Classroom Management

8 Art Room Hacks to Make Your Teaching Life Easier (Ep. 042)

Let’s face it–the life of an art teacher is anything but simple. We have to know so much and do so many things on an everyday basis, it can get overwhelming very quickly. Tim and Andrew use this episode to share some of their favorite hacks for the art room–each of which can help make life easier in your classroom. It’s worth listening as the guys discuss their best painting hacks (6:00), keeping kids engaged and working (13:45), and teaching students to take on responsibilities to help you as a teacher (20:00). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. We know as art teachers that we have one of the most difficult jobs around. The amount of things that come our way every single day can be mind boggling, from classroom management, to lesson planning, to grading, to just dealing with those hundreds of kids and hundreds of personalities and hundreds of different types of learners every single day? It’s an overwhelming amount, and unfortunately that’s just the tip of the iceberg and that’s why I know everyone is looking for all kinds of ways, any ways to make things just a little bit easier on that day-to-day basis. Save some time here, save a headache there.

Now Andrew and I were talking about this just the other day and how we needed to put all of our best classroom hacks together into one single episode, so here we are, Eight Art Room Hacks to Make Your Teaching Life Easier. I’m going to share some of my favorite tips and tricks, Andrew’s going to share some of his favorite tips and tricks, and hopefully you can find a few things in here that can work for you and work for your classroom as well. We have a lot to talk about so we are going to jump in really quickly. Without further ado, let’s bring on my favorite cohost, Mr. Andrew McCormick. Joining me now is my favorite cohost and my favorite art room hacker, Mr. Andrew McCormick. How are you tonight?

Andrew: I’m good, man, how are you doing?

Tim: I’m doing really well. I’m excited to talk about our favorite art room hacks and I know you’re excited as well and so I’m going to step out of the way and I’m going to let you take our first one, so go ahead and give us the number-one hack for making your teaching life even easier.

Andrew: I think it comes down to organization, organization, organization, and most people wouldn’t say that that’s my claim to fame, but I mean there’s just certain things where if you’re not organized you’re going to get eaten alive and I think about ceramics as one of those. Sometimes it’s like pulling off a ceramics project is a herculean effort and the more organized you can be, the better. This last year, or this year my new job I’m really doing some things to try to up my organizational game and one of the things is with glaze work I inherited a classroom where there were just kind of random piles that said, “Blues,” and there were like six or seven different variety of blues and there were no test tiles and it’s like, “Man, that’s just a guaranteed way for students to not have success and kind of hate it.”

I’ve been taking the time, I’ve been going through, I’ve been labeling everything, putting the name on top, making test tiles for everything and making everything visible, but on top of that I’ve thought about with ceramic tools, rather than having for me when I have such really big class sizes one spot where all the ceramic tools are and then there’s a big bottleneck. I’ve been going the more elementary school route almost in having a caddy of ceramic tools at each table, then I can have one kid at each table come grab it. It’s kind of got everything they need. It’s got a couple things of slip, a spray bottle, and then a variety of tools on the other side. That seems to help out quite a bit.

I inherited a room that didn’t have a lot of ceramic tools and I got some ideas from John Post in an Art Ed Now conference talk about sort of some DIY hack tools you can make, so I don’t have needle tools, but I got bamboo skewers. I don’t really have good ribs, but you can go to the Dollar Tree and buy a one-dollar cutting board mat and cut that into shape or you can use old credit cards that, you know, like freebie ones that they send you in the mail that are pretend ones. You can cut those rounded and it’s just a really nice way to make up for a short fall on tools that you might have.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really true, and the other thing that John talked about that I really like, another alternative to a needle tool is you just take a popsicle stick and you unbend a paperclip and then use electrical tape to attach that and all of the sudden you have this really handy needle tool that works really well, so I like that.

Andrew: I got to say though, I made some of those before I stumbled across the bamboo skewer idea and my kids could not get over the fact that it looked like we were making and using prison shanks. When you have eighth and ninth graders and they go home and tell mom and dad that, “Hey, we made a bunch of prison shanks in our class today,” I don’t know. It’s not good, man, so I went with the bamboo skewer route.

