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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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  1. 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!

    1. 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!!

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

      1. 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. 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.

  3. 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 :)

  4. 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

  5. Cheryl,
    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.

    1. 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!

      1. Great list! One of the things I like to do is use examples of work to show other students. “Look how xx used a range of value to create depth.” They just shine, particularly students who are struggling.

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

    1. 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!

  8. 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 ;)

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

  10. 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”.

    1. 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!

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    1. 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!

  14. 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.

  15. I’m so glad to find this list – I really agree with you, and feel strongly that these issues must be raised.

    For the past four years, I’ve been teaching “Wine and Canvas”- type art sessions. I’m not part of a franchise; I call my business “Paint & Party”.

    You’ve no doubt seen those photos of groups of adults who complete a single (identical) painting in an evening.

    My sessions are drastically different in that my painters’ paintings are individualized. I start out with information on using paint, then give the group basic instructions to set up the composition and establish the palette. And then I turn them loose! And I help them individually (but NEVER by painting on their paintings!!).

    The paintings these newbies make are fabulous! I’ve worked with over 2,500 people who’ve made delightful images in just brief sessions. They’re expressive in so many ways, with a great sense of balance and mood. It’s heartwarming to help people find their creative voices.

    What’s heartbreaking, though, is how many of them relate stories of being shamed and humiliated in art classes. I hear it constantly. People in their 20s, people in their 70s, it doesn’t matter the age. Huge numbers of people gained little knowledge in art classes beyond the message “you don’t belong.”

    I feel people are being robbed of a language. They’re being told the visual language is not theirs to speak.

    It’s no wonder funding for the arts is often cut.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Stacy! Your paint parties sound fantastic!! I, too, feel so sad when I hear people talk about the negative experiences they’ve had in art classes – experiences that in many cases caused them to abandon their interest in art and self-expression. I’m glad there are people like you out there working to counteract this damage that’s been done. Keep up the good work!!

  16. As a 27 year teaching veteran, I was skeptical when I opened this article and was pleased to read a down to earth list of teaching mistakes that is almost identical to my own. Your #10 is my #1. It has been my experience that these days more and more children are afraid (yes, afraid) to make mistakes. I purposely make mistakes on my example and then ask students ways to “fix it” without getting new paper. I also leave my example unfinished so students cannot copy me.
    Great article for all art teachers. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jill! Teaching kids to see mistakes as an avenue for learning will help them in every aspect of their lives. I love your idea of demonstrating mistakes and asking students for ideas for fixing them without starting over!

  17. Thanks so much for this article! I am guilty of a few, some of it I have been aware of knowing I need to change specific things. Only starting out having done only a few workshops so the timing of this article is just great!

    1. I’m glad this list was helpful to you, Patti! These are all things that art teachers can relate to, so you’re in good company if some of them hit close to home… I learned all of them the hard way!

  18. Thank you so much for the post! I am just starting to give art and graphic workshops with teenagers and I already LOVE IT SO MUCH that I am thinking of studying to become an art teacher and or therapist. I am already a graphic designer and social worker and pedagogue – so I find my ways right now ;) …but your list helped me a lot and I am very inspired to also make mistakes and succeed in art classes from now on.

    I mean if we teach students that it is okay to make mistakes – it is also okay if we make mistakes and learn form them.

    One mistakes I am also often making is – too little selfcare while working with humans in general.
    For example drinking, sitting down and resting shortly, even if it is stressful …
    and I made the mistake of not really knowing where to put the art supplies and coordinate how the students gets them. :) But I will try to make it better next time. :)

    Wish you all the best!

    1. Thank you so much for your very thoughtful comment, Helena! I’m so glad this post was helpful to you. We all make mistakes as we go, and then learn from them. There’s no way we could know all there is to know about teaching when we first go into it! But that’s what keeps it interesting and challenging. I hope you enjoy teaching Art… I think it’s the BEST job there is! :)