8 Things that Terrible Art Teachers Do (Ep. 030)

There are incredible art teachers all over the country, working every day to improve their craft. These teachers care about their students, their subject, and their profession. And then there are the rest of them. They are ineffective, disinterested, and to put it bluntly, terrible art teachers, and they give the rest of us a bad name. Tim and Andrew work through their frustrations with those terrible art teachers and talk about what you can do if you find yourself slipping into these bad habits. Listen for their advice on why you need to explore new things (8:30), why you should stand up for yourself (10:00), and how to avoid the negativity that leads to terrible teaching (11:45). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show is produced by the art of education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. In this episode, we’re going to explore the dark underbelly of art teaching, those terrible teachers who give the rest of us a really bad name. Now why are they so bad and how can they ruin the best job on the planet? Andrew and I are going to go through and explore the eight things that terrible art teachers do.

Before we get started, however, I want to make two things clear. First, we’re not trying to be overly negative. In fact, that’s one thing we talk about in this episode, staying away from the negativity. I may not be the best person to talk about this because I can be kind of cranky sometimes. Andrew likes to call me the resident curmudgeon, but I’m going to be adamant about telling you this, that negativity never made it into my classroom. It never made its way to my kids.

In the classroom, it’s all about positivity, setting students up for success, celebrating that success wherever you might find it. My hope is that this episode can be more of a lighthearted look at some aspects of teaching that we think need to be improved, not necessarily an episode that dwells on our shortcomings and that brings me to point two. We’re not trying to shame anyone for doing things poorly. We want to point out things that we think teachers can improve on. We want you to reflect on your teaching and think about what you do every day and make sure that you’re not doing any of these eight things.

If you are doing some of those things and if you’re feeling yourself slipping, maybe this episode can be the kick in the butt that you need to make some changes, and most importantly, next week we’re going to be talking about the things that amazing art teachers are able to do, bringing out the positivity, the inspiration and the celebration of everything that’s amazing in the world of are teaching. It’s going to be a good couple weeks of shows here.

Now, I want to bring Andrew on, but before I do that I need to tell you about the Art of Ed’s new Studio Course. It’s a graduate course called Studio Fibers and it’s going to make its debut run starting on October 1st. You get the chance to experiment with a huge variety of two-dimensional and three-dimensional weaving, felting and embroidery techniques and create resources, tools, and hands-on fiber art examples that are immediately ready to use in your classroom. It’s worth three credit hours and it runs over the course of eight weeks to allow you plenty of time for those hands-on projects.

Like I said, the first class will start October 1st so you have about two weeks from now to get signed up. If you want to know more, check out the page on the Now let’s bring on Andrew to talk about those eight things that terrible art teachers do. All right. Andrew is now here with me. Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: Oh, man, I’m good. I’m all types of fired up so I’m ready to talk about this stuff.

Tim: I know. I know you’re like way too excited about talking about all the terrible things that art teachers do. We’ve narrowed our list down to eight and I’m going to let you start us off with number one.

Andrew: Okay, so I don’t see this a whole lot because a  lot of times I’ve either been working solo or been working with a teacher who’s really good, but I’ve inherited classrooms from people who I’ve been told don’t get up out of their chair very often so they kind of find a nice, cozy, comfy spot where they can see everyone and then they just kind of plunk down and they make the kids come to them. Talk about a bottleneck. You have kids having questions all the time and if you’re making them come to you because you can’t get out of your cozy desk or chair, that’s a problem.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: In fact, I know a lot of people listening to the podcast know and people on AOE know that I’ve actually accepted a new job. Actually one of the first things I did, I got rid of my desk. I literally do not have a chair in my room that I can sit at, with the exception of if I’m really feeling tired and I need to sit next to a student, I will sit next to a student at their desk but I don’t have my own little private island, my own oasis in the storm. I just think that it’s a problem when teachers sit down too much.

Tim: Yeah, I agree and I’m very similar where I was always up and around the room as much as possible, but I like having my desk there because I did so much with one-on-one conferences with students and having them come sit back by the desk. That works out all right, but for the most part, if you’re going to be a good teacher, you need to be up, you need to be moving around. Not only do you interact with students so much better, you are able to head off any classroom management issues before they even get started. I’m just going to share one story real quick there.

There used to be a teacher in my district who just sat in her chair all day long and worked on her own art, didn’t really care what her kids were doing and it got to the point where kids were literally smoking pot in the back of her room and she had no idea because she never left her desk. Obviously that’s an extreme case, but it just blows my mind the fact that teachers think it’s okay to just sit where they are and let their class go crazy.

