And just like that-my first year of teaching at Alla Prima has come to an end. As you might expect, there was plenty of lessons taught to the students, but the most important lessons were the ones I had to learn myself! I hope that these might provide value to aspiring art teachers or at least provide entertainment value if you need a laugh at some rookie mistakes. Here are 5 important things I learned and will take into next year.
LESSON 1: The importance of classroom tone
In the beginning, I was really nervous about how I would manage my classroom and about making a good first impression with the students. I wanted to let the students know right away that I was in charge, so I planned on establishing all the rules and all of my expectations very early on. I thought that getting down to business the very first day would set me up for a successful school year. The thing is… I wasn’t considering what kind of impression that this was going to make on my students: especially on the first day. You want them to feel welcome and excited the first day of art class. Would kids really get excited about the year if all we did was talk about a bunch of rules?
“Hey kids, I’m the boss. Don’t do this, don’t do that, DO NOT do this or this or this or this…and I’m the boss. Now let’s have fuuuun…”
I listened to an episode from Cassie Stephen’s podcast Everyday Art Room, and she touched on this very topic. Cassie says that your rules set the overall tone of your classroom, and they are a reflection of you as a teacher. So you must be careful when choosing them and in how you present them. It is better for the rules of your artroom to be life mantras or “rules of life to live by” – things like having a positive attitude, being kind and respectful to one another, and always trying your best. Then your routines are all of the little expectations, procedures, and behaviors that should be practiced day-to-day. Things like: what you do when you first arrive, don’t talk while the teacher is talking, and how to clean up at the end of class.
She compared creating rules and routines for your art room to creating a masterpiece painting. You lay the foundation with the “big broad brushstrokes” and the routines are the fine details that help enhance them. Since every teacher’s style is different, every teacher’s rules will be too. They should reflect your personality and expectations, just as a masterpiece painting would reflect your unique style as an artist.
This made TOTAL sense. I had spent so much time decorating the studio with bright colors and welcoming touches because I really did want the students to feel warm and welcome when they come into the room. But having a bright and cheery space is only a small part of the impression that you’re making. If you want your students to be excited and inspired to create every time they come to class, you need the tone of your rules to reflect the creative exciting space that you have.
The rules we came up with: Good artists are Attentive, Respectful and Tenacious. If you noticed that they spell the word “ART”…Yeah. That was done on purpose.
I’ve also decided that I’m not going to start off each year bombarding students on the first day of class with a gigantic list the same old do’s and don’t’s! How does that help to create a fun and welcoming tone for my artroom? I have found that most students are smart enough to know classroom etiquette, so it’s not worth presenting a huge list of the rules the first day of class.
What I’ve discovered is that the routines and consequences have a tendency to reveal themselves throughout the year. My favorite consequence to reveal so far: “If you complain about the music, I will turn it off, and you will have to listen to me sing for the remainder of class.” Works. Every. Time.
LESSON 2: It’s important to be prepared, yet flexible.
The Boy Scouts are right ya’ll! It is always good to be prepared. “Winging it” has never been my method, but I find that this is especially hard when dealing with kids. If you seem scattered or stressed, your students will immediately pick up on it. Your projects won’t be enjoyable and you could start losing control of the classroom. Once that happens, it is almost impossible to get things back on track.
“If you lose control of your classroom, you’re gonna have a bad time”
I’m not saying that you have to spend months in advance writing a detailed 5 page lesson plan, but having a well thought out lesson with a trialed time for your activity, a list of materials, a plan for clean up, and attainable examples will ensure that things go more smoothly. This allows you to focus on teaching and added flexibility to handle any little surprises that can catch you off guard.
While having a solid plan is helpful, it’s important to remember that things don’t always go exactly as planned. The thing with kids is…they will always throw you a curveball. Always. You have to be flexible. Not only will you l have to improvise for those curve balls, but most students learn at different paces, have different skill levels, and mature at different rates. You must be prepared to meet students where they are and adapt your teaching style accordingly even if that means giving little math lessons, teaching how to spell or how to properly use glue (or how not to eat it!).
And when things still aren’t going according to your plan, just take a moment to breathe and to remember why you love doing this…because when it is going well, it is magical.
LESSON 3: The importance of encouraging individuality
Remember those cookie cutter projects that you had to do in school where everyone does a slightly different version of the exact same thing? I hated those. It always forced you to compare yourself to your peers, and there just wasn’t much room for self expression. If one student was able to copy the teacher’s version better, did that really make them a good artist?
I have found that kids get most excited about the projects where they really get to dig deep into their creativity and create something that is unique and special to them.
