Professional Practice

5 Ways to Reassert Yourself as an Artist (Ep. 079)

What happens when we don’t do art on a regular basis? Does that make us less successful as an art teacher? Absolutely not, says Cassie. But at the same time, we should still be creating and working to improve both as an artist and as a teacher. In this episode, she discusses why you need to spend some time creating work, why and how you need to improve as an artist, and how to take advantage of your PD opportunities.  Full episode transcript below.

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Cassie: It seems lately I’ve been getting the question, “What do I do if I’m not good at art? What do I do if I’m not good at art and I want to be an art teacher? What do I do if I’m not good at art and I am an art teacher? Does that make me a bad art teacher?” I’ve gotten this question a lot lately. I can tell it’s on many people’s minds, and I thought it would be an interesting chat today.

It brings me or puts me in the mind of a podcast I recorded many moons ago that was titled The Biggest Lie that I was Told in College. When I was in college, I was actually getting my painting degree first, and then I, later on, came about to getting my ed degree. That’s a long story. You should listen to that podcast episode for the full details. But when I was pursuing both a BFA in painting and my art ed degree, I was fed the biggest lie ever in college, and that lie was that I had to pick a side. I had to decide did I want to be an artist or did I want to be an educator, because I was led to believe that I couldn’t be both. I thought that I had to pick a side.

I think many of us, when we decided to become an art teacher and when we started teaching, our focus has become on the educational side, and we’ve let that become our priority. Unfortunately for us, because of time and because teaching art is what we do for our job and we’re getting paid, so of course it should be our priority, we’ve let a little bit of our art-making and our creating slide. With that slide probably goes our confidence level as an artist.

Let’s chat about this today. Let’s talk about just, first of all, getting rid of that notion that you’re not an artist, because trust me, you are, but also how that plays into us being an art teacher. I’m Cassie Stephens, and this is Everyday Art Room.

So, I made a list. I love lists. Do you guys love lists? I am such a lister. My list today includes five things, the five things that you need to do to break out of that whole “I’m not an artist, but I am an art teacher” or “I want to be an art teacher” kind of mindset. So first of all, at the very tippy top of my list, I wrote it out in all capital letters with a couple of exclamation points, stop the negative talk. Telling yourself, “I’m not good at art. I’m not good at drawing. I’m terrible at this, that, or the other,” is so counterproductive. It’s never going to make you feel any better. It’s definitely not going to make you get any better because you’re always going to have this nagging voice in your head telling you that you’re not good, that you’re not good enough, that maybe you’re comparing yourself to other art teachers or artists that you see and you need to stop. Stop that right meow. That’s not a mindset that we even want to have as art teachers.

I mean, think about it. If you had a student in your class or, if you’re thinking about becoming an art teacher, in your future art class, and that student said, “I’m not good at drawing. I’m not good at art. I’m terrible at painting. I’m miserable at this weaving,” what would you say to them? You wouldn’t say, “Yeah, true. You should probably give it up now. I mean, I know you’re only in first grade, but man, you are miserable with that pencil and paper.” Of course, you would never say that.

As a teacher who’s going to motivate and inspire, or who does that every day, children and who reminds them that learning how to create is just like learning how to ride a bike or learning how to solve a math problem, it takes practice. Some people are lucky. It comes easily. Other people, we’ve got to work a little bit harder. So, knowing that that negative talk is counterproductive and knowing that it’s something that you would never encourage in your art room means that you’ve got to stop it right now. So, kick that to the curb. It’s out the window.

Thing number two, being an “artist”, being good at art. That was also in quotes. I’m doing air quotes as I speak to you. I’m sure you can see them. All of that is so relative. It’s so relative. I mean, if you do a Google search right now on the most famous artists, the hottest artist of the scene in New York City right now, you’d probably be appalled at what is passing for high art right now. I just saw a show on Netflix, which I’m not going to recommend because I didn’t love it, but it was all about the art world and it just painted this miserable picture of how it’s all about the money and who’s got a big name right now. It’s all relative.

So if you’re telling yourself that you’re not good at this, that, or the other, just know that you are good at something. There is something brought you to loving art, to love it so much that you want to teach it, teach it to kids, teach it to middle schoolers, teach it to anybody who’s willing to listen. So, what was that? Maybe for you, it wasn’t a matter of creating. Perhaps your interest was more in art history and that gets you very excited and you want to share that with your students, or perhaps it’s a specific medium, or simply working with children and watching them fall in love with the creating process. That is your art form. That is what you’re good at. And if you can channel that kind of passion, then, and follow that wherever it takes you as an art teacher, then I think you’ll start to lighten up a loosen up and be a little bit kinder to yourself.

