Art Teacher Talk

Art Teachers Should Stop Making These Six Vital Assumptions 

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of relying on assumptions about those interacting within our art classrooms. Whether it’s presumptions about a student’s abilities, behavior, or interests, these preconceived notions can inadvertently stifle creativity and hinder genuine connection. I’ve come to realize that pivotal moments arise when we consciously choose to defy these assumptions. Throughout my journey as an art teacher, I’ve encountered numerous opportunities where I could have succumbed to the noise of assumption, but instead, I opted to take action. It’s these deliberate choices that have not only transformed my approach to teaching but have also fostered a thriving and inclusive environment within my art classroom. As art teachers, it is our responsibility to continue to break down barriers and assumptions to allow for our students to grow.

1. “Student’s Don’t Like Structure”

Fact: Children tend to thrive in environments that balance freedom with a supportive framework.
Somewhere along the line structure got a bad rap. Especially in the art room. I can’t speak for every learning model, or for all the art teachers out there, but I can definitely speak to structure and its benefits in the art classroom. Success for all students. That’s my mantra. And not just a select few who come in “naturally talented.” My goal as an educator is a win for everyone.

Newsflash. Students love structure. It makes them feel safe. Anxiety among young people is at an all time high. Structure with boundaries helps them relax, knowing that their teacher is in control and “has their back” in all circumstances. I always tell my students, “If I don’t know the answer, you better believe we will figure it out because we are a team. A family. With goals of excellence (this is actually part of our class syllabus). Because they are worth it…”

In order to hit the learning targets for all students, I need everyone on the same path to getting the job done. I am a huge fan of teaching on a scaffold, building skills and confidence along the way.As students observe the collective success of their entire class, their engagement and commitment start to grow. Witnessing the effectiveness of the process instills confidence, showing them that the approach indeed yields positive results.

Establish a clear project structure and adhere to the specified due date to streamline the learning experience for both you and your students. This isn’t about being strict; rather, it’s about creating a stable and dependable foundation for everyone involved. Providing a consistent environment fosters a sense of security, enabling students to think, create, and take bold artistic risks. A stable ground serves as the foundation for the growth of their artistic creativity, ensuring a positive and reliable learning journey for everyone in the art room.

Seen from another angle, I always tell my art teachers, “We teachers have to be in the classroom, too.” If the environment lacks organization and purpose, then our sanity suffers. That “success for everyone” includes the teacher, too.

Find a structure that works for you and for them. There are lots of art curriculum models out there (I happen to think mine are pretty foolproof ha). Do some research, examine the student work coming out of the program, and go from there. Unless you have extra time on your hands and nothing else to do, don’t reinvent the wheel. Glean from proven and tested lessons and adapt them to your learning environment. 

If you purchase an art curriculum – keep receipts as these are all tax deductible.

2. “Only a handful of children show enthusiasm for learning.”

Fact: While it may seem that way, every child has unique strengths and interests waiting to be discovered. It’s our role as art teachers to ignite that enthusiasm and make learning a captivating journey for each and every one of them.

When I present learning as a valuable outcome – as evidenced by the walls full of student work in my room and around the school – students come to the table interested in the possibility of learning to draw or paint. I open the first day of class with, “I will have you drawing (or painting) amazing things that you never thought you could draw prior to this class. All of you, not just a few of you.” Then I learn everyone’s name. On the first day. (Details on this can be found in The First Day of Art Class Activities Blog Post).

Students who come to art saying, “I don’t like art” or “Why is class even important” or “I’ll never need this in real life” – these are all things said out of fear. Fear that they can’t do it, or won’t be any good, or won’t be as good as Johnny who everyone knows is the best artist in the 8th grade. They come to class frontloading the fear with the feedback before you’ve even introduced the first lesson. Don’t fall for it. It’s a trap.

In the beginning, my response was simple. I didn’t have one. I waited until the sentence was finished and then I proceeded to introduce the first lesson (which in my art room is always a community building mixed media project). It also doubles as my syllabus – students take notes on classroom procedures on a half sheet of construction paper that gets taped to the back of the mixed media project. Bam! Syllabus. No printing required.

3. “Kids don’t listen”

Fact: Students are incredible listeners when we communicate effectively and provide clear expectations.

It can be difficult to maintain calm at times, but everything we say has power. I started an experiment early on where every time someone walked by my room I would pull them in the door and start telling them to walk around and take a look at what my amazing students were doing. Everyone from the custodian to the student walking down the hall to the bathroom (I got some strange looks but the kids always came in and took the lap around the room).

I discovered that when these strangers took that lap and listened to me rave about the goings on in my art classroom, my students sat up straighter, dug in and worked harder, and produced better work overall. Sharing positive feedback with others had a significant, if not greater, impact than directly addressing the students. And just so you don’t think my bragging was fake and empty, on the contrary, I view all effort as worthy of praise. And the more praise, the more effort. The more effort, the better the quality. It’s a foolproof formula. And it works!

We think they are tuning us out, when actually they are fully tuned in. And not just to what we say directly to the students, it’s what we say to others within their earshot. I once had a teacher tell me how much he hated his 4th block. The unfortunate part was he shared this sentiment with me during 4th block…while I was in his room. The students went on working like they didn’t hear him, some of them notably wincing, others looking embarrassed. It was heartbreaking.