Tim: Yeah, that may be easier way to go. I like that, but sticking with the organization tip, I want to jump on something you said about labeling. You were talking about your glazes, and that’s the biggest thing for me with the organization and staying organized is having everything labeled because it makes it so much easier, not only for the kids to find things so they’re not always asking you, “Where’s this? Where’s this? Where’s this?” They get into the habit of seeing where things go and they’re able to find it themselves, but also for cleaning up and for staying organized, if you have labels on everything and even better, labels with pictures on everything, it makes it so much easier for kids to put tools away and you’re spending so much less time organizing your kids and letting them just organize the supplies and it makes life a lot easier.

Andrew: Yeah, for sure.

Tim: Then I’m going to jump right into art room hack number two and this is kind of a big one. We’ve talked about some of these before, but some of our best painting hacks and I have a couple that I think I’ve mentioned before. Number one, I love using those discarded books from the library as paint pallets. Again, if you have paint that you want to keep from day to day just put it on the cover, Saran Wrap it. If you’re just using paint for a day, open up your book, put it on the page, throw the page away when you’re done, makes life so easy for you.

Then when you’re taking care of brushes, I love having just a little bottle of cheap hair conditioner and after we wash them with soap and water, every once in a while we’ll wash them with a little bit of conditioner too. It keeps them nice and fresh, nice and clean. I’ve also talked to about having kids be responsible for their own paintbrushes where we’ll just put a little strip of tape on the end of the brush, they write their name on it and that’s their brush, so those are their two or three brushes for the entire semester and they are responsible for keeping them clean and keeping them organized. If they have that responsibility I found that you waste so many fewer brushes, makes your life so much easier.

Then about two weeks ago, or actually no, closer to about a month ago you blew my mind with your favorite new tip for taking care of brushes so you want to share that with us?

Andrew: Yeah. I always have now a bottle of Windex at every sink. I just heard this at a state art educators conference that Windex does a really great job of getting dried acrylic paint out of brushes so any time I stumble across a brush that maybe had a little bit of residue left in it, they tried to wash it but just a little dry and crusty, I’ll let that thing soak in some Windex for about two hours and it’s good as new.

The other nice thing is if students notice that they have acrylic paint that got on their clothes, I used to always just tell kids like, “Well, you’re screwed,” like, “Sorry, you know, you should have put on your apron like I told you to.” If they’re fast enough, they can spray that with some Windex and I mean, it, something about the Windex that prevents that acrylic paint, those polymers from setting up and the kids will come back the next day and it’s like, “I washed my clothes right away and that Windex must’ve helped it not set.” I’ve had very few ruined clothes this year which has been really nice.

Tim: I’m fascinated but I still haven’t tried that out yet. I’m just, I’m fascinated by that idea but I’ll take your word for it that it works.

Andrew: Yeah, I love it.

Tim: It seems really cool, although I’m a little scared of Windex now to be honest, like it seems a little too powerful for a cleaning fluid, but yeah, whatever, we’ll leave that alone. All right, hack number three is what I like to call the pencil upgrade and I stole this actually from my wife who’s a history teacher and I’m not even sure where she got it from but it’s a pencil upgrade. I’m always annoyed with kids who don’t bring a pencil to class, like it’s drawing class. You need to bring a pencil, but that’s a story for another day.

One thing I found that really helps cut down on that is if a kid’s like, “Oh, I need a pencil,” rather than giving them the new one out of my desk I’ll say, “All right, who wants a pencil upgrade?” and I’ll have a kid raise his hand and I’ll find the kid with the ugliest, crappiest pencil. They give that pencil to the kid who’s missing one and they get to upgrade to the brand-new pencil. Rather than the kid who forgot stuff getting the brand-new pencil, the kid who volunteers to give up their stuff is the one who gets a brand-new pencil and the kid who forgot is stuck with the old, crappy pencil.

Andrew: That is amazing, such a simple idea. I don’t know why people had never … I had never heard that one before. That’s great. That’s awesome-

Tim: I know. My wife told me about it. I’m like, “I can’t believe I’ve never heard this before but this is the best idea I’ve heard all week.” It works. I like it a lot. Let’s talk a little more sort of big-picture stuff. I know you’re really passionate about saving time when it comes to grading, so do you want to share some of your better ideas for grading hacks?

