8 Things that Amazing Art Teachers Do (Ep. 031)

A week after Tim and Andrew worked through their frustrations with terrible art teachers, they are back to celebrate the things amazing art teachers do! The guys dive into a discussion regarding teaching with breadth, making learning transparent, and creating a positive and comfortable environment in which students can thrive. Listen for why we should always reflect on what we can do better (8:15), how you can improve every year (10:45), and what teachers in other subject areas can learn from amazing art teachers (21:00). 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 are back. Last week, we talked about the eight things that terrible art teachers do. Go listen to it if you haven’t done so already, we had a lot of fun with that episode. During the course of the show, though, we had also promised you that we were coming back this week with things that amazing art teachers do. So here we are, and I am incredibly excited to celebrate all that we do well in our profession. I’ll be honest, this was a tough list to put together. There’s so many amazing art teachers out there, and the idea of amazing can take so many different forms. We all have our own strengths, our own things that we do well, and we can’t always categorize those cleanly but we’re going teacher do our best here.

What does make for an amazing art teacher, and what are the things that amazing art teachers do? Like I said it’s different for everyone. If you’re listening to Art Ed Radio, you’re off to a good start when it comes to being amazing, right? I do want to share something with you though. I was talking to Lindsey Moss, who’s our newest AOE writer. Her first article last week is definitely with checking out, by the way. I was talking to her about how you know if someone is an amazing art teacher, and she told me this: “Great art teachers make the weather in a school. Their passion changes the school’s climate for kids and for adults. If the school has a great art teacher you know when you walk through the door. They spread out and you can literally see and feel it throughout the building, from the office to the gym, and everywhere in between. They are the creative and joyful part of all that is still right in education. Experimentation, innovation, collaboration, cross-disciplinary connections, and joy. All of the aspects of true 21st century learning.” That’s a mic drop moment right there. I can’t imagine saying it any better, and honestly I feel we could end the conversation and end the show right there.

However, Andrew insists on being on the show, so I need to bring him on. Plus, would totally get yelled at for putting together a three minute podcast. So, we’re going to dive deep into what Lindsey said. I think her description is kind of the end result of a teacher doing amazing things. Something that has been accomplished by doing amazing things consistently, over a period of time. What are those amazing things? How do we get to the point where our influence is spreading beyond the walls of our classroom and is moving throughout the school, or maybe even beyond the school. If that’s where our conversation is going to lead us. We’re going to ask that question, what are the things we can to to become that kind of an art teacher? Lets get that talk started with another art teacher that I consider pretty amazing, my favorite co-host, Mr. Andrew McCormick.

Now to chat with us about the eight things that amazing art teachers do is Mr. Andrew McCormick. How are you tonight?

 Andrew: I’m doing good, man, I’m really excited to be on here and actually spread a little positivity after last weeks episode, which was so gloom and doom.

Tim: I know, right? We tried to stay away from the negativity but it was still kind of depressing.

 Andrew: Well, we’re going to put it in it’s place. We’ll bury here with these amazing things here.

Tim: All right, so let’s jump in, the eight things that amazing art teachers do. Number one – amazing art teachers teach with breadth, they don’t just teach what they like, they teach a little bit of everything because we’re smart and we know that there’s a huge variety of things that we can teach through the arts, and you can’t just focus on what you’re best at, because a) that sets a terrible example for your kids, and b) you’re really shortchanging them from all these opportunities that are out there. I know when I first started teaching, I very much fell back on drawing and painting because that’s what I was strongest with, but eventually I tried to develop a whole breadth of lessons, of media, so I could just show kids everything that’s out there. Andrew, what’s your approach with that?

