Professional Practice

10 Things I Wish I Had Known My First Year (Ep. 028)

No matter how long you have been in the classroom, there are still times when you feel like a first year teacher. In this episode, Cassie talks about what she wishes she had known during her first year, and how that advice can help you at every point in your teaching career. Listen as she covers what you absolutely can’t do (7:00), how to respond to the overwhelming number of requests (11:30), and why you need to find a teaching ally (17:45). Full episode transcript below.


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I’m well aware that nearly every time I hop on this podcast and chat with y’all, that I almost always share a little story or a nugget from my first year teaching. I think that I do that because it’s burned into my brain and also despite the fact that I’ve been teaching for 18 years, I still feel like a new art teacher. I mean, maybe … I’m certain I’m not alone in this. I know you art teachers with years experience under your belt have got to feel this way too. That there’s just still so much to learn about teaching our students. There’s just so much that we can improve upon as teachers. So I was thinking, since I talk about my first year teaching so much, since it’s burned into my brain, why not share the things that I wish I would have known as a first-year teacher? So today let’s talk about it. I’m going to be sharing with you the top 10 things that I wish I had known my first year teaching art. This is Cassie Stevens and this is Everyday Art Room.

Okay, I totally lied. I said it was going to be my top 10 things that I wish I’d known. I’m actually going to squeeze in like 15 things and cram it down into about 10 things because there’s really so many things that I wish I had known. If only I could take 1998, first-year art teacher in a portable, Cassie out to coffee back in the day when there weren’t Starbucks on every corner. Where would we have gone? McDonald’s? And just looked myself in the eye, shaken my shoulders maybe a couple of times and said, “Girl, these are the things that you need to know.” So I’m going to share with you today and I know I’m going to leave some things off of my list, so I would love to hear from you all. What would you have told yourself that first year teaching art? And hopefully that will help the newbies out there, and like me, the people who feel like a newbie despite the years under my belt.

So I’m going to start with thing number one, what I think is the most important thing that I wish I had known my first year teaching art, and that is you have got to nail down classroom management. If you do not nail down classroom management, then you might as well just kiss the rest of the year and your sanity goodbye. Now that’s way easier said than done. So what advice would I have given myself and what do I give to newbie teachers? My best advice that I can think of is to seek out a teacher in your building. Somebody who you’ve noticed when they bring their students to your art room, or pick them up, that they really have a solid control of their class. The students are responding well to them. They respect them. They do as they are asked. They are in turn respectful to you, because they’ve been taught by this person how to quote, “do school.” How to behave in school.

And I’ve had a lot of teachers over the years where I have really admired their classroom management. And when I approach them about advice or even sitting in on their classroom, I’ve always had a really great response and I’ve always learned so much. So as a first-year teacher, and a person who needs to get a handle on their classroom management, even if you do have a handle on it, there’s still so much that you can learn just be seeing a different person’s approach. If you’re not comfortable with doing that, or perhaps you need a different point of view, because after all you are an art teacher, so if things look a little bit different in your universe, you might want to look into some books on classroom management. Because those books, ones that speak directly to teaching art or specials classes, those can really be helpful for you.

And I know The Art of Ed has a lot of articles on their website about great resources for classroom management, and books as well, that you might want to check out. But that is the key to success right there. Locking down that classroom management. In fact, and now I’m talking about it a lot because it is so important, I have shared on this podcast a couple of episodes about things that I do in my art room classroom management-wise. So if you’re wanting to even go back and refresh your memory or take a listen if you haven’t yet, be sure and give those podcasts a listen because I think that they’ll really help you if you need it in your elementary art room.

All right, so thing number two. As a first-year teacher, I think I just kind of instinctly knew this, and I’ll share why with you in just a moment. But make sure that you befriend your custodians. They are your real true ally as an art teacher. My first year teaching I taught in a portable, and obviously in a portable I’m detached from the school. And it wasn’t just a physical detachment, it was an emotional one as well. I never saw those classroom teachers. They stood at the building, waved their students on to me, and then I waved as I sent the students back toward them at the end of art class. I mean, the only person who ever set foot in my art room portable, aside from me and the kids, was Mr. Samuel, my custodian buddy. And he and I became very tight.