Andrew: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s bad all the way around. There was a brief period where I was not in teaching, a dark six month period of my life and I had kind of a different job and I found it wasn’t for me. I gained fifteen pounds in those six months because I was not walking.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: I know this is a tertiary concern about art fitness, but I walk a lot of steps every day when I don’t ever sit down.

Tim: Yes. No doubt. I’m glad you’re keeping in shape.

Andrew: I try.

Tim: Then you had a good story you told me one time about I think it was about this teacher sitting in her chair and kids like coloring on themselves?

Andrew: Yeah. Again, I didn’t see this first hand but it was what I was told. This was a long time ago, so I inherited a classroom from a teacher who was kind of a “Let me find my spot and I’ll sit the whole time,” and she would tell her elementary students, “When you have a question on your art work, you write your name up on the board and then I’ll get to you one-on-one.” Well, you know if you’re teaching second grade or third grade, every single kid is going to rush up to the whiteboard to put their name on the board and try to get that spot and jockey for position.

Well, this was one of those classrooms where it was art-on-a-cart and she had kind of gone into the third grade room and third grade teacher left and then came back in and she found one of her third-grade boys just drawing on his face with his markers, just going hardcore on his face, covering it up and the third-grade teacher, who was really good, said, “Buddy, what are you doing?” “Well, I’m number 24 on the list and she said my markers weren’t any good anyway and she wasn’t going to help me so I’m doing this.”

You might think it sounds crazy, but to an eight-year-old, you know you’re not going to help in the next 30 minutes, you’ve been told that your art materials are substandard and not worth the teacher’s time, I would draw on my face too. I would just check out and, “Yeah, whatever man,” so that’s an extreme case of a kid and a teacher who just, it was not very responsive. That’s where I kind of learn, man, you’ve got to be up the whole time and be walking around and be responsive to your students.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. For sure, you’ve got to get up and get around.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: Moving on, though. I want to talk about number two on our list. Terrible art teachers are the ones that teach the exact same lessons every single year.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: I hate it. You and I have talked about this on the podcast, how we just change up our lessons all the time. 80% of our lessons are new every single year and obviously that’s not the case with everyone, but man, you’ve got to be trying something new. You can’t go through a 30 year career teaching the same curriculum each one of those 30 years. You got to get out there and you got to try some new things.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. It’s just, I think the kids eventually will go crazy if they know like, “Wow, not only did my brother do this project, my parents did this product.”

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: I can’t imagine as a teacher just like, I feel like after I’ve done something, let’s say three years, or okay, that’s about the max I’ve ever had something go. I’m starting to feel bored by it.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I’m not going to say 100% scrap it, but I might do it real real different, tweak it, do it in a different order. You got to keep it fresh or it’s just not good.

Tim: Yeah, no doubt and like you said, it just gets stale so quickly and I don’t know, part of the excitement for me with art teaching is just constantly being on the move, constantly being able to try something new and if you take that away from it, what … I don’t know. I don’t know how much there is to enjoy about art teaching if you’re just doing the same thing over and over and over again.

Andrew: Yeah.

Tim: Yeah, but anyway. Let’s hit number three.

Andrew: Yep. I’ve got another one. Number three is, and I don’t see this one as much but I feel like maybe it happens with teachers who have been around and kind of seen a lot come and go and you get this sort of apathy or something, but I’ve known a few teachers who kind of, they almost start to believe the negative hype about art teachers. They’re willing to believe that they’re less important than the other core classes.

Tim: Yes. Yes.

Andrew: “I can’t do that because I’m just the art teacher,” or “You know, it’s just art. It’s okay, I guess,” and there’s a real sort of resignation to the fact that we are under-appreciated and I know that we’re under-appreciated, but we should not be resigned to that fact. We should be a little bit irritated, a little bit angry and we should stand up for ourself and say, “I demand the same sort of respect and rights and accommodations that the quote unquote real teachers get just because I’m this special teacher.” That’s bogus so, I don’t know, get a little fire in your belly people and don’t put up with that stuff.

