10 Mistakes Every Art Teacher Can Avoid

Ten Mistakes Every Art Teacher Can AvoidOver the years, I’ve made more than my share of mis­takes.… and many of them more than once! We all make mis­takes, but we can learn from each other and at least avoid some of the com­mon ones. Here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way!

1. Doing for your stu­dents what they can (and should!) do for them­selves. From pass­ing out sup­plies to wash­ing brushes at the end of class, this con­cept applies to many aspects of teach­ing. And at the risk of being con­tro­ver­sial, tem­plates fall into this cat­e­gory, too. If you reg­u­larly use tem­plates, you may want to exam­ine why. If you have a com­pelling rea­son.… then by all means do it. But if it’s just to save time or have more con­trol over the out­come, maybe it’s best to let the kids give it their best shot with­out the tem­plate and see what hap­pens. After all, that’s where the learn­ing is. From prep to clean-up, and every­thing in between.… sure, you can do it faster and bet­ter, but if the kids can do it them­selves, let them when­ever possible.

2. Focus­ing too much on the end result or fin­ished prod­uct. This is the clas­sic strug­gle of process vs. prod­uct. While a suc­cess­ful fin­ished prod­uct can cer­tainly boost a student’s con­fi­dence and self-esteem, too much empha­sis on the end result can send the wrong mes­sage. After all, art is sub­jec­tive and the value of self-expression shouldn’t be under­es­ti­mated. If stu­dents are afraid to fail, they will also be afraid to try any­thing new or any­thing they might not already be good at. Process vs. Prod­uct? Find­ing bal­ance here is the key!

3. Not con­tin­u­ing to cre­ate art of your own. Remem­ber why you got into teach­ing Art in the first place?? Because you loved mak­ing art! I think we lose cred­i­bil­ity with our stu­dents when we stop pur­su­ing our own growth in what we love doing. Time is pre­cious and there never seems to be enough of it, but no mat­ter how busy you are, find at least some small way to be cre­ative every day.… jour­nal in a sketch­book, make your own greet­ing cards, paint on your iPad, dec­o­rate your lunch bag.… just do some­thing.

4. Giv­ing empty praise. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of gen­eral encour­age­ment, giv­ing com­pli­ments like, “Good job!”, “Well done!”, or “Wow — that looks beau­ti­ful!” But when we do, we miss an impor­tant oppor­tu­nity for our words to be mean­ing­ful. Make that extra effort to give spe­cific praise, with com­ments like, “The way you put that orange flower against the blue sky really makes those col­ors pop!”, or “I can tell this group was really pay­ing atten­tion by how well they fol­lowed direc­tions.”  Then your praise can also become a tool for learn­ing and moti­vat­ing.

5. Draw­ing or paint­ing on a student’s work. A few lines here, a brush­stroke or two there… what’s the harm when you have a whole class to get to and your stu­dents are ask­ing you to do it? Well, it does more dam­age than first meets the eye. I always had an intu­itive sense about this, but it wasn’t until I took an oil paint­ing work­shop with a local artist a few years ago that it really hit home. At one point, she reached for my brush and said, “Do you mind?”, as she added a few high­lights on my paint­ing. Yes, it totally fixed the prob­lem I was hav­ing, but I never felt like it was my paint­ing after that. In fact, it’s still sit­ting in my garage.… unfin­ished.

6. Repeat­ing the same projects every year. Some projects are so pop­u­lar that you would face wide-scale dis­ap­point­ment if you didn’t do them each year with the next incom­ing class… you know the ones I’m talk­ing about! But repeat­ing too many of the same projects will make your pro­gram (and your job) seem stale. Instead, weave new projects into your cur­ricu­lum each year to keep things fresh and inter­est­ing.… for your stu­dents, and for you! You can always find ways to update just about any les­son, and who knows, you may also improve it in the process. There’s no short­age of inspi­ra­tion out there, so keep explor­ing new ideas!

7. Revert­ing to “cookie-cutter” craft projects for hol­i­day gifts. Some­times we cave to the pres­sure from our grade level co-workers who need a gift to send home for Christ­mas or Mother’s Day and ran out of time, or sim­ply neglected to plan for it. It’s great to help out when we can, but it need not be with a cookie-cutter project that doesn’t allow for indi­vid­ual expres­sion. One of the won­der­ful things about art is that there are so many dif­fer­ent ways to approach the Stan­dards we teach. A Christ­mas orna­ment may have sym­me­try, pat­tern, and tex­ture, and that Mother’s Day jew­elry box could be painted in the style of Monet or Van Gogh. Never miss an oppor­tu­nity to teach impor­tant art con­cepts, tech­niques, or his­tory, and find ways to tie as much learn­ing and per­sonal choice as you can into every project you do with your students.