Andrew: Sure. I mean, I don’t think I’m crazy or going out too far on a limb when I say that grading is probably most art teachers’ least favorite part of being an art teacher because it’s, I don’t know, some of it’s just so kind of silly and you’re jumping through hoops. Now, I’m all for assessment like actually giving real feedback, but the notion of, “What grade did I get?” so many of us feel obligated to, you know, you have to give a grade. I discovered probably three or four years ago that if I could do some things to streamline the grading process, like I was going to do it and I became much happier.

I remember when I first started teaching, just collecting massive piles of artwork because you know, all the sections of eighth-grade art, or ninth-grade art, or fourth-grade art would get done at the same time and then you’re like, “All right, I went from having nothing to grade to 200 portraits to grade.” If you want to get caught up you’re lugging this big pile of junk home in your van or your car, or you’re working late at night to get that done. Well, I do everything online. There’s so many different learning management platforms whether it’s Google Classroom, or Schoology, or Showbie, or anything, and I just say, “Listen, if you don’t turn it in, I won’t grade it.”

Then I don’t actually have the overhead because what I found was I might collect these hundred or so paintings and then I am ready to turn them back in on a Wednesday, give them back to the kids. A handful of the kids are gone and then you forget that they were gone and by the end of the semester you just have this pile of artwork that no one has ever claimed and I don’t know, I just don’t play that game and I don’t like artwork sitting around the art room that’s been finished but not taken home, so I just get in this routine. It’s like as soon as you’re done, shoot it, upload it to whatever platform I’m using to grade, roll it up, take it to your locker, take it home.

It goes home the day that it’s done and it’s really streamlined my grading practices and I’m so thankful for it. I actually think it’s the number one thing that I did that really made my life easier and made my teaching more effective. Along with that, I try to make a rubric, like when I make a rubric I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every time so I try to make one rubric that I can tweak it a little bit if I have to that will work with so many different projects and it’s just a really big time saver because as art teachers, so many of the things that we’re looking for, we’re looking for in every single project. There might be little things that are different, but so much of it’s the same.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s very true, and one thing I did for a long time was just have a blank rubric with all the scoring and have the kids fill out the objectives themselves, but then I felt like that wasn’t descriptive enough and so I kind of moved toward the, like you said, one rubric for everything and I found that really helped, and like you said, really streamlined things so I like that as well. Moving on to number five on our favorite art room hacks, my best idea for keeping kids engaged, I want to share this one, is to teach three projects at once. I mentioned this once upon a time at one of the Art Ed Now Conferences and people just freaked out like, “How do you do that? How do you teach three things at once?”

Their mind was blown that this was even possible and so I ended up writing an article about it because it’s honestly not that different. Basically what I do is I have our one project that we’re working on, like sort of the teacher directed, I mean, still open ended but something that I come up with for them. Then number two is they have a choice project that they’re working on and that can be just about anything as long as they plan it out with me, and then usually it’s something a little bit bigger that they can consistently go back to work on over the course of a few weeks.

Then number three is they have a sketchbook assignment and they get a new one of those every week so there’s always something to do there. Even if a kid doesn’t feel like working on their project or doesn’t feel like working on their sketchbook, there’s always something for them to work on so if they’re not doing their regular project, they can do their choice project. If they don’t want to do their choice, they can do their sketchbook and having those three ideas all together at once has really made my life a lot easier and really cut down on a lot of behavior issues and classroom management issues, especially those little annoying things because kids are always busy and always engaged with that.

Andrew: I like that idea a lot and I don’t do exactly that. I’m trying to do something a little different and I’m just starting it this year which is really to lay out my entire curriculum for the whole semester and then they get to go however fast or slow they want within checkpoints along the way. Now, that sounds like a lot of work, and it kind of is to develop all the lesson plans and videos that the kids could watch so that they could do it at their own speed, but once that frontloading is done and I can get that up there on the web that kids can access it on their own, then like you said that those behavioral issues that happen when kids have nothing to do should go away in my mind. I really like that, keeping kids engaged with a couple different ideas that we have.

