Staff Focus: Anita Dai, Primary Art Teacher

Written by: Roseline Yang, Community Relations Officer

Have you ever been a fan of a rock star or a football player? Have you ever admired a person so much that you would like to show your best to please him or her?

As for me, the more I am impressed by a person, the higher the pressure I feel to make a great impression on this person. Therefore, in this case, writing this article about Ms Anita has been extremely challenging, because she is not only an amazing teacher who knows how to inspire students and engage them in their learning in art, but she is also such a helpful, modest colleague and a well-rounded person. In addition, she really cares about the environment and tries to make a difference for our planet. Let’s meet Ms Anita Dai, our Primary Art Teacher!

Anita, it is such a pleasure to be able to interview you!

You have been present everywhere through your work for the Winter Concert and Year 5-Year 6 Spring Musical sets, the wonderful Primary Art Show during the Student Led Conferences and now Environment week! How do you juggle so many different tasks and responsibilities?

Roseline, you always praise me so much, it’s embarrassing!

First of all, you know that I don’t do all of this by myself, right? I have fantastic helpers, including many of our great YCIS parents who devote their precious time to helping with special projects. For the rest, well, if there’s a project to do, I just do it. I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact, I feel like all I ever do is work or think about work. With so much to do, I really need to stay focused.  Just like I say to my Running Club CCA students, willpower is a muscle that you need to exercise and train regularly. Even when you are tired and you think you cannot make it anymore, if you have that mental willpower, you will just make your body finish the run.

Oh, wow! I forgot you were also doing that. You are involved in so many different projects at school and outside of school, professionally and personally. I know you will tell me that you work with the amazing Amy Chu and that you receive the support of all the incredible parent volunteers…but you are also such an amazing teacher, a talented professional, and a great parent for your two sons. You teach, you paint, you run, you sing. I mean…how do you do all of that? And especially, how do you look so relaxed and happy all the time.

Roseline, you are so funny. You make me sound like I’m some sort of superhero (laughs). Well, I have been reading all your Staff Focus articles in the newsletter. So, I know what you might be looking for. Let me share with you my story. You will see that I am just a normal person.

I was born in Taiwan but I grew up in the USA. I am from Maryland. I come from a modest family and I was the youngest of three children in the family. My grandmother was a Chinese painter and teacher. So, I was painting even before I could write my name. Let me rephrase. I was painting, but not well. This, I need to emphasize.

So, you haven’t always been an artist?

Well, not really. Actually, compared to my two older sisters, I was kind of the black sheep of the family. I was just the wild child with different ideas. Family and friends would make fun of me, especially when they were comparing me to my sisters who excelled at everything they did. They were great musicians, perfect students. They could also draw and paint so precisely, while I’d be making a total mess on my papers.

So, how have you become an artist?

Actually, my mom was my best supporter. I wonder now if I really showed promise as an artist or if she just praised me to counteract the negative effects of what I heard others say about me.  When I was little, we couldn’t afford many toys, so my mom set up an art table for me and let me paint and colour right in the living room. Also, instead of focusing on my sisters’ ability to colour inside the lines, she praised me for choosing strange and unusual colours and never told me I needed to stay inside the lines.

How did you come up with your ideas for the beautiful presentation of everything, especially the cupcakes display that highlighted the student artwork so well?

This is a process. When I am making preparations for the Art Show, I spend a lot of time thinking and planning out every section.  I think about it when I bike to and from school. I think about it when I go for runs. I think about it when I’m sleeping. I talk to Amy (my assistant) or Federica (supply Art teacher) about it. Then they think about it all the time too!

Just like I tell my students about doing Art, it is truly a process of trial and error. Taking the cupcakes display as an example, what I did was to take all the random pieces of trash I had in my storage and set them all out on a big table. I had coffee tins, egg crates, yarn, fabric, cardboard, empty plastic containers, foamboard . . . I tried combining a lot of different things to see what worked and what didn’t look quite right. Actually, before I ended up with the final version you saw at the show, I had spent a long time trying out about 10 different versions that I later dismantled. The perfect combination of shape, color and texture is never something that can be conjured out of thin air.

The week before, you were busy setting up the backdrop for the Spring Musical, and the very next week you had one day to set-up the Primary Art Show! How do you do everything with such attention to detail?

None of this would have been possible without the help of my assistant, Amy Chu. Also, I owe a big debt to the amazing parent volunteers at YCIS who had been working for over a month to help mount the student artwork.

When did you arrive in Shanghai? What made you go to Shanghai?

Back in 1999, I followed Iain, my husband, here as a trailing spouse. The contract was for 1.5 years in Beijing. Obviously, things worked out differently from what we imagined . . .

What do you like to do in your free time?

I like to spend time with my family. We all like similar things: reading, running, rock-climbing. On weekends and holidays, we like to go hiking, swimming, and rock climbing. As much as possible, we like to be outdoors doing active things such as stand-up paddle boarding, back-packing, white-water rafting and anything else thrilling.

When did you join YCIS and what brought you to YCIS?

I joined YCIS in 2008, and at first, I worked as a long-term supply teacher in a Y1 class.  When my older son, Zeke, was ready for Y1, I had the opportunity to join YCIS as a part-time Art teacher. A few years ago, I decided to go full-time.  Happily, I have been able to teach Art to both my sons.

Oh yes, what is your education background actually and what were you doing before?

Well, let me just say that, much as my parents anticipated, if you study Art in college, you might end up selling ice cream when you graduate.  I also have a MA in Chinese literature. Sold smoothies after that degree. Finally, I had some sense and studied Special Education.  Unfortunately, the day after I graduated with that MA degree, I boarded a plane to follow my husband to Beijing. Thus, I have never really worked as a teacher in the US. I did teach at both ISB and SAS, but by far, my favourite school is YCIS.

What do you like about YCIS?

I love the school community.  Expat families choose this school because they’ve made an active decision to make their children global citizens.  The Chinese language teachers and co-teaching system is the main reason I chose to send my boys here, but since working here, I’ve discovered that there’s even more to like about YCIS. The teachers work so hard and really care about each individual student. The administration is so supportive and the children are happy, well-behaved and enthusiastic.

Last question! What advice would you like to share with parents?

I’m always worried about parents’ tendency to focus on the end product. In my mind, what really counts is the process through which the students go while they are creating a piece of art. Usually, when someone only sees the end product, they don’t understand what learning went into it.

Yes, I totally know what you mean (giggle). It’s like me last year when during Parent Teacher Interview you told me about how special my daughter’s drawing was, while I had just been focusing on the fact that it was not finished yet and I was comparing it with the more finished-looking works of other students.

One thing that really sticks in my mind about how you inspire all those around you comes from one of your students during Art class:

 “This is the best mistake I have ever made. I hope that I will be able to make more mistakes like this!”

In art class, students are not provided with erasers. There is no one right answer when making Art. What we perceive as mistakes are simply opportunities to practice the problem-solving process and explore different possibilities.

Thank you so much again for all your time and talent!