 Andrew: Yeah, I mean I think that’s really important, you have to be flexible and show them all the different things that they can do. I mean, if you ran a curriculum that was just water color painting because I just like watercolor painting, there’s so much that you’d be leaving out. I know when I first started, despite the fact that I have a background in sculpture, I wasn’t really an expert in teaching clay, but what kind of an art teacher wouldn’t teach clay and have clay be a super important part of their curriculum. I’ve been getting gradually better and better, and doing more and more projects with it. I’ve even shown artist that I don’t really like, but I think I think they’re kind of blue chip artists or artist that connect with what we’re doing, so it isn’t just about what we like, we have to stay … We have to keep an open mind to have that variety to show our students.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely, and I like that point about artists that you don’t like. I actually wrote an article once upon a time about the artist that art teachers secretly hate, but as a good teacher, as a responsible teacher you have to show everyone. There are a lot of artist out there that I really can’t stand, but, like you said it’s very important for kids to see that, to open those doors, to get them thinking about those specific things. You need to put your personal biases aside, and kind of do what’s best for your kids. Always each that variety, whether it be media, whether it be art history, and try and bring that whole breadth of the art world to your kids as best you can.

 Andrew: I was just going say that I think that that’s really important to show a wide breadth in subject matter, but I also think, number two of amazing things art teachers do, more than even just content, is that amazing art teachers create a really comfortable, warm, fun personality or environment that shows off their personalities, that kids really are excited to come to class. Maybe this is because I’m a middle school teacher and I both inherit students from an elementary school and also move them along to the high school, I’m kind of in the middle. I want to get kids really really excited about art. I’ve even told this to parents, I’ve said my job is to get your son and daughter as excited for school as they were when they were in kindergarten again- to rekindle that connection with education. I think that that happens, that can only happen, when you create a classroom environment where you are authentically you, and you’re fun, and kids are enjoying themselves. I think that’s really important.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely, and I think like you said, being authentic is a big part in kids being able to enjoy your class, because they want to know what to expect. Whatever your discipline may be, whatever your personality may be, kids want a consistent environment. That’s when they feel comfortable and that’s when they feel welcomed, and that what allows them to kind of settle in and enjoy the class, enjoy the environment that you’ve developed. As long as you can be authentic I think that’s they biggest key right there.

 Andrew: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Tim: Number three. Amazing art teachers are always trying to improve. We talk about that when we’re trying to bring the breadth of art to our kids, we’re always needing to research, always needing to find new things, we’re always trying to be better at what we do, whether it be through media, the way we’re teaching or whatever else. I don’t think we reflect enough on our teaching and what we do need to improve on. I look at it like this, if somebody is going to ask you “what do you wish you could do better as a teacher?”, shouldn’t you have an answer for that right off the top? If I ask you right now, Andrew, what do you wish you could do better as a teacher, what would it be?

 Andrew: Organization and more timely and authentic assessments.

Tim: See? Exactly, right off the top of your head you know what you need to do better, and that’s a sign to me that you reflect on your teaching, you think about what’s going on, not only in how you deal with your students, but what’s going on in your classroom as a whole. Then, once you’ve done that, you can work to improve on those things and work to make yourself a better teacher, and being adaptable and being able to approach those things with an open mind really is key to doing that. You should always be trying to improve.

 Andrew: Yeah. I’m going to piggy back onto this a little bit. It’s funny, as we’re talking about these amazing things, I must just be a jaded, dark hearted person deep down because I keep thinking about, so what do the bad teachers do that doesn’t look like this? I was thinking to myself, you know I think a lot of classrooms, and this is not just art teachers but all teachers, we ask our students to do things that then we ourselves don’t do in our normal jobs. We’re asking our kids to be creative, but yet we’re going to Pinterest and just finding a lesson everyone else has done. I think you’re right, if we want our students to improve and become better and more reflective, we also need to do that, and we also need to share that process with our students.

Tim: Absolutely.

 Andrew: That brings me to point number four, and I think this goes well with what your saying, is I think that amazing art teachers, they are lifelong learners, that goes with wanting to improve, but I think more than that is, when they’re trying to improve and they’re always learning throughout their entire lives, they’re also making their learning and their mistakes visible and transparent to students. This happens all the time, and the first time it happened I was kind of taken aback and I didn’t know what to say. It was my second year of teaching, and I did this project my first year of teaching and then in the second year I modified it. I did it really differently, to make it more effective. I had a kid walk through my classroom who had been in my classroom the year before, and he said “oh, how come we didn’t get to do something fun like that?”