Tim: I like that. If we can just dive in real quick to why you’re doing that, like is this akin to kind of those choose-your-own-adventure books where you get to decide where you’re going next and you have no idea where it’s going to lead?

Andrew: Tim, you know me too well. That’s absolutely 100% the inspiration for it. When I was a kid I wasn’t a real avid reader, but man, if you gave me one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, like I would read it over and over and over again. Now, sometimes I would cheat and kind of skip ahead and like, “Oh, you just died-”

Tim: Everybody did that.

Andrew: Oh yeah, “Oh, I guess I didn’t want to talk to that guy in the creepy hotel and like back up a little bit.” Yeah, that is the inspiration that, you know, as long as they’re doing some kind of, I think of it as checkpoints or mile markers, you know, like, “At this point you got to have X amount done. At this point you got to have X amount done,” and then they can go above and beyond that with some different ideas on this website that I’m trying to build. Hopefully that’ll keep them engaged and they can go in any order they want, they can do more of one thing and less of another. That’s kind of what I’m striving for this year.

Tim: I like that. I’m going to bring it back down though, I mean, that’s a very big-picture sort of concept so I’m going to bring it back down to just kind of the day-to-day art room hacks and so I have three good ones that I like to do to just keep things clean. Number one, I love having just a bag of rice to clean any kind of pastels because pastels get so dirty and so gross and very difficult to use, but honestly you can just toss a handful of them in with a bagful of rice, just shake it really well and that rice cleans them off, which I absolutely love.

Second thing, erasers get really dark and really gross, especially if you’re using them with charcoal or with some really red graphite, and I love to either have kids rub them on a little carpet square to clean them off or like a little emery board that you file your nails with. Those both work really well for clean erasers and sharper edges on your erasers.

Then number three, it’s going back to John Post again so that’s the second shout-out tonight, using dog bowls for water because they have that just super-wide base. I mean, just go to the Dollar Store and get some dog dishes. That super-wide base, you fill it up halfway with water and it’s almost impossible for kids to spill, which if you’re teaching elementary especially, water cups are the bane of your existence and if you can eliminate those and just use the dog bowls whether you’re painting or whether you’re doing ceramics, I feel like those are really good ideas as well.

Andrew: I’m intrigued by that first one. I haven’t tried it, the rice with pastels, and for people out there who maybe haven’t tried it, I have acquired let’s say $300 worth of pastels, not organized at all, just in a giant box, random. Do you kind of have a ratio of how many pastels per Ziploc bag of rice that it kind of is effective, or like if I jam them too full is it not going to do the trick?

Tim: You just want to be able to shake it up, so I would say fill the bag about halfway, you know, a third to half with rice and then fit in just a handful of pastels and as long as they can move around in there and be shaken up, then it works really well.

Andrew: I’m going to have to try that pretty soon. I’ve got some major work to do with getting my pastels back in order.

Tim: Yeah, and actually just bringing this up to, sorting pastels or sorting colored pencils, I had a tough time figuring out the best way to do that because you don’t want 14 different containers for all of your different colors. It just gets way to hectic. I just sort colored pencils and pastels by warm colors or cool colors and it’s so much easier for kids to find things and so much easier for them to put them away rather than searching like, “Here’s yellow, here’s orange, here’s red,” they just all go in the warm container and having a warm and a cool is really helpful for sorting those.

Andrew: That’s nice. We’re talking about keeping our room clean and all the, you know, I could spin around my room 360 and find 20 different things that need to be cleaned or better organized or better labeled. It almost becomes too much for one person to bear, so I want to bring up hack number seven, which is to leverage your kids. Use your students to help you out whenever possible. Not this year but in years past I’ve had study halls. Maybe they’re smaller, 20, 24 kids, and some kids are actually working on stuff but if there’s ever kids who aren’t and they want to be loud and talkative it’s like, “Nope, you’re cleaning the sink, you’re cleaning the brushes, you’re labeling this, you’re organizing this.”