8. Teach­ing a new les­son with­out try­ing it your­self first. Ouch! We’ve all done it and regret­ted it after­ward. No mat­ter how straight­for­ward a new project may seem, there is always value in work­ing through it once your­self before you teach it to your stu­dents. Use this time to really think through how you’re going to explain each step and what the poten­tial prob­lems might be.

9. For­get­ting to enjoy your stu­dents. It’s easy to get so caught up in what we need to get done that we “miss the for­est for the trees”. In other words, you can get so dis­tracted by your to-do list that you entirely miss the big pic­ture… this won­der­ful oppor­tu­nity we have to build rela­tion­ships with our stu­dents and enjoy them as peo­ple. Try to find ways to make a per­sonal con­nec­tion with each of your stu­dents. Find out what is impor­tant to them, what they get excited about, what they love. If you have too many stu­dents to accom­plish this with each one, still do what you can. You’ll suc­ceed with many and you may notice fewer behav­ior prob­lems and less stress in your day as a result!

10. Not let­ting stu­dents see you make mis­takes. Let’s face it, mis­takes are inevitable. Cre­at­ing art is all about prob­lem solv­ing, often on the fly. If stu­dents can watch you make a mis­take and “own it” (rather than try to hide it), it not only shows them that you’re human, it’s also a great oppor­tu­nity to teach them that “fail­ure isn’t final” but is a vital part of the learn­ing process.

I hope this list will help you avoid some of the more com­mon mis­takes Art teach­ers make. Since we are all going to make mis­takes, we may as well make dif­fer­ent ones and learn from each other!

Do any of these mis­takes res­onate with you? What mis­takes have you made that the rest of us can learn from?

Please share in the com­ment sec­tion below!

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39 Responses to 10 Mistakes Every Art Teacher Can Avoid

  1. Phyl January 25, 2014 at 10:22 pm #

    Great post!! I’ve brought up the tem­plate thing before — I agree with you 100% — it seems a lot of peo­ple get hung up on it mak­ing things eas­ier, or mak­ing it look bet­ter. Both of these rea­sons for using tem­plates are cop-outs in my opin­ion. And I per­son­ally can’t stand walk­ing by an exhibit of stu­dent art­work where each piece looks the same as the next one. Ugh!

    I also agree about those crafty projects. Actu­ally I agree with every­thing you’ve said! Ter­rific post all around!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge January 26, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

      I know what you mean, Phyl, about those projects that all look the same! Kids have so much to offer with their art and tem­plates just really limit their expres­sion in many cases. I love the charm of 100% kid-made art!!

    • Ed Stewart January 27, 2014 at 4:46 am #

      You can avoid the cookie-cutter art project if you teach using themes. If the theme allows stu­dents to address their own per­sonal inter­ests, then the art­work that they pro­duce will be unique to each child.

      • Cheryl Trowbridge January 30, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

        I agree, Ed… a theme will open up a project for lots of dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions. And kids seem to really enjoy work­ing that way, too!

    • Roe Musella March 6, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

      I think with the K-I Grades start­ing off with a tem­plate is fine for cer­tain projects. These tem­plates help build their visual library. Many times after i do a project with a tem­plate, I see my stu­dents draw­ing things we did in the past, now draw­ing them with­out tem­plates. So now they have that visual to refer to and can expand on it.

      • Cheryl Trowbridge March 10, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

        Thanks for your input, Roe! Some teach­ers use tem­plates very effec­tively for occa­sional pur­poses. It’s just a good idea to be aware of how much you’re using them and why, to make sure your stu­dents don’t become too depen­dent. I love it that you see your stu­dents draw­ing things on their own that they pre­vi­ously used a tem­plate for… that’s success!

  2. Jackie Sorich January 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    Love your list. I went to col­lege as an adult and one of my art teach­ers “fixed” my work, felt like I was in 5th grade with the teache who crit­i­cized my draw­ing before the class.… not so good

    Good advice for all of us… all of your 10 points. Yip­pie! Let us all remem­ber to enjoy the process as well as the prod­uct.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge January 26, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

      Thanks, Jackie! I know that feel­ing… not so good, huh?? I wouldn’t want to be remem­bered as “that teacher”!!