As teachers we kind of have that, and it’s kind of a backhanded compliment. It’s like, oh that’s cool, but doggone it, you didn’t do that last year. I just looked at the kid, I was a little dumbfounded, I said “Well I’m a way better teacher now than I was last year. I learned that if I changed this, this, and this, you guys are going to get a better experience out of it and learn and it’s just going to work.” I don’t hide those and shy them away from students. When I make a mistake and I have a project that didn’t work, I let them know, and I say okay, next year I’m thinking we do it this way. I’ll even ask them how do we make it better. That I think is showing you’re learning and the process to your students, and that’s just really important.

Tim: Yeah, I think what you say there about making things transparent really is key there, because I used to do a lot of those same things, where … Okay, let me step back. When I first started teaching I was so afraid of being wrong, and I’ve talked about that before. I would sort of sweep under the rug the time that I failed. Then as I’ve grown, as I’ve gotten better as a teacher, I’m always happy to share that with my kids. Like, oh hey, last time we tried this project it didn’t work out so well, so I want to try it this way. Here’s why I want to do it differently, here’s what I think is going to turn out better. You share that with them, and like you said, reflecting on that at the end of the project, where you say oh, this didn’t go so well, what do you guys think could make this better? If you have kids be part of that reflection, like you said, not only does it set a good example, but it involves them in the reflection of themselves, which we’re always looking for new and better ways to do. I think that’s a really, really good point.

Andrew: You know, I want to take this point and even kind of boil it down to a micro level. I make mistakes … Hold on a second. I know teacher models, like demonstrations, are kind of a contentious thing. Do we do them do we not? If we do do them are kids just going to copy them? But I still do them, and I love it when I make mistakes in my demonstrations. I don’t do it on purpose but it happens pretty regularly, and I can say to kids, look, I have to start over. This is now the third time that I’ve tried to get this drawing started, and I keep making mistakes. It shows them that they can also make mistakes and it’s not then end of the world, they don’t have to throw their paper away, but that learning is a process and you get better and better with it over time, the more time you spend with it.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. I do demos, always have, and I like just doing a talk through or think aloud where I’m verbalizing my process as I go through here. When I hit a mistake, try and verbalize your thoughts about how do we adapt that, how do we change that? How can we learn from that mistake, and I think again, that transparency is really key. It’s a good point.

Then, number five on the things that amazing art teachers do. Amazing art teachers are positive. We’re not saying you always have to be all glitter and cheer and sunshine, because lord knows neither one of us fit that bill, but, it goes back to creating that welcoming environment. I am so positive, I am so excited every day about art, and whenever I would welcome kids into my room it was always hey, how are you? Let’s get excited, this drawing’s going to be awesome, this painting project is going to be so cool, and that sort of relentless positivity really can lift the environment, and it really makes your classroom a better place to be.

Andrew: That’s one that takes such small … it takes no effort. I see this all the time, it’s like, smile, please, as teachers out there. I’ve seen so many teachers that are just grumpy from first period to the last period of the day. Your kids pick up on that stuff. A smile, a “all right, I am really excited today”, it goes so far. Very few kids when they talk about their amazing teachers that they’ve had, and even grown up as we look back on amazing teachers we’ve had, very few people say “that teacher knew his content, or her content, in and out. They were an encyclopedia of knowledge, I enjoyed that.” You enjoy the warmth, the personality, the positivity, the sillyness, that’s what kids connect to because that’s what makes learning fun.

Tim: Okay, so let me ask you something here. Do you ever overdo it with the positivity? Because I do that all the time, where we’re checking out an artist for art history and kids are sort of not feeling it that day, then I just crank it up to 11 and just be like “I am so excited about this artist, let me tell you about this, let me show you this artwork, let me tell you everything I need to know about it” and just really really overdo it, and try and make that excitement contagious. Do you ever overdo it with the positivity like that?

Andrew: Dude, that’s like a whole other podcast, because you’re describing me to a T. I have this theory that the human body has only so much capacity for positivity. I burn it up all day long, so as soon as the kids leave at the end of the day, I’m on E. It’s all done, it’s gone. That’s why I think the pendulum swings the other way, and every time you ever see me when I’m not teaching, I’m just really really grumpy, because I’ve used up all my empathy and patience and warmth and positivity. Then you catch me on a Saturday and I’m like “… leave me alone.” Yeah, I totally overdo it, I need to learn how to pace myself so I’ve got positivity throughout the entire day, not just while I’m working.

