Art Teacher Talk

The Student Engagement Reset Button

I see a lot of teachers on the shared platforms discussing the drastically reduced work ethic among students. And I hear people asking what to do about this? I hear people pleading for answers to the question, “Why don’t the kids care?” “How do I increase student engagement?”

I’m here to tell you that they do care. 

They want to do well, to learn, to be successful. 

I’ll even go out on a limb and tell you they want clear directions, firm boundaries and high expectations, because all of those things are safe.

Everyone is in catch up mode.

We ALL lost almost two years of the educational process.

Covid killed the attention span, the sense of time, the excitement in general. 

It changed our perspective on what is appropriate and funny.

All that screen time provided endless hours of watching people all over the world say and do crude and obnoxious things on social media – anyone dealing with the bathroom destruction challenge made famous on that lovely platform whose name sounds like your grandmother’s mantel clock?

We expect the kids in front of us to be excited about where they are on the journey.

And where would that be exactly? 

Lost in most of their academic classes?

Or worse – mourning the loss of loved ones? 

Those 980,000 plus souls lost to this virus were all related to someone.

There is so much more going on. It’s under the surface, and it’s really tough for these young impressionable minds to process.

Think about what these last few years have done to us as adults. Imagine struggling in school prior to the shutdown and then having no one to support you as you try to learn from your bed every day while you watch your siblings.  Everyone doesn’t have a helicopter parent waiting to check their work for completion…

Depending on your school demographics, your kids may be taking care of younger siblings when they aren’t in school. They may be working a job to help pay the bills.

I had a student once upon a time who slept in my first block class frequently. He was very talented but he just couldn’t stay awake. At first I was indignant, thinking to myself that he must have been up to no good every night, forcefully telling him there is no sleeping in my class. He would apologize and then 20 minutes later he was asleep in his hand propping his head up holding his pencil like he was drawing.

News flash. I did a little checking with guidance and other teachers and it turned out he worked on an afternoon construction crew every day after school until late into the evening to help support his family. And his family was not here legally so survival was his first priority – not my Drawing 1 class. Talk about a humbling experience. I went home every night to my nice quiet home, never once fearing a knock at my door from Immigration. 

From that point on my mission was to ease his load. I reduced what he owed me to small drawings that he could accomplish in the first 20-30 minutes of class and then the rest of the time was his to rest. Remarkably, not only did he get the work done, he gave me every ounce of energy and effort he had and the work – while small – was amazing. Grace is powerful.

The fallout from this grace had a rippling effect in my room. The other kids knew about this young man’s situation. When they saw his modified plan, not only did they NOT play the “that’s not fair” card, they worked even harder to do their best. 

The kids don’t just respond to what you say directly to them, they respond to how you respond and interact with the kids around them. Those ears are open and those eyes are watching everything we do.

If it’s one thing that is constant, it’s that things always change. Someone famous said that, that’s not mine.

So here we are, with these less than enthused students and one thing is for sure…we’re here till June. We can make some changes to the process in order to see confidence grow and success build, or we can dig in and say it’s the kids’ fault and shame on them because they don’t care. 

I don’t know about you, but last time I checked I was the adult in the room and I’m the captain of the ship. I know what everyone is capable of and I know that everyone can learn to draw and paint. Everyone. Not just the “talented” kids. I’m not “anti-talented kids”, but I don’t think success in the art room should be reserved for them with the rest of the kids feeling inadequate and discouraged. 

Another news flash…kids who feel inadequate, discouraged and confused are kids who either act out or check out. 

Enter a new perspective on teaching art to middle or high schoolers…

Scaffolding skills in slow, small steps to build the artist’s house from the basement up.

I learned in the first few years of my career to break the concepts DOWN to small digestible bites with clear objectives and attainable goals. This is a student engagement game changer for the middle or high school art room.

No more 2-3 weeks to complete something, (not even for AP – they are on the tightest schedule of all)

No more 18×24 inch projects.