You have to teach from your passion. Simply because you cannot draw a realistic portrait doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t become an art teacher, or be an art teacher, or that you can’t be as good or even better of an art teacher as the person who can draw really, really well. It’s all relative.

Thing number three, now, having said what I just said, that maybe you feel as though you’re not good at drawing or whatever and you should follow your passion, I still don’t think that that should be an excuse not for you to improve, and to learn, and to get better. So, I always encourage people to take as many classes as they can, especially where you feel that you are a little bit weaker in a subject.

When I first moved to Nashville 20 years ago and became an art teacher, I had never taken any printmaking classes in college and I had never taken any ceramics classes in college. So, I obviously was really lacking in those things. And these were things that I was supposed to be educated on enough to teach. So, the first thing I did was I started taking a clay class. Once a week, I would drive into Nashville and for two hours every night, I would just learn how to work with clay, learn what I could do, what I shouldn’t do, how to fire a kiln. I made so many little clay projects, and it wasn’t clay pieces that I was making as examples for me to share with my students. Because honestly, I wasn’t even there yet. I was just creating to make something, anything, just to get my hands on the medium to understand how it works enough that I could start to teach it to my students.

I also started taking some PD classes, some professional development courses on clay. I sought out a clay expert in my town, who is Danielle McDaniel, aka The Clay Lady. If you ever have any questions about clay, definitely Google search this woman. She is phenomenal. She is my clay guru. I learned so much by taking a PD from her, from an expert in clay.

When it came to printmaking, whenever the fall conference time would roll around, I always made sure to be the first to sign up. I would always sign up for those classes where I definitely felt a weakness. I never signed up for something where I felt a strength because I mean, what would be the point of that? It would be fun, of course, but definitely not worth my time and worth my students’ time when I got back to share that information with them.

I will tell you this, and you might experience this, too. I always have a high level of anxiety whenever I do take classes, especially PD classes when I’m around other art teachers. That’s because it all starts coming back to me, my lack of confidence in college and certain art classes, like sculpture.

I’ve always been … I shouldn’t even say that I’ve always been miserable at sculpture because what did I just say? No negative talk. Sculpture’s always been a little bit difficult for me, shall we say. I’m more of a two-dimensional kind of gal. But whenever I take these PD classes, there’s a high level of stress there for me because some people creating just come so beautifully and naturally for them. I’m a slow processor, a slow thinker. And if you have that anxiety, too, where it kind of stresses you out, just take a deep breath and think of it as you’re learning right here. You can take what you learn in these classes and then do more of the creating on your own at home. Knowing that really helps put that anxiety at bay for me.

Here’s a funny story. Speaking of signing up for classes, I decided one time to sign up for an abstract painting class because when I took painting in college I was a realistic painter and abstract painting has always just boggled my mind. I remember I took this class at our fall conference. It was a two-day abstract painting class, and I was trying my hardest to paint abstractly. But, I was, I guess, maybe overthinking it. I remember the instructor saying, “Don’t worry. Let it go. Anybody can paint abstractly.” This is how she kicked off the session. “Everybody has an abstract artist within them.” You guys, it turns out except for me.

I will never forget when that instructor walked behind me to look at my painting and laughed at my painting, put her arm on my shoulder and said, “Well, not all of us are abstract painters.” You guys, I was mortified. Everybody in the class kind of chuckled and I was humiliated. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh. I’m not an abstract painter. What? I can’t do this. I can’t do what she said everybody can do?” But, I put it out in my mind and I thought, “Forget that lady. I’m here to explore. I’m going to try to figure this out so that I can bring this back to my students.”

So, I’m telling you that story because perhaps you have that feeling of not being good enough because maybe you’ve been in a class surrounded by people who immediately get it or where the instructor told you something negative about what you were doing. Just know that all of these things take time to learn. Everything takes so much time to learn. Some things are going to come easily. Some things are always going to be a struggle. Art, of course, is not any different.

So, my other bit of advice, number four on my list, is once you’ve taken those classes or maybe you live in a place where just taking a class isn’t even an option, try hopping on YouTube. Try taking some AOE courses. With the internet, there are so many options. So really, saying that you don’t have an option is BS. I’m calling BS on that because there are so many places online where you can take classes, but you’ve got to make sure to carve out the time. I think that’s a really big thing.