  3. Alisa January 26, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    I agree!

  4. Sara January 28, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    You really hit the nail on the head!! I love using plex­i­glass and a dry erase marker to guide stu­dents with­out doing it on their work. It has helped the kids and myself avoid that doing it for them rule. I will be print­ing this off as a reminder :)

    • Cheryl Trowbridge January 30, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

      Great idea, Sara! Thanks for shar­ing that!!

    • Lynne July 26, 2015 at 8:25 am #

      I love that idea!

  5. Kathy February 11, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    Hi Cheryl,
    Thank you so much for such a great sum­mary. Your arti­cle explained why I was hav­ing some prob­lems with my stu­dents :)
    Well, we all learn so thank you for shar­ing! K

  6. Sarah February 14, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    What a won­der­ful list! Such help­ful reminders and #9 is so impor­tant! In all classes, I see so much of this and it makes me sad. We get wrapped up in get­ting “the list” fin­ished with­out regard to the stu­dents needs. I am a true believer in process over prod­uct, even in my own work. I always learn some­thing new and usu­ally have good results. I love to see stu­dents accom­plish a task that took courage and the bonus is the fan­tas­tic art!

  7. Valerie Kent February 19, 2014 at 6:16 am #

    You are bang on. My thoughts too. One small adjust­ment I would make is not to praise at all. Stu­dents wait for the praise but then that reflects the teacher’s con­cepts of what is unique, good, and why.
    I elicit self praise by going back to what has been taught, I.e.
    value scale and ask stu­dents what they thought of it, how did it impact their work, how was it use­ful, should it be taught to other stu­dents, would they use it again, in what ways. Ask them to look at their own work and talk about it, per­haps com­pare that piece to one done with­out being aware of val­ues. If it starts early they will get used to art talk which is so much more use­ful than praise.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge March 1, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

      Yes, Valerie, I agree that praise is such a tricky issue. Being too lib­eral with praise feels insin­cere, yet hav­ing no praise in the class­room can feel like some­thing is miss­ing. I took a work­shop once with a teacher who gave no praise to any­one at all, and that just didn’t feel quite right some­how. I pre­fer authen­tic encour­age­ment to praise. I love to help chil­dren see things in their art mak­ing that they might not be aware of yet, whether it’s related to what they are doing or how they are doing it. My favorite way to praise stu­dents is to watch for some­thing they are excited about in their art and then draw out a con­ver­sa­tion encour­ag­ing them about that. How we approach praise in the class­room is def­i­nitely some­thing to be aware of and a great topic for dis­cus­sion! Thanks for your comment!

  8. Susan Joe March 18, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    I’ve been an Ele­men­tary school art teacher for over 17 years and love it! I have to say that every­thing you men­tioned is absolutely true! I’ve made many mis­takes dur­ing my first cou­ple of years of teach­ing and hated it. But, after some­time and with expe­ri­ence, I evolved from an ordi­nary art teacher who just sees her career as a job to some­one who now lives, breathes, excels, and is IN LOVE with her work! I con­stantly try to think of new lessons to do with my stu­dents, set very high expec­ta­tions, gives tasks and respon­si­bil­i­ties for all stu­dents, and most of all, teach my stu­dents to be fear­less in their learn­ing process (not be afraid to make mis­takes) I now proudly dis­play my stu­dents’ mas­ter­pieces on Pin­ter­est for the world to see (under my name, Susan Joe). You are also very cor­rect in sug­gest­ing art teach­ers to con­tinue to do their own art. I cre­ate paint­ings, draw­ings, origami, and jew­elry dur­ing the lit­tle spare time I have and dur­ing part of my Sum­mer. It is very reward­ing and keeps me cre­ative. Thank you for your awe­some list!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge March 18, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

      Susan, I love that you’re teach­ing your stu­dents not to fear mak­ing mis­takes… that may be one of the most impor­tant lessons they learn!

