Art Teacher Talk

Classroom Management: Redefining Education

Perspective is a funny thing. We can choose to see life from any angle. A situation can be seen as a total disaster or as an opportunity for growth. People are no different. Students roam the hallways with all kinds of labels – they may as well be pinned to their shirts. “This student works SO hard” and “This student is a waste of space”. Better yet, “This student won’t do anything, don’t waste your time.” I heard a student referred to as a “Blinking Potato” once. The best part about exploring classroom management? These aren’t labels given by students. These are teacher given labels. 

Please do not misunderstand the intent of this post. I’m not trying to say that our “labeling” is not sometimes justified. On the contrary, we have all come across some really unique students. My question is, could the cycle be broken earlier, if the first teacher had not told the second teacher that the student was a “waste of space.”

Again, yes, there are circumstances where some foreknowledge is a good thing. I am going to argue that this is the case only when we are trying to set up a helpful environment. One where the student can do better and succeed. I also think we know the difference between a “helpful” backstory and a “hurtful” backstory when it comes to classroom management.

Research and Recognizance 

Have you ever conducted the 3-R’s in your classroom? I call it Roster Research and Recognizance, a vital part of effective classroom management. The act of pouring over one’s upcoming rosters to see who’s on the list. On their way to our classroom to make our lives a living hell. Stacking the deck in our minds against this student or that student – imagining the chaos that will surely take place. We’ve all done it. It’s a full on anxiety-fest.

Reputation is powerful. As we take the student roster around to everyone who has had this student prior, supposedly to “get the scoop,” are we not setting the stage for failure before they enter our room?

In the beginning of my career – before I understood the value of a fresh new day – I would go to all the other teachers in my department and have them look at my upcoming roster and tell me everything they knew about each student. You know how it goes, “Oh this one! He’s a hot mess” and “Oh wow! This student is amazing, you will love having him in your class!” I would soak it all in and take notes beside the names, as if I had inside trading info that would change my future.

Newsflash. This so-called advice and insight only served to help me label these kids before they ever entered my room. It made me see them a certain way – both good and bad – and it limited the potential before both of us. Notice I said before “us.” This insight stopped me from seeing these kids for who they were. As I listened to the teacher paint a picture of previous events in their classroom, I remembered a statement from one of my college professors, “You get what you give.”

Just because Tina showed out in Mrs. Smith’s class doesn’t mean Tina is going to give me problems. Relationships are unique. You don’t know how many times I got a bad report on a student only to find out they were anything but bad in my classroom, highlighting the importance of classroom management. In fact, the reporting teacher stopped in one day to ask me how the misery was and was astounded to hear that his prior student was one of my high flyers. My humble advice is simple: stop sizing your roster up against other people’s experiences. Don’t let anyone tell you who somebody is or what they are capable of.

The Dirty Sink

True story – One semester my Painting class had 27 people, using two brushes, 27 palettes, and 150 tubes of paint – with one sink. Fifty-four brushes that needed a bath every day. The bell would ring, the kids would leave, and the sink would be full of paint soaked palettes, dirty brushes (at least 30) and the students who did “clean up” had only half washed their brushes and these brushes were on the counter or the floor. You know the scene, and it’s enough to make you go full Diane Lane from the “Exorcist.” (You youngsters need to Google this movie). 

I sat with the mess and stewed for a bit, and then I reflected on the beginning of the semester and I asked myself, “what did you actually tell them about cleaning expectations?” You know what I told them? To clean up. Not “how” to clean up. Side note: When my daughter was a teenager, “cleaning up” meant putting her dishes in the sink. She thought she had done a really good thing, leaving them for me to rinse and put in the dishwasher. 

I know what you’re thinking…”I shouldn’t have to tell them how to clean up.” And you’re not wrong. I wish everyone thought like I did when it came to cleaning up. But they don’t. And remember, there are 27 or more people (kids, mind you) who come from all sorts of “clean up” backgrounds, emphasizing the importance of classroom management. Some have parents who do everything for them and some have parents who do nothing. In either case, the situation has made them who they are. Now they are in my classroom. Using my materials. We need a game plan and we need to run the clean up play a few times so everyone knows their role on the field.

The very next class I did two things. I handed everyone a Materials Supply Contract (download it – it’s editable and it’s free), and I went to the sink with two paint soaked brushes and washed them while everyone watched. I went through the entire process, from the soap in the palm of my hand to the swirling and rinsing of the brush, to laying it flat on the clean water container to dry. This may sound excessive, but at the end of class guess how many dirty brushes I had. NONE. And the sink? Clean. As they waited for the bell I said, “Wow! That sink looks great and y’all did a fabulous job cleaning up.” This young man looked at me kinda confused at my joy and said, “All you had to do was tell us, Ms. Fox.” 

