A really good teacher is a rare find. Too often a really good teacher does not teach because the institution and its structure do not lead to good quality training. There is an old adage that those who can’t get the job done end up being teachers. In fact, it can be the other way around. Why should someone put themselves in a situation where they can be criticized, vulnerable to scandal, and sometimes even have to justify themselves to their students’ parents? This leaves a real learning gap for students. If students cannot find a good teacher or mentor, they are forced to try to learn on their own.
On the other hand, there are some very special people who are not only willing to handle the stress of academia, but fiercely value and nurture the next generation of animators and visual artists. When looking for an animation school, ask past students about their instructors and look for the following descriptive qualities of the staff:
Credentials, Portfolios and Awards: I suppose that if a person is going to teach at an animation university, they should have some kind of accreditation or certification. That being said, recognition can come in other forms, such as portfolios or awards. In my opinion, an instructor should have a combination of two out of three of these things. I graduated from Sheridan College International’s classical animation program, so I think if a teacher has been through an academic system, they are more likely to know how to get students through the system. Instructor portfolios display a body of work and can give the student an idea of what to include in their portfolios. The prizes are nice, however they don’t pay the rent. Attendance and participation in the festival should be considered as a marketing strategy and the prizes should be considered simply a by-product or a bonus. They are often the luck of the draw, depending on the number of other entries and how the judges felt that week. That being said, great work strikes a chord for most people, and most of the time it pays off.
Technical skills: This goes back to the portfolio or body of work. A student should be inspired by the quality of the instructors’ work. The instructor must master most of the skills necessary to produce animation. Sometimes an instructor will have a specialty in some areas. The student must learn everything he can from these specialists. It can help the student decide which areas to pursue.
Experience: There are many types of experiences. I feel that if an instructor has had experience in various positions within the animation business, they will be able to help guide a student into the business field that fuels that student’s passion. A teacher’s experience can also help the student avoid some of the pitfalls of the industry and predators of entertainment.
Enthusiasm: An instructor must love animation and, more importantly, must love teaching animation. It seems a bit clichéd, but really if a teacher doesn’t love the medium or business of animation, they shouldn’t be teaching it.
Discipline: This is something that is taught by example and is associated with passion. If an instructor is undisciplined and overly laid-back, students will follow suit. If an instructor is passionate about what he is teaching, discipline and focus follow naturally. The fire and the desire to create really good works means that the attitude and discipline to practice the art will ignite in the students.
Ego: When an instructor truly believes that he is the focal point of worship of his students and lives so much for that narcotic that controls the artistic and scholastic development of those students, he must be removed from the system as quickly as possible. The instructor should never conduct the artistic development of a student as a personal competition between himself and the student. Also, the instructor (and the school) should never use the student as an award or masterpiece of their academic program. The risk of pressure on the student’s ego and the possibility of future damage in the career cannot be measured.
A great instructor has enough self-confidence that he can engage in creative discussions and exploration that push the student to discover his talents and develop those talents to higher levels. Such an instructor also teaches those values and ego traps to the student so that he can deal with other creative individuals in a positive and beneficial way.
A sense of history: An instructor should be able to relate past history to students. Understanding the roots of art helps students weather the waves of feast and famine in the animation business. As many of the most seasoned animators know, the media machine is a fickle beast. There are years when most commercials and movies are live action and then other times when animation, graphics, and special effects are the flavor of the decade. It is important that teachers prepare their animation and graphic arts students for those peaks and valleys.
Open to new ideas: If the instructor understands the history of the animation industry and the art form, they will be more inclined to understand and support new ideas and the continuing need for innovation. Innovation is one of those things that everyone tells us consumers want, but consumers are actually reluctant to actually accept it until they are told they can accept it.
Innovating means being open to using traditional and non-traditional techniques and technologies and being able to combine these ideas. A great teacher will help the student develop those new ideas and push creative boundaries without threatening the audience or decision makers, or being locked out of the industry and possible future employment.
Conclusion: These instructors are out there. I know I had some really great mentors and I appreciate the time and discussions I had with them. They impacted my world in many ways over the years. The best instructors often never admit that they are that good. Learn all you can from them. Show them the respect they deserve. One day you will pass the torch on to the next generation.