Words are powerful. In 1984, my World History teacher told me I was the dumbest white girl he ever met. In the middle of the class. I will be 57 in May. It’s been with me for 40 years. 

4. “Parents Won’t Do Anything” 

Fact: Research shows that parental involvement significantly influences a child’s educational outcomes and behavior. Engaging parents through effective communication and collaboration can lead to positive changes in student behavior and performance.

Unless we have picked up the phone and called every single parent on our roster, this assumption is the most damaging of all. Let me give you a perfect example. Back in “the day” (2009), I had a student who just wouldn’t do anything but come to my art class and try their best to NOT DO ANYTHING. With one exception. Get everyone else to try and not do anything. Fellow art teachers told me there was no hope for this student, and to not bother contacting parents, because they had heard through the grapevine that this never works.

Since I listened to the noise around me (other art teachers and their filter), I did not act right away and the situation got progressively worse. Then one day I thought, “What do I have to lose? I’m calling the parents.” 

Well, this was a hard lesson learned. I could have saved myself days of aggravation if I had not listened to the noise. Not only did the parents care, they acted immediately on my behalf. The next day I got an apology note and a visit after school from said parents and we had a meeting in my room with the student at which time everyone assured me this behavior would cease and only positive behavior would ensue.

To top it off, there was additional fallout that I didn’t anticipate. This student proceeded to tell everyone within earshot that “Mrs. Fox don’t play.” I overheard a few of these conversations and I had to laugh, because the student who had been my biggest aggravation had become my loudest advocate.

Remember above where I talked about kids liking structure and boundaries? I’m guessing that this student needed some safety in their life. My willingness to involve parents demonstrated my investment in this student. Investment leads to buy in. Buy in leads to connection. Connection leads to community. Community offers safety. Students like to feel safe. Heck, we all like to feel safe, right?

5. “Administration doesn’t care”

Fact: While it may feel that way sometimes, let’s work together to communicate our concerns effectively and find constructive solutions. Our voices matter, and we can make a difference.

A few key things to remember about school administration:

If we have an issue that needs to be resolved, one thing is for sure – they can’t help us if we don’t tell them.

If we don’t look good, they don’t look good. Therefore, it is in their best interest to help us.

In the present social media climate, school districts and their administrators are constantly in the spotlight. Bad press is not good, and with all the responsibility already on their plates, bad press is the last thing they want or need.

Before I started thinking nobody cared, I did some reflecting and I thought, “Did I really ask for help?” or, “Did I just fret about it, tell everyone that no one cared and talk to other teachers about how awful admin is instead of going to admin directly?” And furthermore, “Did I do everything in my power to rectify the situation first?”

As art teachers, we can stand around and fan the flames of anti-admin conversation, or we can act on the situation to reach a solution. Ten times out of ten, when I went to my admin and circumvented the venting to others, I saw positive results.

This tip is for new art teachers – Do yourself a favor and do not make it a habit of going over your administrator’s head thinking your problem will get fixed faster. Every department in your school will have an Assistant Principal who oversees it. I always went to our AP before going to my Principal – for every situation from budget to student concerns. As a result, she was never “under the bus” and she had a chance to act. I realized quickly that giving her a chance to do her job went a long way. As a result, if I needed anything, she moved me to priority status – at times in front of others who had not been as judicious.

6. “Kids don’t like you (or your class)”

Fact: Students often need time to adjust to new environments and people. Let’s focus on building positive connections together.

Students don’t possess the extra brain power or energy to plot the steady downfall of our sanity, our reputation, or our performance. Even at the high school level, they’re still kids. At the middle and high school level they’re so self-consumed that even if there’s a momentary act of disrespect, it can be diffused and extinguished immediately by not even acknowledging its existence.

If you are new to teaching or a veteran teacher new to your school, you can expect a learning curve as kids “test the waters” for depth and currents to gauge your reaction. It’s not personal. It’s what kids do. Steady consistency is key. A consistent reaction (or lack thereof) will set the tone in short order. If you are over the age of 40, you may remember the famous deodorant campaign – “Never let them see you sweat.” It’s kinda like that. 

On a side note, kids will not behave in our class the same way they behave in someone else’s class. All relationships are unique. How I interact with Susie is not the same as how Ms. Smith interacts with Susie. The common denominator in every relationship in my class is ME. I will most assuredly get what I give. 

Bonus Tip: Don’t give an ounce of credence to what other staff members say about the students on your roster – whether the report is good or bad. Get to know these precious people in your care, with a clean slate as the starting point. They are in your class for a specific purpose. 

As art teachers, we must continue to foster a thriving and inclusive art classroom begins with a conscious effort to avoid assumptions about the actions or thoughts of your students. By recognizing that you are in control and taking responsibility for cultivating a positive atmosphere, you empower your students to grow within your curriculum. Remember, every interaction contributes to the overall learning experience. If you’re seeking additional resources to enhance your classroom management skills, feel free to explore the valuable resources available in my store.

I was famous for saying, “Here we are, a group of 34 people who will never be together just like this ever again. We have 18 weeks. Let’s crush this thing called Art.” 

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