Aim for 2-3 days (tops) for a practice drawing and 4-5 days (tops) for a final project.

Just enough time to get the job done before burnout destroys the whole ship.

Not only will the work improve but the attention to excellence will steadily increase all year long. Shorter due dates and smaller work that dictates quicker finish times ensure the quality gets better and the kids are more engaged as a whole.

These kids are anxious. 

They are WAY behind in all their other classes (imagine losing two years of instruction and coming back to school in 11th grade not knowing how to do basic high school math). 

As a result of all the aforementioned fallout from the last few years, a giant piece of paper and a three week deadline seem insurmountable (for most kids – there will always be a handful who can handle this format, but aren’t we supposed to focus on success for everyone?)

They are desperately in need of a win, and we can give it to them.

I am famous for saying to the kids, “We’re here every day for 88 minutes, 18 weeks, give or take a day. We need one goal. To be the very best fabulous version of us we can possibly be. And I’m committed to your fabulousness. I want YOU to be committed to that too.” It’s amazing how establishing a goal can bring a disparate group together.

If things are totally out of hand and you find yourself considering another career, maybe consider taking a step back to hit that reset button. If it’s really that bad, what do you have to lose?

There are at least a zillion different classroom scenarios out there,so if you are reading this and thinking, “you don’t know what I’m up against”, I know one thing for sure. No matter the size of your roster, those kids have all come into this one place from completely diverse backgrounds, home life dynamics, skill sets, and mental capacities – just to name a few.

See your classroom as the one safe place that everyone on the roster looks forward to coming into each and every day. A place where you value them and they value each other. (These are the first two of only four rules in my classroom.

Make it your goal to establish this enchanting environment. Tell the kids that this is your mission, and it begins with everyone coming together under one umbrella of purpose.

Establish  this mission with a fresh community atmosphere in your art room. Take a step toward getting to know the kids and help them know each other. 

Here are a few ideas for re-establishing community in your art classroom:

  1. Create a poster for your wall with a class picture (they love this btw – especially high school kids) – have everyone sign the poster – my posters say “Drawing 1” in big bubble letters and the kids sign in the letters with the picture below the letters.

2. Create a community “Get to Know You” collage project (The Family Album is my favorite)

3. Create a space on your wall for their in progress work and display daily work as a class – teachers tell me all the time how students begin to encourage and support one another when they see the work hanging as a group – it’s no secret people like to be a part of something – give them something to feel a part of.

4. Stay close by – this is one that took my kids off guard – I would pull a chair up to one of their tables and work alongside them for 20 minutes, then move my chair to another table and just “stay close” while they worked. Not talking to them or distracting them, just sitting and working. When they asked why I wasn’t at my desk I would say, “I like to be part of the fabulousness and if I’m way over there I might miss it.” That’s no B.S., either. There’s no better place to be than with the students, watching their talent unfold.

5. Tell them who they are. Daily. 




And that it’s a privilege to be their teacher. 

Today is a new day.

I’ve had classes of 11 and classes of 37 and the one common denominator in both scenarios is me. I can either build a strong house that can withstand the winds and the rains, or I can sit back and be frustrated because it’s falling apart.

At the risk of sounding over-confident, I can say with all certainty that this works. All of it. The corny class photo, the daily truths I speak over them, the mission, the dedication to fabulousness, the collaborative collage, the in progress work on display, all of it. There’s more, but you’ll have to read the other blog posts, I didn’t want to be redundant for my returning readers.

You can create an atmosphere that you look forward to returning to each and every day.

No more Sunday Scaries.

Less anxiety.

No more sleepless nights.

Is it work?


Does it work?


Trust me.

You got this. 🙂

Contact me anytime with any questions.

I’m here.

For more in depth information on how to scaffold Drawing and Painting and AP Studio Art in your middle school or high school art program, check out these blog posts:

Size Mindset Shift

Drawing the Line

Student Confidence = Student Success

For my online Classroom Management Workshop Foolproof Fabulousness” – complete with classroom resources (included the Family Album).

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