Tanya Vail, Chapin School Art Teacher: “It Just Felt Like What I Was Supposed to Be Doing.”
PIED PIPER OF THE ART ROOM: Tanya Vail collaborates with her students in a working studio environment in the Chapin School art room. About 20 years ago she decided to give up her job as a graphic designer to become a full-time teacher, and has never looked back. “I figured that the universe had pointed me in this direction for some reason,” she said. (Photo Courtesy of Tanya Vail)
By Donald Gilpin
The start of Tanya Vail’s teaching career was less than auspicious.
She was working as a graphic designer at a publishing house in Nashville, Tennessee, when she saw an ad for someone to teach freshman graphic design classes at a local design college.
“I started out teaching one class,” she recalled. “My first class was terrible — a complete crash and burn. I had never done it from that point of view before. I had been in the student’s seat but not the one lecturing from the front. It was so bad. If I could have, I would have walked out.”
She continued, “When I got home that night, I said, ‘Well that can’t happen again. That was painful for all involved. This is torturous for everyone.’ I said to myself, ‘How can I make this better?’ I asked myself, ‘If I was sitting in that seat again, what would I want someone to tell me?’ And the answer was that I would want them to be honest with me and tell me all the things they don’t tell you in design school.”
Vail decided to tell them about being on the job under pressure with a deadline looming, about adaptability and resiliency, “and not to panic in that moment, but to see it as a moment of opportunity. Every challenge is a moment of opportunity. You can let it bury you, or you can own it. That’s your choice to make.”
That experience in Tennessee two decades ago was a turning point. “That’s where it all clicked,” she said. “I went into the next class, and you would have thought that I was a completely different person. It paid off because I was asked to teach a second class and then a third and a fourth class, and they were asking for more and more of my time. So I had to make a decision if I wanted to keep my full-time graphic design job too.”
It was at that point that Vail realized her true calling, as she saw she was getting greater fulfillment from teaching than from her graphic design production job. “I fell into teaching backwards,” she said. “I didn’t mean to do it, but once I got there it just felt like what I was supposed to be doing.”
She described coming home from teaching those first classes. “It was so inspiring — the students’ energy, their ideas, and their different perspectives, helping me to see the world in ways that I never could have if they hadn’t given me their points of view. So it seemed crazy, but I figured the universe had pointed me in this direction for some reason.”
Now, two decades later, in her fifth year at the Chapin School teaching fifth through eighth grades, Vail has no doubt that she made the right decision. “I don’t see myself ever wanting to be out of the classroom because that’s where the life force is, where the inspiration is. I cannot tell you how many times I have had the feeling that my students teach me much more than I will ever be able to teach them.”
She described her art classroom, where process is more important than product, where the students and their interests take center stage, and where an observer will see what looks more like a working art studio than a traditional classroom.
“Maybe because I didn’t plan to become a teacher, I treat it as a working studio,” she said. “Everyone knows where the supplies are. They can always come here and work. It’s not me bringing them into my perspective in the art world. It’s helping them to establish their own perspectives, which is the most important thing. No one has all the answers. That’s what we work together to find. So we are on the same level. That’s when the best ideas happen, and it really encourages them to push themselves and challenge themselves to take a risk and try something new.”
Emphasizing the importance of the creative process — “not all that different from the scientific process,” she continued, “I love to have beautiful finished projects, but what I teach about is really the process. We come up with a theory to solve a design problem and then we take a risk and try it out. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, we’ve learned what’s not going to work, and we figure out what we’re going to do next.
“It’s a metaphor for life. Not everything is going to go according to your plans, so the resilience you show when things don’t go according to plan and how you pivot and respond to that and adjust, that’s going to be important for your entire life.”
Olivia Schroeder-Positano, a recent Chapin graduate now in high school, observed, “Ms. Vail is the pied piper of Chapin. Her effervescent energy inspires students in and out of the art room. Some of her greatest assets are her ability to advocate for, empower, and inspire her students. She has left her imprint on many facets of my life, and to this day I think of her fondly every time I reach for my sketchbook.”