And now that I’m at my new school, or not new school but a different school, my custodian buddy Mr. Joe is my BFF. And he has helped me out tremendously. Helps me hang displays, keeps my sinks sparkling clean, puts together bookshelves. I mean, the guy will do anything because I’ve built a relationship. He’s a great guy, and custodians have one of the most underappreciated jobs out there. If you show these folks that you do appreciate them, and appreciate all that they do for your students and for your school, then they will in turn for the most part really go out of their way to help you out. So make sure that you really befriend those custodians, and do right by them so that they make sure to do right by you.

Alright, so thing number three. This one is a doozy. Remember how I said I’m actually going to squeeze in more than just 10 things? Well, here you go. Here’s where I’m going to pack in several nuggets that I wish I’d known my first year teaching. Let’s talk about all the things that you as an art teacher are not. Thing number one that you are not: you are not Hobby Lobby. You are not the school craft store. So when teachers come to your art room, asking for art supplies, be really careful about just doling out those containers of glitter, and paint, and paintbrushes. Because the next thing you know, your supplies are going to start dwindling. And your students need that, that’s your tool for teaching art.

So despite the fact that those teachers might give you a cranky look, or talk a little smack about you for not sharing your supplies, those supplies are not school craft supplies. Those supplies are for your students’ art education. If my fellow teachers come to me and they ask me for supplies, usually if they give me a heads up or a fair amount of time, I will usually be generous and share if I have the resources to do so. But if I get a student who walks into my room while I’m teaching, with a note from the teacher that just says, “I need 25 paintbrushes.” Well, then I just say, “I’m so sorry, friend, I can’t help you right now.” And send them on their merry way.

So, just keep that in mind. You don’t want to start off your first year teaching being taken advantage of and seeing your resources dwindling. Here’s another thing you are not. You are not support staff. You were hired as the art educator in your building. A person who has a curriculum that needs to be taught. So when teachers come to you and they want you to do a really cutesy craft project that they saw on Pinterest, well that’s all well and good. However, I have a curriculum to teach, so unfortunately unless I have the time, and unless I have the means of making this actually tie in to my curriculum, I can’t help you out. And don’t feel bad about saying that. Like I said, you were hired as the art education expert. That’s your job, not to make cute little things for a teacher to hang outside their door.

Here’s another thing you are not, and I really got taken advantage of this my first couple of years teaching. So make sure you really put your foot down about this one. You are not the school sign maker. Oh my word, y’all. I said yes to one first grade teacher my first year teaching, I don’t even know what the sign was that I made, and the next thing you know I was cranking out signs for everybody on that first grade team. I pretty much put an end to that, and when I came to my new school I just said that I don’t do those things. I have really bad handwriting, is what I would tell people, even though I pride myself on my beautiful penmanship. Now, every now and then I’ll do a teacher a favor, but I’ll tell you a little secret. If I do a poster or create something for a teacher, I always tell that teacher, I make them pinkie swear and spit shake that they don’t tell a single soul who made that poster for them.

Because I don’t want my door being beaten down by other teachers asking for the same. So keep that in mind. You have a limited amount of time, so spend it really wisely. Your time is just as valuable as anybody else’s in the building. Remember that when people come and ask for your time, for things like a cutesy poster. And also, remember, you are not a pushover. And I say that because that is my daily affirmation that I have to say every morning. You guys, I am the biggest pushover you will ever know. Not telling you all the things that you are not when, let me just say, I have to say that to myself every single morning. Because if anybody asks me to anything, my knee jerk reaction, just being a Midwestern gal that I am, is to say yes because I was raised think that to say no is not nice.

Guys, it’s fine. You can say no. In fact, my husband shared with me an email that he sends to people when he is asked to do something and he doesn’t have the time to do it, or just doesn’t want to. So if you get, let’s say a request to make a sign or a poster. Here’s how you can respond in email form or just face to face, I suppose. “Thank you for your kind offer. I would like to politely decline.” What? It’s that easy? You guys, when he shared that with me, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that email and it’s worked beautifully. My apologies if you’ve ever gotten that email from me. But I was really busy doing other things, like probably needle felting.