This year we tried things like abstract self portraits, a narrative underwater scene, and freestyle clay sculptures. Our warm-up drawings were always about creating things that they would like to see in the world. Design your dream house, design a logo for a business you would start, or draw your art teacher in a fight with any type of animal (I often lost these fights).
At the end of each project, everyone had something that was one of a kind. It was interesting to see how all the students would take different approaches to problem solving and how they added their own style to their artwork. This was also helpful for me because I was learning more about their personalities and interests. I can now tell you which kids love to draw horses, which ones love fashion, which ones can name EVERY type of dinosaur and which ones are obsessed with the Koopas (this is a thing).
It’s these type of projects that really spotlight what makes each child unique and special. When they feel unique and special, they really start to thrive. At the end of the project it is okay to compare the work because you’re not looking at who is a better artist or who copied the teacher the best, but you’re really celebrating the differences in each student’s work. They get so excited about sharing their work and their stories with everyone, and they really start to open up. You see the pride on their faces, and you feel it in your heart.
LESSON 4: The importance of connecting with your students
Everyone that knows of Alla Prima knows my business partner and fellow art teacher, Miss Hannah. She is phenomenal with kids. It is so fun just to sit back and watch how she interacts with the students and how they just light up anytime she walks into the room. I have to admit that this was a little intimidating when I first started out. I worried that the students that she had already established a strong bond with would be disappointed if they got me as a teacher instead. Even though she has been a great guide and has taught me so much, she and I have very different personalities. I was afraid my teaching style just wouldn’t add up.
Then one day it occurred to me that the only thing that was holding me back was myself. I was so worried about whether or not the kids would like me that I wasn’t really focusing on the most important thing. I wasn’t connecting with them because I wasn’t focused on establishing better relationships with them. The truth is, the students want to be loved by you just as badly as you want to be loved by them. Even the ones that give you a hard time, the ones that constantly interrupt you or never seem interested in what you are talking about. All students really just need your attention and your approval just as you need it from them.
“These imaginary walls that are holding us back only exist in our heads. We are the ones who built them, and we must be the ones to tear them down.”
So I stopped worrying about if I was going to disappoint my students and just started getting to know each of them. And once I did, something incredible happened. They started paying attention to my lessons. They started respecting my routines. They started to become enthusiastic about our projects. They started bringing me presents or artwork that they had made at home. They even started laughing at my dumb jokes! They started learning from me because they started feeling connected to me.
“They like me, they really like me!”
Not only do you have to work hard at how you will perform as a teacher, but you have to work hard at connecting with your students. Really listen to the things they want to share with you, even if you are busy with something or if you have no idea what a Minion or a Raichu is (this, too, is a thing).
Just like our students, no two art teachers are exactly alike and each teacher has their own style, approach, standards and creative vision. And while the “Miss Hannahs” in the world may be excellent role models, we must be confident in ourselves as teachers and don’t try to act like something you’re not. The kids will see right through it anyway! All you have to do is be yourself, really listen to their stories, encourage them to be their best, and be genuinely interested in getting to know each one. They will love you for it.
LESSON 5: The importance of making mistakes
Everyone has bad days, and everyone makes mistakes. You will make them. Your students will make them. They are inevitable.
While at first it was frustrating when my classroom strategies failed or when a project didn’t work well, I’ve now learned not to be so hard on myself. You just have to keep trying new things until it does work, and learn from the things that don’t.
If you have a bad day, do some reflection. Take notes on what did and didn’t work, and decide how you will approach it differently the next time. Remind yourself that mistakes are part of the learning process and you will be stronger because of them.
Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes in front of your students. You might think that this will make them lose trust or confidence in you as their teacher, but it will can actually teach a valuable lesson. It shows them that you are human and that mistakes happen to all of us (and that we can recover from most of them).
I often use mistakes as a teaching opportunity and as a way to incorporate the legendary Bob Ross (whose portrait we have in the studio.) I often refer to mistakes as “happy accidents” as he did and sometimes demonstrate how paint blobs or splatters can magically be transformed into “beautiful clouds”.
The best part of making mistakes is what you learn from them. They are an important part of the journey to becoming the best teacher you can be. I’m so lucky to have been given this wonderful opportunity to share something I’m passionate about with my students, and we get to do fun things together everyday. I’m sure that I will continue to make mistakes and there will probably be plenty of lessons to be learned. All I know for sure is that I am looking forward to it.
Photo Credit: April Mae Creative
The incredibly wise and insightful Cassie Stephens! Her podcast has really helped to get me through my first year teaching and she is a true inspiration.
- Cassie Stephen’s Blog: https://cassiestephens.blogspot.com/
- Cassie Stephen’s Podcast, Everyday Art Room