Sunday, January 8, 2017

Advice for a first year art teacher and great reminders for us all

For some of us it might feel like a lifetime ago since we stepped in front of our first group of art students. For others it might have been last fall. But at some point we were all first year art teachers filled with the excitement of sharing our passion of art with students. Of inspiring whatever grades we were teaching to find their creative voice aided by our instruction. However long it has been since then there are certainly things we wished we had known before that first day of teaching. And it is without a doubt that we have learned a lot since. Here are some of the things that mildly to heavily seasoned art educators learned along the way that would have been wonderful to have learned much earlier in our careers.

1. Connect with other art educators. 
All too often we are a department of one whether that be in our district or in our building. It can get lonely and when we face those most challenging days it helps if we have someone else in the art education field to talk to. Take advantage of the digital age in which we now live and connect with art educators across the state, the nation, even the world through groups such as our own Michigan Art Education Association Facebook group. Another group you may not know about on Facebook is called Art Teachers. This group is a collection of art educators from all around the world. There are also many other sub groups depending on your area of interest: Art Teachers as Artists, Art Teachers Who Blog, Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB), Midwest TAB-Choice Art Teachers, High School TAB, STEAM Art Educators. There are many other groups and pages you can connect with on Facebook. Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest are other websites that art educators are using to connect with one another. There are also many art educators blogging these days or posting videos on YouTube. Search them out. They are a great inspiration, resource, and could even become a new friend if you are brave enough to contact them.

2. Make friends with your janitor.
Your room will most often be the one they may dread coming to clean, especially during clay units. Getting and keeping them on your side will be invaluable to you. Chances are you are still around when they get to your room given the long days we all tend to to put in grading art work, prepping for the next day, and hanging artwork around the school and in our classrooms. Make sure you take the time to talk to them. Greet them when you see each other around the building. Thank them for their dedication to cleaning your classroom. And it never hurts to get them a little something around the holidays and at the end of the school year.

3. Be organized.
Go in with a plan but be prepared to switch gears at a moments notice. Sometimes things go exactly as planned but other times lessons need to be changed in order for kids to "get it." From the moment your students enter your room you should have everything prepped and planned for each lesson you are teaching that day. This is key because anything and everything that could go wrong or happen will at some point in your teaching career. This includes needing to change up lessons on the fly for a variety of reasons, something coming up during your prep (assuming you have one) when you had planned on using that time to prepare for upcoming classes that day, etc... The more organized you can be the smoother things will go when the unexpected happens during your teaching day. 

4. Create an informational letter about yourself and family.
This allows your students as well as the families of your students to begin to get to know you. Those relationships work wonders when you need to contact those parents about issues in the art room. They can often times help eliminate possible problems that could occur had you not started building relationships with your students and their parents from day one. This can take a variety of forms. It could be a newsletter you mail or email out to your students' families, one you pass out at your school's open house, something you post on your teacher website that you then direct your students and their parents to through various other communications, etc... Whatever form this takes it is a great way to get things off on the right foot when your students and their parents.

5. Create a responsibility contract.
It can be as simple as a list of your rules and the consequences when those rules are broke. It is also highly recommended that you run it by your administration to get their backing as well so when needed they can support you in holding students accountable to the contract. The contrast should be signed by your students and their parents. This way you have their understanding regarding what your expectations are within the art room. Post it in your room and refer to it daily the first week of school and occasionally throughout the semester or school year. 

6. Play a get to know each other game that allows you and your students to play together.
This is a great way to begin to build classroom community. There are a wide variety of games or activities that work really for this, many of which are used in drama classes and workshops. Here is a great link to get you started: Classroom Community Building Games

7. Create art on the first day.
All too often first days of new classes are filled with rules and expectations which are very important but so is diving right into the creation process. It's a great way to get them hooked on art right away and works well to assess where they are in their artistic journey regarding art interests and art skills.

8. Remember that your relationships with the students, staff, and administration are as important as the content you teach.
Students may not remember what you say or do, but they will remember how you made them feel. Taking the time throughout each class period to work on getting to know your students and engaging them in conversations about their interests, lives, as well as their artwork helps them to feel valued. It's easy to get caught up in your room and there are always a million things to do but getting to know your coworkers is super important as well. These relationships are part of what will get you through those difficult times. They will be another reason to enjoy coming to school each day. You are all in this together and supporting one another through that is very important. This goes for your administration as well. Building good relationships with administration helps you to feel more supported through the good days as well as when you need their support with those difficult situations that will occur throughout your teaching career.