  9. harindharan April 22, 2014 at 7:12 am #

    Giv­ing spe­cific praise is some­thing that we all should prac­tice for con­tin­u­ous improvement…love this phrase so much. Thanks & bravo Cheryl !
    harind­ha­ran recently posted..How To Draw A RoseMy Profile

  10. Laura Simpson May 3, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    I love this list! I would like to dis­agree with some word­ing used how­ever. Cookie-cutter projects are not crafts! Craft is sim­ply another form of art and has as much value and his­tory as tra­di­tional fine art. My K-12 art classes all have a choice of art cen­ters to work in and the craft cen­ter is a favorite! We do every­thing from altered books and recy­cled mate­r­ial photo frames to bas­ket weav­ing and knit­ting. Art stan­dards are always addressed and stu­dents are left with a sense of acom­plish­ment, a new skill & often a prod­uct that can be used for more than just display!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge May 4, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

      That’s a great point, Laura. I com­pletely agree with you on the value, his­tory, and skill found in so many crafts. My point was to avoid those types of projects where there is so lit­tle free choice involved that every student’s fin­ished piece looks the same. I tried to re-word that part of my post so hope­fully it reflects this more accu­rately now. Thanks so much for your feedback!

  11. gretchen buwalda August 13, 2014 at 1:06 am #

    This is the sec­ond time I have read your list of 10 mis­takes. And I’ll read it again another day. I have it on my Pin­ter­est board as a reminder. They are all so accu­rate. Some high­light my pet frus­tra­tions. eg; tem­plates, process v. prod­uct and draw­ing on a stu­dents work.
    When praise comes my way, it is worth so much more know­ing I have adhered to the 10 rules.
    Thank you for writ­ing them so well.
    gretchen buwalda recently posted..Cal­en­dar ArtMy Profile

    • Cheryl Trowbridge August 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

      Thank you, Gretchen! I really appre­ci­ate your encour­ag­ing words!

  12. Carrie December 20, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    You have put into words my daily chal­lenges. I’ve been teach­ing ele­men­tary art for 10 years now and most days I’m on a tread­mill, just try­ing to make it through the day. #9 is has been my focus this year! Thank you!! I am going to print this list out and put it on my desk ;)

  13. Romina January 12, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    Thank you so much!!!! Pow­er­ful tips. Muchas gra­cias desde ARgentina!!!
    Gra­cias por compartir!! ;)

  14. Ms. 718 May 31, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    I agree with all of these, but DO NOT under esti­mate the need for stu­dents to see a suc­cess­ful fin­ished art project that they pro­duced in the hall­way. Or the exter­nal pres­sure to do so in order to keep our jobs, espe­cially in this cli­mate of con­stant and exces­sive scrutiny of teach­ers. Good fin­ished art makes the dif­fer­ence between an “inef­fec­tive” rat­ing and a “devel­op­ing” and “effective”.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge May 31, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

      Yes, it’s so impor­tant for stu­dents to see their work dis­played and to hear pos­i­tive feed­back on it! And these dis­plays com­mu­ni­cate so much more than words alone ever could when it comes to advo­cacy for our pro­grams. Thanks for your input!

  15. Jenny Luan June 17, 2015 at 9:19 pm #

    great blog, I had bad teacher when i was young, quit draw­ing over 25 years.. Back to draw­ing now hope i dont make those mis­take when I’m teach­ing my kids how to draw

  16. Anthony Waichulis July 25, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    Thank you for your efforts here Ms. Trow­bridge. I have only just seen this arti­cle now as it was­re­cently shared on Face­book by a won­der­ful resource for art edu­ca­tion. And while I would agree that each sub­ject holds a some­what unique dynamic for infor­ma­tion delivery–visual “art” is often put robbed of its con­tri­bu­tions by being placed out­side of the same rig­ors for effec­tive devel­op­ment that we find else­where. I think as art edu­ca­tors we need to be care­ful as to how that (often well-intentioned) approach actu­ally affects a student’s devel­op­ment in the realm of visual lit­er­acy as well as how it shapes the future of arts edu­ca­tion. A 2007 NY Times arti­cle touched on this con­tin­u­ing dimin­ish­ment of art edu­ca­tion by means of reduc­ing it to mere col­lat­eral con­tri­bu­tions to other subjects:

    We feel we need to change the con­ver­sa­tion about the arts in this coun­try,” said Ms. Win­ner, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Boston Col­lege and a senior research asso­ciate at Project Zero. “These instru­men­tal argu­ments are going to doom the arts to fail­ure, because any super­in­ten­dent is going to say, ‘If the only rea­son I’m hav­ing art is to improve math, let’s just have more math…Do we want to there­fore say, ‘No singing,’ because singing didn’t lead to spa­tial improve­ment?” Ms. Win­ner added. “You get your­self in a bind there. The arts need to be val­ued for their own intrin­sic reasons.”