Caroline Lee, parent of a seventh grade student, reflected on the vital role of Vail and her art class at Chapin. “One of the most important gifts a teacher can provide to a student is a sense of belonging,” she said. “In Ms. Vail’s art class, she has cultivated a community of young artists who feel free to take creative risks, to receive constructive feedback, and to demonstrate their learning in ways that affirm who they are as individuals.
“My son described his art class as one where he can be his best self. He feels calm in a space where his imagination can flourish, and he feels genuinely seen and heard. Because of Ms. Vail, my son is self-motivated to engage in art outside of the classroom. Ms. Vail holds her students to the high expectations of their craft and provides the emotional support needed by them to grow as artists.”
She continued, “Most of all, Ms. Vail takes the time to get to know her students, and those relationships make all the difference in cultivating their sense of self-efficacy. Chapin is a stronger community because of Ms. Vail. Her impact on students is immeasurable.”
Vail emphasized the positive environment for art and education at Chapin. Noting the character development program and the focus on every individual and that individual’s needs, she observed, ”I’ve never worked in a place where the faculty is so dedicated to what is good for the students.
“This is a special place. It gives students the kind of freedom they need, setting the bar high and saying, ‘This is what we expect. As long as you do this, we can work together. We’re going to trust you.’ I see a level of maturity in kids that graduate from here that I’ve never seen in any other middle school.”
Vail grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her father melted down precious metals, and her mother was a hairstylist. “My family was surprisingly encouraging,” said Vail, who loved art from an early age. “I would have expected my parents to try to push me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but they saw how committed I was to art and how I would spend hours a day just drawing, to the point where I would forget to eat.”
She credits them with passing on to her their artistic genes. “I always thought of them as having a creative bent,” she said. “My father has always been a builder, a woodworker. If we needed a new table in the house he’d build it, then decoratively paint it. I’ve always said to my mother, ‘What you do is art, and I don’t know how you do that because your subjects always have an opinion on how that turns out. I’d find that intimidating.’”
Originally majoring in illustration and progressing to graphic design, Vail graduated from SUNY Binghamton and moved with her fiancé, soon-to-be-husband, to Nashville, where she went right to work as a professional illustrator and graphic designer.
After launching her teaching career at O’More College of Design, she decided to apply to graduate schools, and when she was accepted at NYU she and her husband were ready to move again.
“Unfortunately for me, my first day of classes was September 10, 2001,” she said. Though she was staying with her parents in Bridgeport, she described the experience as “very surreal,” as classes in New York resumed six days after the 9/11 attacks.
“A lot of students left. They didn’t want to stay, but I thought, ‘I have come so far and I never thought I’d be able to make it this far.’ I come from a blue collar working class family, so the opportunity to go to NYU was important, and I thought, ‘I guess I’m going to have to tough it out. You’re not scaring me off from this.’”
After getting her master’s degree in art education and giving birth to a daughter just two months later, Vail and her new family settled near Bordentown, where she stayed home for about five years to care for her daughter.
She started substitute teaching in her home district, eventually finding herself in demand almost full-time. “It was my way of getting my feet wet again. I wanted to teach at every level. I wanted to come back to the classroom. There’s nothing like it. That was my goal the whole time.”
When her daughter was in school, and an ad appeared for an art teaching job at Chapin, Vail’s future course was set.
“Through the frame of art, Tanya has taken a genuinely deep interest in the inner lives of Chapin students, which has left a permanent and palpable impression on our school,” said Chapin English teacher and Dean of Student Life Shawn Berger. “She goes above and beyond for kids and colleagues alike.”
Vail explained, “Whatever your vice is, whatever it is you get most pleasure out of, for a teacher who enjoys teaching, it’s the excitement of teaching and learning at the same time.”