5 Simple Classroom Management Solutions for the H.S. Art Room

So much time is spent talking about high school pedagogy, student work, art shows, and everything else that comes with teaching older kids. Too often, though, we overlook (or are afraid to talk about) a huge aspect of teaching high school: Classroom Management.

We went to the AOE Facebook Page to ask our readers for their questions about managing the high school art room. Here are solutions to 5 of the most pressing questions.
High School Classroom Management

My question is about the age-old struggle with idle hands. I am yet to find a solution to fairly and meaningfully engage students who finish their work early. It’s great to have students intrinsically motivated to create for fun or practice, but that often isn’t the case. And in a high school setting, that downtime between projects can foster trouble. ~Deborah

My personal solution to this issue is to just not give them any down time. Every advanced class I teach has multiple projects happening at once (usually 3), plus weekly sketchbook assignments, plus a choice project they work on throughout the semester. Simply put, there is always something for kids to be doing.

If that seems overwhelming–for you or for your kids–just spend some time teaching about your expectations for what your kids should be doing. Pre-teach, post lists for them to see, and talk about what you need them to do; this could be additional drawing assignments, working on the 365-day drawing challenge, a Genius Hour project, or whatever else you think is meaningful and relevant to your students.

What do you do when there are just so many kids stuffed into your classes? ~Sloan

As the 37 kids in my 4th-hour class will tell you, no one really likes this situation. Kids don’t want to be with 5 people at a 4-person table or standing at a table in the back because you ran out of chairs. They don’t want to be fighting over supplies or climbing on each other to get anywhere (well, that one couple does, but that’s a subject for a different post). The solution? Empathize with the students.

By approaching the situation with a “we’re all in this together” mentality, I find kids are more willing to work with the less-than-ideal circumstances. I try to talk to every kid every day in my classes, even if it’s just a “How are ya?” as they come in the door. It’s important they don’t feel like they’re getting lost in the shuffle.

I thank them for their patience–both personally and as a class–when the sheer volume of people throws a wrench in things. And I subtly remind them that I need a little of their help when it comes to classroom management. Some examples of phrasing that I might use are below.

  • “I know it’s tough when this many of you need supplies, so let me explain this new setup.”
  • “Because we have so many people in here, I really need your attention during this demonstration.”
  • “I can’t watch over everyone’s shoulder when we are cleaning brushes. Make sure you are responsible, and hold your neighbors responsible too. These are materials we are all using, and we need to take care of them.”

It’s never going to be an ideal situation with huge classes, and you’re never going to get the one-on-one time you need to teach the way you want. But that doesn’t mean it’s unmanageable.

What about those kids who are not treating art like a “real” class? My students think since it’s not a STEM class, that it’s a study hall they can use to do their homework for more “important” classes. ~Melissa S.

This is one of the behaviors that falls under what a colleague and I refer to as the “Don’t Feed the Cat” management plan. What happens if you feed a stray cat? The cat comes back. Again. And again. And again. What happens if you let a kid do homework in your room? The homework comes back. Again. And again. And again. So don’t feed the cat–don’t let it happen in the first place.

If a kid comes in with homework, simply tell them it’s not an option to do other classes’ homework in the art room. Remind them of what they could/should be doing. If there’s nothing, find something, and make it meaningful; check out the ideas in the first answer above. If they refuse? Take whatever disciplinary action is appropriate in your mind. This is a simple phrase and a simple idea, but it can be repeated ad nauseam: “You do art when you are in the art room.” Nothing more needs to be said.

This is a simple phrase and a simple idea, but it can be repeated ad nauseam: “You do art when you are in the art room.” Nothing more needs to be said.


Students constantly talking and then unable to figure out directions …  ~Melissa M.

I’m pretty sure there is a special circle in hell where you are trying to present a lesson, but all you can hear the entire time is a neverending whispered side conversation. There’s nothing I hate more.

The solution in my room is that I simply don’t tolerate it. Waiting works, proximity works, calling them out works (as long as you’re not condescending). I once got a little hardheaded and waited out every side conversation with a terrible class–took me 34 minutes for an 8-minute demo. But we talked about it afterward, the reasons why it can’t happen, and how much time it wastes. The behavior was negligible for most of the rest of the semester.

Kids usually figure it out when you wait them out a couple of times, but if not, pull them away from class and make your expectations clear. Do it again if it persists. Add consequences if it’s necessary. Just do what you need to do so the behavior is minimized.

It may seem like you’re wasting a lot of time when you’re in the moment. But if you tackle the problem head-on at the beginning of the semester, you will save so much time throughout the course of the class. Take care of the problem early, and those actions will pay dividends for a long, long time.