Some of those kids will kind of huff and puff and not be happy but it’s like, “Well, then do your math homework,” but there’s other ways that you can leverage students to help you out too, and that’s your early finishers. If they’re not going to jump into some free drawing or you suggest a second or third project it’s like, “You know what, you get to help me clean up all the clay tools because they’re looking pretty gnarly.” Then I would say the third way you can do that is a lot of schools will actually have, you know, at the middle school or high school level what they call student helpers where they can get a service credit just by instead of going to a study hall they’ll come down to your room and help you cut paper, help you replenish the water colors, kind of whatever. I’ve been using those a lot this year to just get more organized and get more clean so it’s been a big help.

Tim: I like that a lot and I do many of the same things. Teachers out there listening to this, if you don’t have student aides or student helpers you need to get some. Go figure out how to do it tomorrow.

Andrew: Yeah, they’re a big help and most of the time it’s the art kids who kind of enjoy being in your classroom anyway and they’ll shoot the breeze with you and stuff and they’re just really good kids, really helpful.

Tim: For sure. Do you want to close up shop with our last one? I know it’s kind of related to having kids help you.

Andrew: Yeah. I’ve developed it this year because I used to think that teaching students how to clean the room and keep the room clean was really important and it is really important, but this year I’ve seen a spike in my student numbers and the class sizes and I just realized like, “Listen, if I’m taking seven, six minutes at the end of every class period to clean up tools that six minutes later the next class is just going to get out and get all gunky again, I’m really just wasting instruction time for a number or my classes.” If the kids don’t need to clean it because the next group is just going to get them dirty again, maybe figure out a way that they don’t have to do it.

For example, all my classes were doing acrylic painting. They’re eighth-grade art, ninth-grade art kind of a smorgasbord class but we all just happened to do painting at the same time. Well, you don’t have to clean out the paintbrushes. You can just sit in a cup of water for then the next class to use. Same with ceramics, you don’t have to scrub every single ceramics tool if the very next class is just going to use them again. If you really are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to cleaning, pick your spots and pick your battles of when it really needs to get clean and when you can just kind of keep it going, you know?

Tim: Yeah, I like that idea a lot and I’ve always done kind of similar things especially if you have those back-to-back classes. As much as I would love to keep sharing hacks, we are far beyond our allotted time so we’re going to have to wrap it up here. Andrew, thank you very much for joining me and sharing all of your best hacks and for those of you that are out there listening, if you have more that we need to add, shoot us an email,, and add to our list of art room hacks. We’ll look forward to hearing from you. Andrew, thank you.

Andrew: Yep, my pleasure man. Thanks a lot. Talk to you later.

Tim: Wow, that was a lot and that was a long conversation but I hope there is something in there that works for you. I hope you can utilize some of these ideas and do it soon. Now I know some of the bigger-picture things aren’t able to be done immediately like a new management system or rewriting your rubrics, but a lot of the things we talked about are ready to go right now. In fact, you honestly should be listening to this during your plan time and implementing these ideas immediately. I’m only half joking, but you’re ready to do this.

Along those same lines I have another set of great ideas that really can make your teaching life easier. You may or may not know this, but I’m hoping to put together everything with the Art Ed Now online conference for February and I was looking at all the presentations and it kind of occurred to me that so many of the presenters are sharing ideas that really do make your life easier. Michael Linsin from Smart Classroom Management, he’s going to be one of the future presenters and he’ll be talking about classroom management, how to get your worst class back.

Jessica Balsley, the Founder of AOE is going to be presenting on life hacks for visual people. Cassy Stevens is going to be sharing how she records videos to make your teaching more simple, and the list just goes on and on, so if you are looking for more of these ideas that is the place to be. The Conference is happening on February 18th and you can check it out at Here’s the plan, just take one idea from this episode each week and implement it in your classroom and do that from now until February.

Then in February hit up the conference, get inspired with all kinds of new ideas, and by the time you get to the end of the school year your classroom will have never run more smoothly. Even if you’re not that ambitious and you just take one idea from this episode I still think it’ll have been worth it. I hope and I know Andrew hopes that something in here, something in this discussion can help you.

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