Tim: Yeah and it frustrates me when I see teachers doing that because it’s really disheartening to be putting all this effort into building this program and then somebody else in your district is just as meek timid leg, “Oh, I don’t really want to fight for anything because we’re just art,” like what am I doing over here then? Why am I putting all this effort in if you are doing exactly the opposite? You just want to shake those people like, “Stand up for yourselves. This is important. What we do is vitally important to what’s going on in our schools and we need to fight for that,” and taking a backseat to anybody is not helping us out.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I’ve got one that’s kind of related. Number four, I feel like it goes hand-in-hand with those people that have kind of got a case of being resigned to their second-class status is people who are always negative, and I know I’ve said this before and I tweet about it quite a bit, I hate it when teachers talk about, “Oh, God. It’s Monday.” Man, be quiet. You have an awesome job. You have the respect and the responsibility to shape young minds, you ought to be jazzed and excited to go to work on Monday. Don’t tell me how excited you are for a Friday. Don’t tell me, “Oh, there’s only 178 more days left til summer.” Be quiet with that negativity. I don’t want it.

Tim: Yeah, exactly and it does. It just brings everybody down. How do you expect your kids to get excited if you can’t be excited at all?

Andrew: Exactly, exactly.

Tim: I don’t know. That type of negativity just spreads and it’s another thing that frustrates me quite a bit. One thing that I had to laugh about. Melissa Purtee, one of the AOE writers, she’s been on the show and a lot of people know her but she said that she teaches, or used to teach with a guy who would always be like, “Oh, just got to make it 10 more years,” like we’re counting down. “Only 120 months til my retirement.” I don’t even know, how do you get that miserable? I don’t know. That mindset needs to change because it’s not good for anybody.

Andrew: Well and I’ve always thought, it’s not like anyone goes into education because they want to buy a mansion and drive Ferrari’s. It’s not the most lucrative paying job. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to like it so get the heck out of the way with that. I don’t know, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for people that bring that much negativity to the table.

Tim: Yeah. I completely agree and at one point, you love kids or you love teaching and that’s why you’re there so it may take a little bit of effort to rediscover that, but it’s worth doing. It’s worth finding. All right. I’m going to move on to number five here. Terrible art teachers a lot of times will just completely avoid a material that they don’t like, or completely avoid a material that they don’t want to teach, like, “Oh, it’s way too much work to do. Clay, my kids don’t want to do clay. Oh, I can’t handle the cleanup with painting and where am I going to store all those?” Don’t shortchange your kids because you don’t want to put in the effort. Your kids deserve that experience and you need to find a way to give it to them.

Andrew: Yeah, I couldn’t have said that better. Everyone has a discipline or a material that they feel little less confident in, okay, but two things. You’re probably more competent and able than your students so it’s fine.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: And two, that’s your job to go get more competent in that area then because otherwise, like you said, you really are shortchanging your students.

Tim: One mindset that it took me a long time to get into as a teacher, but I think more people need to think about things this way, it’s okay to learn along with your students.

Andrew: Exactly.

Tim: It’s okay to say, “Oh, guys. I am not good with watercolor but you know what? We are going to explore this together. We are going to figure this out,” and I think it’s worthwhile to admit that to kids and they can see you growing. They can see you learning at the same time they are so even if you’re not great with something, like you said, you’re better than the kids are right now and even if you’re not, learn together. I guess I look at it this way, if you’re not going to teach that to them, who is?

Andrew: Exactly.

Tim: Yeah, so there’s … I don’t know. You really need to get out of that mindset of trying to avoid a material, trying to avoid a material, trying to avoid a media and really change up what you’re thinking about and make sure you get into that. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum from avoiding things, okay, number six for me is those teachers that are too hands-on and they “adjust” student artwork where they’ll jump in, draw things, make sure that everything looks perfect and step in in front of the kids and change their work. That bothers me to no end.

Andrew: So I got to ask you a question. Put yourself in the shoes of a middle school kid, back when you were in middle school and high school, did you have an art teacher that-

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. You had an art teacher that did that to your work, huh?

Tim: You’re just assuming.

Andrew: No, the way that you said, “Yes,” I thought you knew the question. You were like, “Yes, that totally happened to me and I have scars and issues associated with it.” Did you have a teacher that did that to your work?

Tim: Not that physically changed my work but she was very much about like, “This is your subject matter. This is what you’re going to do.” Very little creative freedom which I think kind of falls into this too, but it really bothers me to just see teachers be like, “Oh, no. That’s not how you draw it. Let me draw it for you.” What is the kid learning at that point if you’re going to step in every time they make a mistake?