When I first started teaching and I had that mindset that I had to pick between being an art teacher and an educator, I dove into being an educator. I thought these people are paying me cash money every day to come in and teach these kids, so I’m going to spend every moment free making sure that my lessons are good, that they make sense, that my kids can do these things, and crafting projects for them. But what I wasn’t doing was I wasn’t creating. I spent, I would say, the first 10 years of my teaching career not creating anything for myself. That was a pretty miserable time. I remember hitting a real hardcore burnout around year seven like something was desperately missing. It was because I wasn’t creating.

When I decided to start pushing myself and forcing myself to create, it was really hard. I was so rusty, which led to me feeling very insecure. And I didn’t even know what I wanted to make. I remember buying paints, and canvas, and drawing out a still life, and being like, “What am I doing? I don’t want to make a still life. I don’t know what I want to make, but I know I don’t want to do this.” But I will say it got easier.

Creating, as I’ve said before, is like a ball in motion. Once it’s in motion, it stays in motion. The hardest part is getting that ball to actually start moving, especially when you’ve walked away from it and you’ve been away from it for so long. So, know that if you have let your creative juices dry up, it’s going to be a struggle, in the beginning, to really get motivated again, to really push yourself. But once you do, then the ideas are going to start coming to you and it’s like a ball rolling down a hill. It’s going to start coming faster and faster. It’ll get easier for you to have ideas. And hopefully, it’ll get easier for you to start doing whatever it is you feel that there’s a weakness if that’s what you decide to pursue.

Here’s the last thing I want to share. Thing number five, learn something new and then teach it, even if it scares you. I remember my first year teaching when weaving was in the curriculum and I thought, “Oh my gosh.” I got a C in fibers because my weaving on my loom, I had not warped it correctly. I thought, “Eh, what’s the big deal? You can skip a couple of the warp strings, right?” Well, obviously you can’t. There were huge runners all through my weaving, which were so obvious when we all hung up our weavings in college and mine was the only one with giant lines going down them.

So when I saw that weaving was in my curriculum, I had like a flashback to those days in college and I thought, “Oh gosh. I can’t teach weaving. I don’t even know how to weave.” I forced myself to learn, made many examples on my own, got confidentish, just barely enough to teach it, and it still was a huge epic fail. But, I learned a lot. The kids learned a lot. They taught me a lot about how to teach weaving. And now, weaving, if you follow my blog or have seen videos on my YouTube channel, weaving and basically all things fibers are some of my favorite things to teach. So, you’re going to make mistakes, but you will get better. I promise.

To be an art teacher, you have to have a passion for creating and kids, and the magic of combining the two. You need to change your perception of what being an “artist” is and what being good at art is because you are good. You’re your very own kind of good if you’re willing to believe in yourself, to believe that, and to work on it.

Why did I end on such a heavy note? I don’t know. I guess it’s because I feel so saddened when I hear other art teachers say that they’re not good at art or when I get that email from somebody who’s thinking about becoming an art teacher, but also thinking that maybe they shouldn’t because they fear they’re not good enough. Like I’ve said in recent podcasts, just having that love for those kids and the love for creating does make you good enough, but you will have to work at it, especially where there’s a weakness or one that you’ve perceived to be there.

Tim: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. Today we are very excited to announce The Art of Education Universities newest course, Studio: Photography. In this course, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your own personal studio practice in photography and your instructional decisions in the art classroom as well. In this new eight-week course, you will learn the basics of photography as you capture moments and create visual stories. You’ll also consider implications for the classroom as you explore best practices and meaningful strategies for approaching photography with students. You will walk away from this course with a comprehensive portfolio of studio work alongside practical tools for the classroom. The first section of the course will be running starting on March 1st, so make sure you get registered soon. Look for more details on the courses page at Now let’s give it back to Cassie as she finishes up the episode.

Cassie: And now it’s time to take a little dip into the mailbag. This first question is from Louise. She has a lovely last name. It happens to be Stevens. What do you know? Thanks for the question. She’s asking me about drying racks. She’s got enough money in her budget to buy a drying rack. She’s trying to figure out which drawing rack I have and which one she should possibly purchase.

Cassie: Well, I will say that I’ve only ever, in the two schools where I’ve taught, I’ve only ever had the same kind of drying rack. I just looked it up because I actually didn’t know what it was called. The one that I have, I’m looking at it right now on the Blick website. It’s called AWT table rack. It holds, I think … I’m looking right now. It holds 25 pieces of paper on each side. So if you can imagine in your mind’s eye, it is a drying rack that’s probably not even three feet tall. It has two sides. Both sides hold 25 sheets of paper and probably no bigger … Like the paper size it can hold is no bigger than the 12 X 18 standard construction paper size.

