want to make sure I did a good job. This is a constant journey of improvement,” she says.
Pollard agrees that there’s an aspect of therapy involved in teaching; after a class, she needs to process what she just did.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
Abril felt frustrated by his students’ lack of effort and output—even with some of his ArtCenter classes. He wondered if it was him or if it was that students were not trying as hard as when he was in school. He discussed this with one of his own teachers and realized that his job is 10% being an educator and 90% being a motivator. This reframed how he approached his teaching process.
After taking a break—he was teaching three classes on top of a full-time job—he ended up bringing more conversation into his lectures and breaking down assignments in a way that removed a lot of freedom. This way students could focus on specific exercises he wanted them to do so they could see their own growth.
Pollard found it challenging to try to motivate students without inserting herself too much. She wants them to set goals, but not too lofty so they can’t get their work done. “You don’t want to crush their goals,” she says. “The challenge is trying to impart how to achieve those goals. It’s a really delicate balance between being a cheerleader and being a hammer. They have to learn by their mistakes. [You have to let] those mistakes happen in a way that they can learn from them and still maintain energy and the strength to continue, to pick themselves up and continue. You can’t save them from their mistakes. How are they going to learn?” She also advises asking open-ended questions and letting students lead conversations.
Sung notes that since every student is different, the way you convey your critiques has to be tailored. Over the years, she has learned how to critique. Pollard adds: “Learning how to critique in a way people can hear, that’s a skill.”
How do you develop lessons?
Because Sung’s school aims to prepare students for the animation industry, information is tailored. “We have one goal in mind,” she says. For four to ten week classes, that goal is to develop portfolio pieces that will grab recruiters’ attention later on.
Abril explains that at CGMA, if you’re taking over a class, the syllabus is already set out. If you’re designing a class, you submit the syllabus, the school looks it over, and you work with them to fit it into the overall curriculum. “But they gave me a lot of freedom to design my class,” he says. At ArtCenter, on the other hand, he had to meet a lot of metrics, covering this topic and that. It was straightforward, and once he had this criteria, he could come up with assignments to meet the metrics.
When Pollard first started at CalArts, she taught what she calls a pretty tight 14-week curriculum with very clear expectations and grading systems. “It’s been layers of an onion since then,” she says. “Every year I peel off another layer of what’s not working and put new stuff in.”
Have you ever had to abandon an approach or pivot?
Pollard has had to change direction to meet students’ needs and their desire to know more about the industry. When there is a topic she cannot address herself, she brings in a guest speaker.
Most of Abril’s classes have been with CGMA and Brainstorm, and students can take these classes piecemeal, one class at a time. They might not have the same foundations as other students going through a full program. Because of that, each term he evolves his assignments a little bit, tweaking in real time based on students’ needs.
How much time does it take to develop your lessons outside class time?
Pollard shares that you are paid for your time in the classroom. You are not paid for answering emails, attending staff meetings, and preparation outside class. The initial output to prep a class depends on that class, as well as how many iterations of it you’ve taught before. At the start, though, it’s an extraordinary amount of work. She gets advice from people who have taught a class before her, and she feels it’s important to share her own curriculum with any teacher who needs it.
Abril agrees with Pollard and says preparing for a first-time teaching gig felt like its own job. But once he had his files developed, he could hit the ground running, and it paid off later as he continued to teach.
Sung also says prepping is a lot of work, but she views it as a long-term investment. It may be painful in the beginning, but it pays off if you teach a class multiple times.
At CGMA, classes have pre-recorded lectures by the original designer of the class. Students watch lectures on their own time, then submit homework. The teacher downloads the homework, records their feedback, and uploads it. The teacher is also responsible for a live, one-hour Q&A.
At Warrior Art Camp, it’s recommended that all teachers do pre-recorded demos. For each class, it’s a balance of an hour-and-a-half lecture and hour-and-a-half critique. Teachers are encouraged to keep office hours.
Pollard also offers online office hours, and while Abril is not required to be available outside the classroom, he tells his students to feel free to email questions and reach out during the week. He’s surprised by the lack of extra help students reach out for. The few times students do reach out, he gives them time and attention because he loves that part of his job.
When it comes to remote versus in-person, what you do you prefer, and what are the challenges?
Sung likes in-person teaching the best, but she sees the benefits to online teaching because lectures can be recorded, and students can refer back to them.
Once Pollard got used to teaching remotely, she discovered real benefits, including an intimacy and honesty made possible by distance through the screen. She requires everyone to be visible, and says, “It’s easier in some ways to communicate.”
Abril loves the dynamics of teaching online, and he says it’s great to be in a virtual classroom with students from Greece, Spain, and all over the world. The convenience is nice, but what’s more important to him is class enthusiasm. He notes that he’s had more engagement in virtual classes than he had in one of his in-person classes at ArtCenter. He says it’s also easy to reference computer files when teaching online. He does warn that teachers should be careful of sharing any proprietary material when teaching online since students can always take a screenshot.
What is the compensation for teachers?
Pollard says that the range for instructors at CalArts is comparable to other colleges. She is paid every other week, September through May, and her pay is per course: $10,000 a course.
Abril explains that ArtCenter teachers are university employs. They are paid weekly, and pay depends on how many classes you teach. An hourly rate, based on your teaching experience, is negotiable and ranges from approximately $70 to $120 per hour. He notes that ArtCenter is now part of the Teachers’ Union, which may change pay rates.
For Brainstorm, Abril was paid one lump sum per class. Rates range from about $70 to $100 per hour. If your class has above a certain minimum of students you receive a bonus.
CGMA pays in four installments throughout the term, and pay is comparable to Brainstorm.
Sung’s school, Warrior Art Camp, pays a lump sum after the second class. Pay is based on experience and averages about $250 an hour, since teachers get a cut of the tuition; if you have more students you will get a bigger cut.
What do you think makes a good teacher?
Abril says that if you have the kind of brain to troubleshoot, teaching is great. But great artists, intuitive artists, are not necessarily great teachers. You need the desire to problem solve.
“Truly understanding your process and being able to break it down,” says Sung.
Pollard says, “Don’t take anything personally. You’ll have students way better than you. And you’ll have challenging students and challenging times. Trust that you’re doing your best. You have things worth teaching, experiences worth sharing.” To this she adds: A feeling of generosity.