Andrew: Well, so I got to say, this has actually just recently come up in my own classes and I have a policy that I’m very vocal with and I tell my students right off the bat, our very first assignment, I say, “If you ever witness me messing with your artwork, drawing on your artwork, putting paint on your artwork, erasing something and you did not give me expressed verbal permission to show you something on your artwork, you have my permission right now to smack my hand as hard as you want,” and the look on their faces, I was actually a little bit stunned. I was like, “Wow, you guys have like really been waiting to smack a teacher like a little bit too much.”

They’re like, “Really? We can really do that?” I said, “Yeah. Listen, I had a teacher when I was growing up who if you had a question, it was, ‘Well, let me see it,’ erase, erase, erase, do it for you and oftentimes it was no better, if not worse, than what you had to begin with.” It’s like, man, all of my ownership and all of my pride in this work has kind of been undercut because, like you said, this teacher is too hands-on.

I don’t play that game so I tell my students, “Listen, if I can’t draw it for you with my finger and kind of show you without making a mark where something should go or how you should do something, or if I can get a scrap piece of paper off to the side and demonstrate it for you, then I’m doing something wrong and I’m a bad teacher, so don’t let me do that.” It’s worked really well. I don’t touch her fidget with the student’s artwork. I feel like when I was a new teacher, I used to revert back to that a little but now it’s not an issue.

Tim: Yeah, and I’m kind of the same way. If I ever felt the need to demonstrate what’s going on, you have to get kids permission first and they’ll say, “Hey, can you show me how to draw this?” You’re like, “Yeah,” and grab another piece paper or if it’s just something really small I’ll ask, “Oh, hey. Can I show you how to blend this right on the drawing here?” You have to get that permission before you mess with that.

I want to ask a follow up question with that one. What do you think the mindset is of teachers that adjust students? Why do they do that? Is it one of those things where, do they think that the quality of the student work reflects their quality as a teacher or where are they coming from with that?

Andrew: I think that’s 100% it and I think it’s a misunderstanding. I know that I can teach an awesome lesson and I can be a good teacher and I can actually have students learn a good deal of stuff. They’ve learned a lot, but they might have kind of a dog for a finished product. It might just not look that great so the finished product does not equal my efficacy as a teacher or student learning.

I think too many teachers buy into that falsehood and some of it is because I think administrators might pressure them into thinking, “Where are these beautiful pieces of artwork that mom and dad can hang above the sofa or that we can put up at the parent-teacher conference night?” Well, I think a lot of teachers are moving away from just beautiful finished products and more about the process so I think that’s what it is. I think those teachers are overly concerned with, “Their work equals my quality as a teacher,” and it’s just not true.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. You’re right. We do need to get away from that mindset, the phrase that we always hear, “Your classroom is not a production factory,” like it’s not about having the perfect display. It’s about learning and sometimes learning is dirty, sometimes learning is messy and you’re not always going to end up with that finished product. Anyway, it’s probably time for us to move on, so why don’t you give us number seven?

Andrew: In some ways, a lot of these things are interrelated and I think some of them, I think you can almost summarize a lot of them down to a teacher who’s not being flexible. So number seven is, and we’ve all worked with people like this, whether it’s an art teacher or maybe another teacher, teachers that refuse to use and adapt to technology.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I’ve known teachers who literally will look at this modern contraption of email and it’s like, “Oh, no. No. Not going to do the emails.” Are you serious? You’re not going to communicate with parents in the way that everyone communicates? You’re not going to create a class website even though you’re being mandated by your district to do that? You’re not going to upload grades on your online information management system? You’re not going to learn about new apps? Come on, man. You have to evolve with the times.

For some reason, I think it’s like technology is one of those things where we have a lot of people who just draw a line in the sand and it’s like, “Nope, I’m not going to learn that,” and it’s like, “Well.” There’s some sort of car slogan, bumper sticker that says, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a whole lot less,” or something along those lines.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: We have to be adaptable, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think that’s true and to play devil’s advocate just a little bit, I think there’s a good argument to be made about sort of limiting the amount of technology that is used in the art room because so many things we do are hands-on and it’s very tactile experience which our kids are getting less and less of. I think it’s okay to limit that but like you said, there are so many ways to incorporate technology with introductions and lessons, and working on just … Oh, how do I want to say this? Communicating with parents, communicating with other teachers, and if you’re ignoring all of those opportunities, like you said, you’re going to get left behind.