I quickly realized that assumption was my biggest issue. If I wanted people to treat the room with cleanliness and respect, I needed to set the ground rules and expectations. I had 35 people working with materials. When they come to me at the beginning of the semester, how many of them have a consistent practice of clean up ingrained into their daily routines? Especially if they are in middle school. Say no more. 

We can see the mess in the sink as disrespectful students who want to make our lives miserable or as a chance to explain cleanup procedures in a fresh new way, highlighting the importance of effective classroom management. Students are so much more than just people who do or don’t clean up after themselves. I could have told them they were useless and had no respect for me or the materials, but is this a true statement? And even if it was true, would it have made the situation better? 

Thanks so much for reading all the way past my dirty sink story. There is actually a point to this illustration. It’s not the kids. It’s the interaction and expectation based on who we think they are. This sets the tone for everything in the room. If I see them all as if they are amazingly capable, and I approach them this way, they will respond in kind. I’ve seen it too many times to count. 

The Deeper Thought  “Who is in my classroom?” 

By nature, most people like to be helpful. It’s an endorphin raising experience. Students do not enter the classroom locked and loaded for destruction. As they enter a new classroom, I like to consider where they are coming from. What classroom environment? What home life situation? When considering previous classroom management, many times kids came to me with the notion that they were hopeless because the previous teacher told them they had no talent and not to bother trying. Seriously. I heard these stories frequently. One girl in particular was terrified to take my Drawing class. The Art 1 teacher told her she may as well not even sign up. She was terrible. She cried. In the classroom in front of everyone. Spoiler alert: She’s now a successful designer for a major clothing company. If she had listened to this other teacher, or worse yet, if I had listened to this other teacher, chances are she wouldn’t be successful today. Maybe instead of focusing on the dirty sink I needed to focus on why the sink was really dirty in the first place.

At the risk of sounding existential, let’s think about who is in the room. These are 27 souls, people headed through life, making a pit stop in my presence for 18 weeks, highlighting the significance of classroom management. Some of them will move on, and some will return for another 18-week pit stop. But who are they really? And what can I learn from them?

I am a big fan of helping kids see high school as a Chapter in their lives – not the entire Book. What happens in high school is preparation for the rest of life, it’s not the final destination. That’s why they call it “School.” It’s a learning experience. We are not here to live out the experiences of our 10th grade self forever. We are here to solve the problem called “how to do this thing called life.” How do we do the job and get it done effectively? 

To help kids understand this, we do an activity where students think of an adult they admire. Someone over the age of 30, who has lived a little (or a lot). Someone who has made a contribution to this world outside of themselves. Once they have this person in mind, I ask them what they have in common with that person. After the initial confusion, I point out that both of them went to high school. Someone was Mark Wahlberg’s Art Teacher. I use Marky Mark (for you youngins, Mr. Wahlberg used to be a member of the Funky Bunch – Google it). Not only is he an accomplished actor, but he is an amazing humanitarian as well. 

The journey to adulthood is peppered with moments we will never forget. Both good and bad. As educators, we hold a great deal of power. Even when we think no one is listening, trust me, someone is. My husband had two different teachers tell him he would be a high school dropout. In his case, this was a motivator to quit screwing around. But what about the student who comes from a legacy of degradation? A word like this could be the final straw. 

The Salutation and the Assessment

How do we tell our students who they are? What can a simple salutation do for a group of people? When we tell kids they are fabulous, they respond in kind. I address students in every class as “Beautiful People.” It’s how I call them to action, how I tell them it’s time to clean up, it’s how I tell them to get in the closet and hunker down when we hear the lockdown announcement. One day a young man said, “Mrs. Fox, why do you always call us ‘Beautiful People’?” He was genuinely interested. I replied, “Because that’s who you are.” 

It is Spring. In education, this is the Assessment Season, a crucial time for class management. As we approach our students, and our interactions with them, maybe it’s time for some re-assessment in how we see them. Looking over the last semester (or year), did we approach them as candidates for success or did we make a prediction and move on it with a negative predisposition? Maybe try an experiment in the fall. Don’t even print the roster until the day before school starts. We all know it will change 50 times in the first two weeks anyway. So angst over the “Blinking Potato” on our Art 1 roster is wasted energy when he moves on to Ag Mechanics on the third day of class.

Thank you so much for stopping by my website and reading my blog. For more information on how we set up the art classroom environment for a fabulously smooth semester, check out these accompanying resources – How Soft Serve Ice Cream Can Improve Student Behavior and “What I Learned in the Art Room Trenches.” 

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