9. Remember that the energy you bring into the room is very important.
When you are excited about a new lesson or project your students will also get excited about that lesson or project. You may be going through something difficult outside of your classroom or feeling more tired than you thought possible at any given point in the school year but you need to rally and put all that you have into each lesson that you teach. It might be the hundredth time you have taught a new class how to draw forms or the layout of a perspective drawing. Whatever you are teaching deserves your fully attention and that means your full energy. This also applies to your interactions with students. They feed off of your energy and attitude. They deserve your best each and every day.

10. Be true to your instincts when teaching.
Trends in education come and go in cycles. Run your classroom in a way that seems genuine to you. Be direct, be honest, be steady (non-emotional), and be caring of all students. Do what is right for your students, and not what is easy. Be firm and fair. So often the most valuable lessons in the art room are not about art, but about teaching respect, character, acceptance, and foster understanding. Your students are students. Don’t treat them like friends. They may grow up to join your arts community (later), but right now, they are students. Set up a seating chart that encourages learning, not just socializing. Give your students opportunities in the community (field trips, art club, art shows, etc) to see the greater value of art.

11. Make time for you.  
Teaching is tough, and you can allow it to become your life. You don’t want to burn out early in your career. Give generously when you are at school. Devote a set amount of time to your work (aka, leave by a certain time… stay late one night a week). Schedule time to volunteer to worthy causes (beyond your classroom) that fuel your inspiration (like Michigan Art Education Association). Make time to make art. You will be a better art teacher when you practice art. Set aside time for family, relationships, and friends. You need a good support network. Teaching is challenging, and you need to check-in with “your people.” They will remind you that life is more than your 7:30 am to 5 pm career. Travel when you can with “your people.”

12. Do not become an island alone.  
When you are one of the electives, it is easy to hide in your room and become an island. Get to know your room neighbors. Find a moment to say “hi.” Eat lunch with your co-workers. Participate in potlucks. You can learn a lot about the culture of your school and the lives of your students from these conversations. If people gather after work, go and join in. These lasting friendships will enrich your life and make you an integral part of the team. Sit with new people at staff events and find common ground. If your co-workers like you and see your work in the halls, they will see art as an integral part of a balanced education.

13. Measure twice, cut once.
During the course of your teaching career you will prepare countless stacks of various papers for the many projects you are teaching throughout the day and week. The mindless act of cutting things like paper can easily derail if you aren't carefully mindful of what you are doing.

14. Watch the dynamics, relationships, cultural atmosphere, and needs within the school community.
As artists we observe the world, so take some time and do the same in your school. Art teachers are in the unique position to galvanize a community and bring positive systemic change through collaboration and creative problem solving. It is always better to be a person of action, conducted with kindness, humility, and grade, than a person to force an agenda, opinion, or idea.

15. Be willing to ask and accept help.
At some point in your teaching career, most likely very early on you will have a class or face a situation that overwhelms you. It may be a certain group of students that no matter what you try won't listen to anything you say. It might be a single student that you just can't find a way to reach. Or it may be something else altogether. Regardless of what the situation is always seek out help and guidance. Others in your building and district have been there before and are more than willing to offer any help they can. Asking for help is a great way to start building those vital, meaningful relationships with your coworkers. And often times it can lead to developing and earning respect for how you handled a situation through the assistance or guidance of others.

16. Learn your students' names.
Although this may seem like a daunting task when faced with hundreds of students a week, it is incredibly important. It gets easier the longer you've been at a school but learning their names makes them feel valued... and it also makes your job much easier. Seating charts are very helpful. You can carry them around with you as you pass back artwork. Make an effort to learn a handful of names for each class each week and use them as often as possible when addressing students to help memorize who is who. Making this effort also allows you to have mini conversations with your students as you circulate the room which in turn helps you get to know them faster. This leads to quicker relationship building.

There are so many more things that you will learn along the way but these sixteen things will get you off to a great start to a long and fulfilling art education career sharing your passion for art with your students.

Special thanks to the following art educators for contributing their words of wisdom for this post: Rachael Ambroso, Tricia Erickson, Christine Hesch, Melissa Hronkin, Kerry Shadbolt, Lani Warner Yuen, and Betsy Wellfare


  1. Solid advice, Betsy! As a veteran, now retired, art educator I can relate to every one of your recommendations.

    1. Thanks, Cee Cee! If you have anything else to add please feel free to do so.