Alright, now moving on, let’s talk about some other things that I wish I’d known. How about this one? Please, for the love, before you teach anything to your students make sure that you test out all of your projects first. Test it out, because you want to make sure you’re troubleshooting any errors or stumbling blocks you might find that your students will encounter when creating. It’s not that you’re making an example, that you’re gunna hold your students accountable to or for. I mean, when I create an example, I hang it up as a part of my I can board because it’s something I’m required to do. But I don’t point it out to my students and say, “This is what I want your end product to look like.” I mean, what kind of message would that be as an art teacher to send our students?

But, one of the beautiful things about creating an example is knowing all the hiccups that your students might encounter so that you can troubleshoot all of those, making your lesson even more successful. Here is something that is very important that you’re going to learn only with time. Do not sweat the verbiage, the educational jargon. Let me just tell you, I’ve been teaching for a really long time and there’s always a new set of vocabulary, the buzz words everybody’s using, that if you just aren’t doing XYZ in your art room then you might as well just retire, ’cause you’re a failure as a teacher. Guys, let me just say, there’s always something. THere’s always some new-fangled way that you should be teaching your students.

Here’s my advice. It’s important to go out and explore all those different avenues, and to have knowledge about all the different ways that teachers are educating their students in an art room. However, it can be very overwhelming. One of the best things that you can do is teach from your gut. Do what you are comfortable with, and what you find your students really responding to. A lot of times on my YouTube channel, I will share videos of myself teaching my students. When I teach my younger students, I’m kind of if you can imagine this, theatrical. It’s what works for me, it’s what works for my students, I enjoy doing it and we have a good time. But, honestly it’s not for everybody. I’ve had a lot of peoples leave comments and say, “I’m not dramatic, I could never do this, this is just too much for me.” And that’s fine. I think it’s important to try things on for size, but also to do what you’re comfortable with, because what makes you at ease is going to make you a much happier art teacher.

And when you are you’re happiest, most comfortable, that’s when you’re doing your best and your students are really learning and engaged. So, all that to say, there’s always going to be some new fancy, fangled terminology and buzzword and way to go about teaching kids. When you start to get lost in the muck, just think back to what works best for you and you stick with that. Alright, here’s something that is really important, that I don’t think I realized was actually a thing until I joined the workforce in a school. When you become a teacher, you’re working with a lot of other women. And there’s one thing I’ve noticed when working with a lot of other women. Sometimes it can be like junior high all over again if you allow yourself to get caught up in it.

Knowing that, I choose to stay in my room a lot. I mean, as an art teacher you guys know we’re super busy. There’s hardly any time to escape the art room and go buzz around and even visit other teachers. And I think that’s probably a good thing. It’s a good thing because you want to keep the peace. Keep the peace, and surround yourself with other teachers in your building who are positive. Steer clear of the teachers in your building who you find to be a little negative, who perhaps are more on the gossipy side, and maybe are even what I call pot stirrers. The people who are always on the lookout for some pot to stir, for some kind of drama to kick up.

Steer clear of those folks, keep to your own, find the buddies who really are positive, are gunna be a positive influence on your teaching and on your students and on your life, and keep the peace. And I don’t know if I’ve even hit number 10, but I do have a couple more so I’m just gunna keep on going. Something that kind of goes along the same lines of keeping the peace and surrounding yourself with those positive people in your building is seeking out a mentor. At my current school, when I first started there, I was assigned a mentor and it wasn’t really a good fit, because it was the PE teacher, and she and I had we’ll just say different thoughts about how to approach teaching children.

But anyway, it’s important to find a really solid ally, a person who you admire as a teacher and use that person as a sounding board. It doesn’t have to be an art teacher, it can just be somebody who you really respect. You’ve noticed like I said earlier that their students are perhaps always responding well to them, and well behaved, and very respectful kiddos, and that person can be your mentor. And can really help you grow as not just an art teacher, but as a teacher. One thing that I think is really important, and I learned this the hard way my first couple of years teaching, is this.