CELL PHONES!!! AAAARRRGGGHHH!!!! ~Just about everyone who wrote in

Guess what, everyone?! Cell phones are here to stay, and as a teacher, there’s nothing you can do to stop that. The sooner we all accept that, I think the better off (and more relaxed) we will all be. Yes, you can create a “cell phone jail”, and post cute signs about no cell phone use, and lecture, and take away phones, and write referrals for students who don’t listen. Two questions for you, though: Is that really worth your time? Are you accomplishing anything more than creating spite and animosity coming at you from your students?

I think it’s more important to teach our students to use their phones responsibly. Yes, your kids might be texting. They might also be researching, blogging, bragging about their art or promoting their work (and, therefore, your art program) on social media. I will trust my kids in that regard because if they’re getting their work done on time, I honestly don’t see the problem. Have you ever answered a text while your kids are working? How long did it take? Did it affect your ability to do your job? For most of our kids, they can send a text more quickly than they can pick their nose or scratch their head–it’s not taking giant chunks of time out of their dayn social media.

I think it’s more important to teach our students to use their phones responsibly. Yes, your kids might be texting. They might also be researching, blogging, bragging about their art or promoting their work (and, therefore, your art program) on social media.

For those of you saying “but they’re on their phones all day!”, I have a news flash for you: those are the kids who are going to waste time with or without a phone in their hands. The phone is not the problem–the behavior is. So figure out how you would deal with any similar behavior–redirection, conversation, consequence, or whatever else–and go about it that way. The phone is an indication of the problem, not the problem itself. The sooner we realize and accept this, the better off our classrooms will be.

What are your questions about classroom management at the high school level?

What are your behavioral pet peeves?


Tim is a high school teacher from Omaha, NE. His teaching and writing focus on the development of creativity, problem-solving, and higher-order thinking skills.


  • Ms. P

    I love all of these responses. Especially in an Art 1 class, we end up being a big dumping ground as far as scheduling electives goes. I think I have about 5 in every class that do NOT want to be there, will not pay the art fee that is required of my class, and will do just about everything possible to make me aware of how miserable they are… except when we do abstract art… or calligraphy… or collage…

    Eventually you just figure out what pulls all the non-artists in and sprinkle some of that into every lesson. And eventually you learn to put all notes and slideshows and demos online so for Johnny who is always plugged into his phone listening to music and texting, has no excuse not to know the material and can be directed back to his phone to review if he has questions because he wasn’t present!

  • Tim is also presenting on this much needed topic at the Summer 2015 Online Conference: “When Your Classroom Manages Itself: Creating a Classroom Community that Shines” https://theartofeducation.edu/aoeconference/aoe-summer-2015-conference/

  • Jessica

    When I was in my 2nd year of teaching I got placed on a cart, and our school was over populated. I had 32 (6th, 7th, and 8th grade) students (mainly boys), my students had to sit on the floor as a table that was in the room broke and we lost places for them to sit. It was one of my largest classes but we got a lot done that trimester. We spent more time cleaning up since all we had was one tiny sink in the classroom, we hard to clean up by groups 4 students a time and start at least 10 minutes before the end of class. I would give a writing activity/reflection to answer each day so they had something to work on. My next largest class was a class of 40 Kindergartners, the only time I have ever been sent a para with a class unless there was a student who required a one on one para at ALL times. This class thankfully got split into two, but it took almost 2 months. We also got a lot done during that time and had a lot of fun.

    Now that I am just teaching middle school not K-8, I do have students who try to use my classroom as study hall. There are a few times since we have a strange schedule that I have allowed them to work on other assignments when they finish, but it is only when I tell them they can work on other work. Most students respect that and don’t even try. Some try and work during the last few seconds before the tardy bell rings. I remind them that this isn’t study hall and to put their work away. A few students who love to read and will sit and read while I’m giving instructions, I have taken their books away and given them back at the end of class. I’ve only had to do this maybe twice, after that they got the idea that my class wasn’t time for them to read.

  • Karen

    I teach 6 classes of Digital Photography (mostly Juniors and Seniors) and most of the students choose my class for their Fine Art Requirement. While I have to say 95% of them work diligently every day, when they finish work is when I have to be creative… Last year when every class in our school HAD to have a specific final exam and midterm (I always had a final project, and counted it in the 4th marking period AND as the Final Exam) I decided students would create a digital portfolio. They work on this portfolio all year for both their midterm and final exam (we use Weebly.com). I use this portfolio in between projects to give students something to do when they are done. I regularly update what needs to go into the portfolio and give them pieces of the artist statement prompt as the year progresses. So when they are done, they must update their Weebly portfolio and can work on their artist statement. At this point in the year, students must also go back and update or improve several pieces of their work, and they can work on this as soon as they finish current work. This also helps keep what we call “The Digital Scramble” (at the end of the year when they are scrambling to get their portfolio done) as more of a “Digital Stroll”.