Tim: All right, that’s good.

Andrew: It’s a whole other podcast.

Tim: All right, you want to hit …

Andrew: Yup, and this goes along with it too, what we were talking about, you know smiling, the environment, being excited. I think number six of being amazing is that you’re making connections with every student.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: It’s tough when you’re an elementary teacher and you might see 600 kids, or a high school teacher and you see 200, 300, but that’s another one of those things, flip it around from a student’s perspective, they want to know that they’ve created relationships with teachers, and that they enjoy seeing them every day, more than just the rigorous subject matter. I think getting to know kids, and what are their interests, and that actually helps us as art teachers individualize and tweak our projects. If the kid says “I don’t want to do this”, well, lets talk about your interest in hunting, so could we make this landscape painting be a little bit more inclusive of that? I think it’s just really important to make connections with kids, and again, it’s not hard.

Tim: No, it’s not. One thing, my goal, I guess, was to talk to every student every day. Now obviously you’re not going to get to that goal, especially if you have 200 kids coming through your room, but every other day then, that’s fine. Just have a conversation, even if it’s just oh hey, what are you doing this weekend, and they tell you about a concert, whatever. Short little conversation, cool, sounds good. Then on Monday you come back and say “Oh hey, how was your concert on Friday?” How was the show, whatever they did. Kids really appreciate the fact that you not only take time to talk to them, but you remember that and bring it back up the next week. I guarantee you, I’m the only teacher who asked about their concert last week, and then that makes that automatic connection with them. Like you said, can transfer into so much with what they’re doing with their art. If you can build on those connections, it does create that environment, that kids really appreciate and makes art-making so much better.

Andrew: I think, sometimes we think about these things like, okay you should do this, but there are really payoffs down the road, or even let’s say ulterior motives. If you can build a good rapport with almost all of your students, students are willing to work harder, and put some of that classroom management junk on the side if you have a good rapport with students. You can push them more, you’re going to have less behavioral junk to deal with, if you know that you have a pretty good relationship with a kid. It’s in our best interests as teachers that we really do create those positive relationships with students.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely, it pays off in so many areas, you said it all right there.

Andrew: Let’s move on to number seven. I think this one, I bring this one up a lot, and it kind of goes with that making your learning transparent and visible. Sometimes I’ll talk about letting the kids kind of behind the curtain. I tell my kids all the time that I’m not just teaching them art, I’m teaching them skills, like being flexible, and adaptable, and creative, and innovative, problem solvers. I say I’m not just here to train you to be a future amazing artist, but whatever you do you benefit from these skills, these lessons, and it just so happens that art is the way that I can teach those things. It’s not just art that I’m teaching, it’s all these other things that will follow them throughout their entire life.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s very very well said. The big thing that I always celebrate about art is the higher order thinking skills, the problem solving, the creativity, because it goes to every area of their life. Obviously we teach it best, but it’s appropriate for everything that they’re going to do. I think that is really important.

Andrew: The only thing I wish, and I’ve even said this to my students, because I’ll give them this whole spiel, especially the beginning of the year. They’re worried that “I’m not a good drawer so I’m not going to do good at this art class.” I just say, that’s not really my focus, my focus is problem solving, creativity, innovation. I wish more teachers outside of art, so your science, your math, your english, would also say those things, and just say listen, I’m not here to turn you into the next Nobel Prize winning scientist, I’m here to get you to think deeply, and profoundly, and be creative, and be a problem solver, and be an entrepreneur, and it just so happens that I do that through science, or english, or spanish, or whatever. That’s kind of like my mission, I’m getting excited about making other teachers feel that way and think that way.

Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s a good point. I really do wish more teachers took that approach. Just a couple things that kind of go along with that. When kids always say well, I’m not going to be good in drawing class, I can’t draw, I’m like you’re here to learn to draw, you’re in drawing class so I can teach you to draw. That’s why we’re here. Beside that point, drawing is such a small fraction of what we’re trying to get across to you here. Drawing is the vehicle for so much more, so …

Anyway, we’ll move on, we’ll close this out with the eighth thing, number eight on the things that amazing art teachers do. They empower their students. We talk a lot about all the different approaches, all the different ways that we teach, and all the different ways that we want our students to learn, but I think in the end, whatever approach you take, the best thing that you can do is try and empower your students. Whether that be through these skills that you’re teaching them, whether it be through problem solving, or whether it be through the creative tasks that you do. You are doing things to empower your students, let their voice be heard. As long as you’re doing that then you’re doing good things in your art room.

Andrew: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Man, I’m telling you, I’m just a curmudgeon today, because as you’re saying that the thing I keep thinking about is what is the opposite of that. What doesn’t empower students, and I think about grades, and talking to kids about, well if you do this you’ll get a 92, or you’ll get that …

Tim: Yes, yes.

Andrew: I have this conversation with my students all the time. Don’t talk to me about your grades, I don’t want to talk to you about your grades. It’s kind of a necessary evil. Now, if you want to talk to me about learning and how you demonstrate that you’ve learned something, we can get down with that conversation, because that really does empower students, and that empowers students to be okay with failure, it empowers them to take risks and be creative. Grades doesn’t empower you to do any of that stuff other than to play a game and jump through hoops. Empower your students to not think about the dumb stuff in school. Oh man, you’ve got to get me off this podcast soon, because I’m just going to keep getting more worked up.

Tim: No, I think it’s good. That is the question that I think every teachers hate, you know, what can I do to get an A? No, your focus is what can I do to make great art, what can I do to make this project the best it can be? Let’s reframe that question. You’ve got to talk to your kids about how there are bigger things out there than the grade the receive. That’s an awesome point. All right, well I think that wraps it up for us, so Andrew thank you for joining me and continue on being the amazing art teacher that you are.

Andrew: Or the grumpy, grumpy man that I am, either one.

Tim: That’s only during the podcast, you go back to being amazing tomorrow morning.

Andrew: Yeah, at eight o’clock I’m going to be all sunshine and rainbows.

Tim: All right, cool. We’ll talk to you later, man, thanks. All right, that was a really fun conversation and I wold say significantly better than talking about terrible art teachers. It was a lot of fun to talk about the things that amazing art teachers do. We talked for a while so we’re going to get out of here quickly, but before we go I need to tell you about another way for you to be amazing, and that is through the courses on Go check them out, and I’m going to suggest Instructional Strategies for Art Teachers to you, because that is an incredible course, not only to learn new things to teach and new ways to be amazing, but it also gives you some options and some opportunities to do amazing things with materials that you probably didn’t even know about. You can expand your ideas, get beyond the media that you’re comfortable with, and looking for some new ways to teach what you know, and some new ways to bring creative exciting ideas into your classroom. It’s a three credit hour course, and there’s one starting in October, and another starting in November, so check out, and take a look at Instructional Strategies for Art Teachers.

Now, as I said in the beginning of this show, we need to continue to do what we can to improve as art teachers. We need to keep developing, keep improving, and keep providing that welcoming environment that empowers and challenges our students. We’re teaching more than art, and when we’re teaching creativity, problem solving, and higher order thinking skills, our influence spreads far beyond our classroom. Like Lindsey said at the beginning, we can affect our entire school, and maybe even beyond. I want you to think about what you do in your classroom, and celebrate the ways in which you are already amazing. Then, think about how can become even more amazing. Make connections with your kids and make your art room that welcoming environment, and in that environment show kids what learning really looks like, not only in what they are doing but in what you are doing as well. Because when they see your positivity, when they see your own learning, your transparency and your influence, they’re going to begin to take all of those lessons outside the art room walls. When you can see that influence spread, that’s when when you know you’re doing something amazing.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art Of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. You see more from the podcast on, where you can also sign up for the weekly Art Ed Radio email, and check out because it really is the home for amazing art teachers. We want everyone to be better at what they do. We’ll be back next week and every Tuesday following, so make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss any of our new episodes. Thanks, as always, for listening.


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.