It’s really important to still be creating. So, what I did my first couple of years teaching was I looked into classes that were being taught locally. In fact the parks center had a clay class and, knowing that clay was not my strong suit, I had not taken a single clay class in college and yet I was expected to teach it, I took several clay classes. I would drive over to the local parks in Nashville, after school, and would spend a couple hours once a week with retired women, and we would just work in clay. I learned how to hand build, I learned how to throw on the wheel, and it was fabulous. And it really allowed me time to unwind while still creating. I think that’s really important.

If you live in a place, however, that doesn’t offer classes nearby, consider taking an online class. There’s several websites that offer a variety of creative classes that I think that you would really enjoy. And when you have the chance to kind of have that creative release, you relax a bit and you remember what makes teaching art, and just creating, so fun. And I think that will make you an even better teacher. It will definitely make you a happier one. Another tip I would give myself as first year teacher is to make sure to get lots of rest. In fact, I remember not having any issues with that as a first year teacher. I got plenty of sleep.

I remember going to sleep at 8:30 to 9:00 every night. I think I was just exhausted by how mentally challenging it is. Here’s something that I’d never done before, I had no idea what I was doing. Still don’t. And I was beat. So make sure to listen to your body, and make sure to get plenty of rest. And definitely, do not hesitate to take a mental health day. Trust me on that one. You can thank me later. And last but not least, I think it’s very important to reach out to other art teachers and to stay connected. That was something that I didn’t do, as a first year teacher. I mean, in 1998 there were no art education blogs that I’m even aware of. Not that I knew about.

There were no other art teachers that I necessarily knew about, to kind of connect with and hang out with. I wish that I would’ve made more of a point to seek out other people, and other teachers, and go to conferences when I’d first started teaching. I think it would’ve really helped me quite a bit. Now I really have a solid group of art teachers. Now, of course, it’s a lot easier to stay connected because you can simply go on Instagram and connect with other art teachers that way, or the fabulous Facebook groups can really help you connect with other art teachers. And of course, going to your state conference, national conference, even AOE’s online conference will help you connect with other teachers.

That was a lot more than 10, in fact you might have noticed I stopped counting. But I hope that those tips resonate with you, no matter if you’re a first year teacher or a highly experienced one like myself. Thanks guys so much for letting me share the top 10 plus things that I wish I had known as a first year teacher.

Tim: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz, the host of Art Ed Radio. Thank you for tuning in to Everyday Art Room. If you’re looking for graduate credits in the next few months, make sure you check out under the courses tab. We offer over 20 online courses, designed to help art teachers at every stage of their professional career. Whether you’re looking to develop a new art curriculum, get help with classroom fundamentals, incorporate new technology into the classroom, or just brush up on your own art making skills, we’ve got the course for you. Our online graduate courses are practical, relevant, and highly engaging. They’re also fully accredited, and perfect for relicensure, logging hours, or earning credits toward your master’s degree. Again, you can check out everything related to these courses at Now let’s turn it back over to Cassie as she finishes the show.

Cassie: And now it’s time to take a little dip into the mail bag. This first question comes from Jamie. Jamie says, “I was wondering if you have any advice for me as a new teacher.” Well, Jamie I hope that this podcast has provided some advice for you in that respect. She goes on, she’s got a couple more questions. She asks, “Do you do art centers or free choice art projects? And if so, how do you set them up?” I don’t have a lot of free choice projects and art centers per se. I do have what I refer to as early finisher activities, which is basically the same thing. It’s just that after my students have finished the current project or lesson at hand, if they still have time, they can go to some of my early finisher centers.

And in fact, I have a podcast that kind of details all about how my students go about going to those centers, knowing which centers they can go to based on their behavior, how much time that they have at each center, etc. Some of the centers that I do have currently, and I’m working on expanding that because like you, I love the idea of having free choice for my students. Currently I have what I call the blocks area, and in my blocks area I have bins of wooden blocks, I have other constructive … They’re called bristle blocks. I have some that … Just basically like a building center.