    I also ask students who are done for favors: ie: artwork to be put up in the hallway, updating bulletin boards with artwork around the school, taking a walk to deliver something to another teacher or the main office, etc. I always give them the option of doing some work for another class, or to help me, and 9 out of 10 times they opt to help me. It is always a lifesaver and often I’ll let my students choose the work that hangs in the hallway.

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  • lchavez

    Cell phones are my largest problem. I do a let them use the phone to research or look up ideas when drawing, but must change the image to make it their own. Then again there are those that are stuck to the cell like glue, I find it helpful to call the parent and let them know its a issue before I write up the student for the behavior.

  • lchavez

    One of my students was telling me about a program, that they use there phones to key in the answer to questions, from the teacher. It sounds beneficial and would help as a quiz or test to keep, up where they are.

    • Valerie Purcell

      I recently spent a couple days in HS Art classes (observing for my own Art Cert) & they use they use the students’ tech in class through Quizlet, QR Codes for instructions/demos, and create links to get the students to sign up for different things — this time it happened to be for who was bringing what small item for a last day of school treat. I wrote down every cool educational-tech tool (& am going to learn all the Google classroom stuff) now and use their cell phones to accomplish my teaching goals.

  • victoria wylie

    What about those of us who don’t teach ‘advanced’ classes in art. I teach Introduction to Visual Art class/ Humanities that is focused on visual art – these kids don’t want to be in my class, have no interest in art but they have to have that 1 credit for art to graduate. It’s very frustrating. So many self-defeating attitudes – unwillingness to try new things for fear of not ‘being good’ at something. It’s very frustrating for me and them. I work very hard to try to get their input about projects and interests but many times they don’t know what they like and would rather just talk or be on their phones.
    I’m feeling like a babysitter, not a teacher. This is only my 5th year teaching and I’m feeling like this is my last year.

    • Abby Schukei

      Hi Victoria,

      It can often be frustrating for those students that HAVE to be in your class rather than wanting to be there. You might find this article helpful. https://theartofeducation.edu/2017/01/02/essential-steps-turn-art-one-students-artists/ Best of luck to you!

    • Shelley Moye Olds

      I have been teaching for 23 years and I will tell you that if you teach a subject that most of the kids need to take to graduate rather than Wanting to Be there, you need to change your curriculum and approach all together. The curriculum has to meet the state standards but it needs to be Fun and Exciting! Find the most fun projects that you can find and go with it. Let the students choose subjects that they are interested it. Teach them how to make cool things out of clay and when you glaze the pieces, show them how to make cool effects with glazes like adding dawn dish soap to watered down glaze, blow with a straw and create bubbles. Dip the piece into a white glaze first, let dry a few minutes, then add the bubbles to the pot by scooping them up with your hand and putting them on the piece. Fire that piece and the kids will love it. Make a pinch pot and put glass or marbles inside and stick it in a high-fire. It will turn out amazing. Teach them how to paint with Batik’s. These are just a few examples of fun, engaging projects that keep kids interested and will make them Love art. Don’t forget to incorporate the standards and integrate Art History along the way.

  • Brooke Shockey

    I understand your comments on cell phones, and for some students those strategies may work and the majority of us would agree that if work is getting done on time phones are not an issue. But the simple fact is that many teachers have issues with their students NOT getting art work done on time because they are wasting class time using their phones inappropriately. Regardless, if they really want to blog, text or whatever, they should be doing that on their own time, not while they are supposed to be “elbows deep” in clay, paint, charcoal, or other art making (or even worse, listening to their teacher). Phones are a useful tool, yes, but not one that is helpful, appropriate or acceptable to use for completing many of the tasks we give our students in the art room. You are right that the behavior – not the phone – is the problem. But the phone is an enabler for the behavior, and if the behavior is a strongly established habit, how would you redirect a habit when you see those students for so little of the day, and not even every day? For most schools and employers, it is the temporary restriction from or removal of the enabler.

    I believe technology integration is important and use it in my room, but I don’t think that cell phones are an ideal answer to that goal. Smartphones can be set up for productivity, but they are also powerful entertainment devices, and that is the crux of this whole conundrum. Many research efforts have concluded, in many cases, that cellular smartphone use has generally made people of all ages more unproductive, non-creative and antisocial than not. Statistics are all over the internet. Here is just one: http://www.careerbuilder.com/share/aboutus/pressreleasesdetail.aspx?sd=6%2F9%2F2016&id=pr954&ed=12%2F31%2F2016

    I own a smartphone, but I do not use it while I have kids in my room, and avoid it when I need to be productive, along with my emails. They simply suck up too much precious time that I could be using better elsewhere. The texts, updates, emails, and notifications can wait until lunch or at the end of the day. That is the rule in most workplaces, and if we are preparing kids for the workplace, I think we need to be careful about the habits we actively model and try to shape in them as their teachers.

  • Krista L Nix-Buckner

    This was awesome! Pragmatic and helpful!