I have always had this kind of drying rack. At my old school, I remember I didn’t have anything, so I begged and pleaded because these guys aren’t cheap. I begged and pleaded to buy one. Oh my gosh. You guys, they’re $275. Anyway, I remember buying one. At that time in 1998, it did not cost that much money. It was probably a little over 100 bucks. I remember my custodian buddy, Mr. Samuel, bringing it to my room saying, “Miss Stevens, I could’ve made you what are these out of a bunch of coat hangers.” I mean, it literally did look like that. But man, in my little portable classroom, it was a godsend. I only had one, and I remember I would always have to empty it out quickly before the next class came.

Now, when I got to my new school, I had the same kind of drying racks. I actually have three of these drying racks. It’s quite lovely to have that many. I have them at the ends of my tables. So, I have eight tables in my room with four chairs each. That helps me out when I have my doubled up the classes. I keep the drying rack at the end of every two tables so the kids get up and they use the drying rack at the end of their table. This helps me out quite a bit when it comes to having a long line of kids at one drying rack. So with three … And I actually have a fourth kind of wonky drying rack that we don’t quite ever use. But with having that many drying racks, it really does make cleanup time go by a lot faster. That being said, these bad boys are almost 300 bucks. So, I don’t know that that is the best investment.

There are other drying racks out there that my art teacher friends have, like the giant drying racks with huge racks that lift up where they can hold multiple works of art at a time. I’ve heard mixed reviews on those from my teacher friends simply because they take up so much space. So, it really depends on the size of the room. These drying racks that I have are small enough that if I do need to move them out of the way, I easily just pick it up and I put it my storage closet when it comes time for the art show or the end of the year when I have to have everything picked up. They’re mobile. They’re easy. And I see there’s even some that you can purchase with wheels, which would be even more awesome. So, I can only speak from what I’ve got, which are these drying racks. So, not sure if that was helpful, but I hope it was.

This next question is about a blog post that I shared many years ago. It’s all about making your own Gelli printing plates. There’s a couple of recipes out there. There are some ways to make your own permanent Gelli plates and then there’s somewhere you can use them for a couple of days and they inevitably have to go in the trash. The bummer about making these, and one of the reasons I don’t do it any longer, is that you have to use gelatin. And I just don’t like that idea. And I now have a good set, a class set, of Gelli arts plates, which I love. But, we’ll get to this question.

She is asking … This question is, what kind of ink do you use on your Gelli plates or on your homemade Gelli plates? I use Speedball ink. I’ve tried the kind off-brand, the more generic brands of ink, but what I find is sometimes it’s a little watery or not consistent. I like Speedball. I don’t order the oil-based. I order the water-based simply because it washes out a lot easier.

She’s asking what kind of paper do I use and if I use watercolor paper. I don’t. I had a discussion with my art teacher friends in my district the other day. They told me that they only buy 90-pound paper, drawing paper. I usually order 80-pound paper. I think I’m going to go ahead and get 90 as well. I use that paper for everything. I never buy a watercolor paper. If you buy good paper, 90- to 80-pound paper, you can use it for everything and it’s not going to wrinkle. It might curl a pinch, but it’s never going to be the junk paper that you might have purchased at the beginning of your teaching career like I always did, where I was having to iron all of my students’ artwork out flat. So yeah, those were her questions about the Gelli plates and just printing on them. If you have any questions for me, you should send them my way. You can find me at the Everyday Art Room at

One thing, and I know I’ve chatted about this many a times, but one thing I love to do is create with friends. Just throw an email out there to some art teacher buddies, or shoot, man, they don’t even have to be art teachers, just anybody who is creative curious, shall we say, at your school. Ask them if they want to take a class with you. Or maybe you know of a person who’s got a skill, an artsy skill, that you want to learn. They’re really good at, I don’t know, working with polymer clay or creating beautiful watercolor paintings. Ask them if they would hang out with you, meet you for coffee, and share some tips and tricks with you.

My favorite thing is to create with friends. Finding a little group to create with will also encourage you to get out, to try it, to do something that might be a little bit uncomfortable for you, but that you will definitely feel much better about having taken the time to learn. And you’ll get that creative ball moving. Have a great week, guys. And know that you are an awesome artist.

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.