I have about six different tubs of building blocks that all of my students can use if they decide to go to the blocks center. On the front of each tub, it tells the kids how much time they need to have allotted left in art class, meaning if they have 10 minutes left that they can use this particular set of blocks. And it also lets them know how many students can use a particular bin of block at a time, because let’s be honest, 10 kids using one bin of blocks is going to be mayhem. So I do have a blocks center, and all of those kind of things I purchased over the years at the thrift store, so be on the lookout when you hit garage sales and the thrift store.

I have a drawing center, where I have all of my how to draw books. A great resource for drawing books is Dover Publishing, they sell drawing books for very, very cheap and they’re simple for my students to follow. I have another bin that my students love, which is origami. Dover sells an easy origami book. All I’ve done is I’ve cut all the pages out of that book, laminated them, and thrown it into a bin with a bunch of origami paper. I also have several other bins like a fashion plates bin and a spirograph bin that my students are able to use in the drawing center, as well as mannequins, and mirrors, and a basket of dinosaurs if they feel like doing observational drawing.

I have a light table, and I allow my students to go to the light table, and I’m currently working on building a fibers early finishers center with the looms and different kind of things like that that I’ve found at the thrift store. So hopefully that helps you get more of an idea of how I personally do kind of a free choice area. I just call it my early finishers area. She also asks, “Do you have a curriculum that you use or curriculum map?” I use the National Arts Standards, and the Tennessee Arts Standards, as kind of like my ground work, however I am the kind of art teacher that doesn’t necessarily map out my entire year.

I have a general idea of what we’re going to be creating, based on my supplies, my materials. For example, the beginning of the year I know we’re going to do a lot of two dimensional projects, a lot of painting, and a lot of collage work. I know that come winter we start to slowly ease into our fiber arts and textiles. After winter break, we’re usually doing some, like I said, weaving and sewing kind of projects. In the spring, we do a lot of clay, we also do a lot of three dimensional projects. And then, near the end of the school year, when we’re preparing for our art show, we kind of return to two dimensional projects. Just because that way it’s a little bit for my sanity’s sake.

We’re doing something a little bit easier so that we can prepare for the school wide art show. So that’s kind of like my quote “map,” I kind of map things out based on what materials we’re going to use. As far as the lessons we’re doing, I usually try to think of a theme, and have that tie into the projects that we’re doing, based on those materials. So I know that there are great curriculum maps out there, and I think as a first year teacher you would definitely benefit from having a curriculum map. Once you get more advanced, then you can be a lot more loose and relaxed, I guess, with your map. Meaning, you don’t have to have such a hard and fast curriculum that you’re following.

I hope that helps, Jamie, and I really hope that this episode today has helped you as a first year teacher. So thank you so much for sending questions, and if any of you guys want to send a question my way, please feel free to do so. You can find me at Okay, so what did I miss? Come on, you veteran teachers out there. What gem of advice, what nugget would you travel back in time to share with yourself? I know I’ve missed something. One thing I definitely didn’t really emphasize, I know I mentioned it, is taking that mental health day. I know that there were a couple of times my first year teaching when I would come home, in tears, exhausted and not having any idea what I was going to teach the next day.

And I remember my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, who had in his previous life been a music teacher said to me, “Take tomorrow off. Just relax, enjoy your day and then figure out what you’re going to do when you go back to school.” And that’s what I did. I remember I spent the day painting, I came up with a fun lesson that I was excited to share with my students, and I went back to school that following day refreshed, and excited, and relaxed. And like I said earlier, when you feel comfortable, relaxed, and you’re teaching in the way that feels most comfortable to you, that’s when you do your best. That’s when your students are going to respond, and that’s what you need to really listen to, remember, and stick with.

Alright that was a lot, and I do believe I have talked to you enough. So thank you so much for joining me today for this episode of Everyday Art Room. Chat with you guys soon.


Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.