Andrew: Right. Well, and so we could even make like a subset 7A of things that terrible teachers do, which is like the opposite of refusing to use technology, which is like jumping on every technological bandwagon just because it’s new and shiny and glitzy, and then those people have an iPad with like 300 apps-

Tim: Yeah, very true-

Andrew: -that you’re never going to use and it’s almost like this digital learning environment for the kids. It’s so spastic and it’s like, “Hey, we’re going to do this app for one day,” and then they never learn it again or use it again, so I think that that’s bad. Ultimately I think the notion of using technology, there’s so many things out there that can make your job easier and make you be a better teacher. Why the heck wouldn’t you adopt those things?

Tim: Exactly. Very, very well said. All right, so let’s close it out here. Number eight on the list of eight things that terrible art teachers do: discipline either too much or too little. Here’s my thought on this. Obviously nobody wants that free-for-all going on in your classroom, but a lot of teachers allow it just thinking that art is the place for kids to express themselves and show who they are, which that’s wonderful but we can still have parameters for behavior. We don’t need to let kids do anything and everything they want to do behavior-wise and it’s really frustrating to see teachers just kind of let discipline go too much.

Then at the other end of the spectrum, it really bothers me when teachers are far too strict, especially in art class. Art class should be a joyful, exciting place. I’ve seen teachers that make kids sit in their chair and they do not speak a word the entire class period and were just sitting there, who knows, working on art shading value scales without talking or interacting or doing any sort of collaboration or even just basic interactions. You’re sucking the life and you’re sucking the joy out of your classroom when you do something like that.

Andrew: I’ve only seen a couple classrooms like that and they’re so weird because they’re so contrary to what really, like you said, an art room should be, a joyful, exciting place full of energy. I call them “art sweatshops.” It’s just like, “Heads down, faster, not right,” and the kids are just like, you can tell there’s no joy. It’s drudgery to be there. It’s like, “Gosh, you don’t have to run a classroom like that.” In some ways I think teachers do that because they want to look like all the other teachers in the building kind of thing.

Tim: Yes. Yes.

Andrew: It’s almost like we know we’re special. We know that we’re the square peg in the round hole but yet some teachers don’t want to be that so they’re going to imitate what all the other teachers are doing. It’s like, at some point you just got to embrace the fact that we are kind of a different bird and let’s embrace that while still having, like you said, some control, some parameters because we are unique.

Tim: Yeah. Again, that’s, I can’t say it much better than that. That’s really, really well said. All right, so we’re going to go ahead and close this show out. Like I said in the intro, everyone, don’t think that we’re just dwelling on all these negative things because we’re also talking about how you get around that, we’re talking about the other options that you have, and we’re going be back next week to talk about the eight things that incredible art teachers do, so Andrew, are you going to be ready for that one?

Andrew: I will be equally as fired up. I know I came across a little fiery tonight. It’s just because I had some like late-night coffee, so I’m all sort of fired up, so yeah.

Tim: Well, I think it made for a good conversation. If we can re-create that energy for next week then I think we’ll be in good shape.

Andrew: Yeah, it’ll be easy to do.

Tim: Yeah, so we’ll see you next week for the incredible things that art teachers do. Yeah, have a good night and we’ll talk to you then.

Andrew: Sounds good, man. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.

Tim: Thanks Andrew. All right. That was a fun episode and a fun conversation. I’m really looking forward to next week’s episode as well. Now, as we talk about all of these things that terrible art teachers do, don’t get upset if there’s something that really strikes a nerve with you. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. If you find yourself doing some of these things, and it bothers you, we’re not calling you out, we’re just wanting you to do better so think about how you can reflect on your teaching. Think about whether these ideas are relevant to what you’re doing in the classroom and maybe take some of those suggestions that we offer about how to do things differently, some alternative routes, some different ideas that you can bring in and that you can use to make your teaching better.

Like I said, next week we’re going to talk about all of the incredible and amazing things that art teachers do as well. That’s going to be part two, giving you some suggestions on what to do differently, what to do better to make your classroom and your teaching move to that next level. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. I hope it makes you think about what’s going on in your classroom. Like I said, if it touches a nerve, that’s a good thing because we want you to reflect and we want you to do everything that you can do to make your teaching better.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. I want you to go sign up for that Studio Fibers course that I talked about in the intro and you can also see more from the podcast on Make sure you sign up for our weekly Art Ed Radio email and now that you’re back at school, like I said, you’re going to want those emails coming every Tuesday, so go sign up. We’ll be back with the follow-up episode next Tuesday about incredible and amazing things that art teachers can do and we will see you then. As always, thank you 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.