    With this in mind you can see how some ideas like “Focus­ing too much on the end result or fin­ished prod­uct. (After all, art is sub­jec­tive?)” can be prob­lem­atic. While this tip is actu­ally con­tra­dicted a bit later in the list, the idea can lead directly to the above men­tioned trap­pings. For example–put this is the con­text of a sub­ject like math-the instruc­tion “Don’t focus too much on the final prod­uct” becomes instantly prob­lem­atic as a suc­cess­ful goal to the activ­ity some­how becomes sec­ondary or even ter­tiary. If art is purely sub­jec­tive then there can be no qual­i­ta­tive assess­ments to be made and ulti­mately noth­ing to teach. This think­ing puts “art” into that dan­ger­ous and often-perpetuated amor­phous nature lead­ing to prob­lems iden­ti­fy­ing learn­ing out­comes and assess­ing devel­op­men­tal success.

    The idea that draw­ing or paint­ing directly into a student’s work can also be prob­lem­atic (not to men­tion con­tra­dict­ing tip #2) is also, well… prob­lem­atic. Imag­ine again for a sec­ond that this idea was deployed put into another sub­ject like math or his­tory in which a teacher would be pro­hib­ited from offer­ing directly imple­mented cor­rec­tion or informed aug­men­ta­tion into the pur­suit of a well-defined goal (i.e. test ques­tion or math prob­lem). Visual art is an activ­ity built on well-defined dynam­ics of visual per­cep­tion, visual infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing, fine motor con­trol, etc.. Trans­la­tions across modal­i­ties in devel­op­ment are def­i­nitely use­ful but to refrain from poten­tial error cor­rec­tion and informed aug­men­ta­tion directly into the con­text of a stu­dent effort can be a huge loss for the visual learn­ing process.

    Repeat­ing the same projects every year.” While rep­e­ti­tion may indeed seem stale for the teacher, remem­ber that it is the stu­dent that requires rep­e­ti­tion. One of the four essen­tial prop­er­ties of delib­er­ate prac­tice is that you should repeat­edly per­form the same or sim­i­lar tasks. You can see this at both micro and macro lev­els of any fruit­ful edu­ca­tional pro­gram. Again—“why are we revis­it­ing mul­ti­pli­ca­tion this year?–we did them last year.”

    There are visual spa­tial skills, visual Inte­gra­tion skills, supe­rior motor skills, etc..that can and should be effi­ciently and effec­tively devel­oped in an art class­room to yield visual lit­er­acy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills that will allow stu­dents to suc­cess­fully inter­act and con­tribute to a global envi­ron­ment that is increas­ingly depen­dent on visual stim­uli. Just some food for thought.

  17. Sarah September 19, 2015 at 5:52 am #

    I am in my 3rd year as an art teacher and some­thing my men­tor told me my first year really rings true and fits in with your list. It’s ok if your sam­ple work doesn’t look per­fect. Hav­ing a per­fect, mas­ter piece can be dis­heart­en­ing to the kids who are not artis­ti­cally inclined. Hav­ing a sam­ple piece that looks like one of them cre­ated it can be much more encour­ag­ing. She also told me not to be afraid to let the kids know your strug­gles and lim­i­ta­tions. I tell all my stu­dents right off the bat that draw­ing and real­ism are two areas I really strug­gle with, that I have to work a lit­tle harder to con­cen­trate when I’m draw­ing. This has not only taken some pres­sure off me, but makes the kids feel more at ease too.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge September 19, 2015 at 8:27 am #

      That’s such a good point, Sarah! My stu­dents love it when I make a mis­take dur­ing my demo! And show­ing humil­ity by shar­ing with them where we strug­gle rather than avoid­ing things that chal­lenge us sets a good exam­ple, too. Very few pro­fes­sional artists are experts in every medium.… most will spe­cial­ize in one or two areas. So why should we expect to be able to do it all per­fectly? Thanks so much for your comment!

  18. Shelley Williams September 26, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    Thank you so much for this list! I am a first year ART teacher (k-8) and just found out that my eighth graders have no idea what the pri­mary col­ors are! It is back to les­son plan­ning for me again, but I love my kids and want them to be ready for high school! I believe #10 is very important…I have a quote from Bob Ross hang­ing in the class­room, “We don’t make mis­takes, we just have happy lit­tle acci­dents”. I even hung it upside down to draw atten­tion to it, and the stu­dents enjoy let­ting me know about it every time they see it. It gives me an oppor­tu­nity to let them know it is okay to “mess up” every now and then.

    • Cheryl Trowbridge September 27, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

      I love your idea of hang­ing some­thing upside down to get stu­dents to notice it! Thanks for shar­ing that!!


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