Adventures of a First Year Art Teacher (Ep. 029)

The first year of teaching is, well, kind of an adventure. This episode highlights the trial by fire that is your first year and shares some incredible stories from listeners and AOE writers. You will definitely laugh, you might cry, and you will undoubtedly be inspired as Tim and Andrew share stories to help you navigate your first year of teaching art. Listen for reasons why you can’t expect to be perfect (8:30), advice for effective classroom management (17:30), and why we all come back to teaching after a difficult first year (28:30). Make sure you visit theartofed.comall week for more articles, advice, and information for first-year art teachers. Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to art and radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show’s produced by the art of education and I’m your host Tim Bogatz. All right. This week we’re going to try something a little bit different. Andrew McCormick is with me to start the show. Andrew how are you?

Andrew: I’m doing good man. Thanks for having me on.

Tim: Yes. I’m excited you’re here and we’re going to talk all things first year of art teaching.

Andrew: All right.

Tim: That’s always difficult. The first year is far and away your most difficult year. We’re going to talk about all of the mistakes things, that go well, things that don’t go so well. If you remember we asked a couple of weeks ago for people to share with us their favorite stories from teaching art, their first year of teaching. Some of them are spectacular. Some of them are hilarious. Some of them are terrifying. We’ll get to hear some different clips and we’ll get to listen in on just a lot of different listeners ideas on what that first year is like. Andrew, I’m going to put you on the spot though to start with here. Do you have a good story from your first year of teaching that you want to share?

Andrew: Well yeah. I want to do two, one’s super super short and I think of it every year that I start and I just started my twelfth year here. Very first year teaching we’re in home room, all the kids are going to come talk to you. I’m sitting down, I’m a little bit nervous and this really big high school kid, like just huge very large individual, his name was Tony. He comes right up to me and I had replaced one of his favorite teachers I think and he just goes, “Who are you?” Welcome to teaching. Baptism by fire here. I felt like I had to kind of prove myself like right from the get go.

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: Then let’s fast forward to the very end of my first year and this is a while back right when Napoleon Dynamite was really really popular when it first came out. The assistant principle at the time, we were doing sort of a positive behavior interventions supports like what to do at the end of the school year. He said, “You know what would be fun? If we kind of did like a Napoleon Dynamite skit. You kind of look and sound like Napoleon Dynamite if we put a shirt on you and a wig.” of course I was new and I wanted to please. I’m like, “Yeah. Sounds like a lot of fun.” End of the school year. Auditorium. Now, keep in mind I learned the dance routine at the end of Napoleon Dynamite and I practiced that thing religiously for weeks.

Tim: Oh my god!

Andrew: The lights are down on stage. I come out. I do my dance and I’m so nervous that I’m dancing in front of six hundred, seven hundred kids and my eyes are closed the whole time because I’m so nervous. I hit the final note and I strike a pose. My eyes are closed and I can just feel the standing ovation that all of the students gave me. I was like, I’ve finally arrived. I’ve finally made it. I just let that snake over me for thirty, forty seconds. It was awesome. It was a great way to cap off the end of my first year.

Tim: Yes. I love it. That is hilarious. Now, I need to ask, is there video of this performance?

Andrew: Deep, deep in the annals of that school’s TV broadcasting class, I do believe that there is a 2006 end of the year, or 2004, I forget what year. Somewhere there’s some videotape of it but it’s very hard to come by.

Tim: Oh wow! That sounds fantastic. I feel like I need to do some research and see if I can get a hold of that. That’s a good one. All right. I need to tell you about not only my first year of teaching but my very first day of teaching. I was doing elementary art at the time. My first two years I taught elementary art. I went around to different schools. Anyway, I am at the school and the teacher is supposed to stay in the classroom and help supervise and learn from me how to teach some different projects. It’s kind of weird position but anyway. My expectation is that she’s going to stay in there with me but literally as soon as I’m in there she is gone, she is out the door. I’ve got this class by myself and I’ve been teaching for all of an hour and a half at that point in my entire life. Still pretty nervous about it despite the fact that these are first graders. They’re not that scary, right?

This kid comes up to me and we’re painting I believe which is not a great thing to do on the first day. This kid comes up to me and is like, “Oh, I don’t feel very good.” I’m like, “What do you mean? He’s like, “I think I’m going to throw up.” I’m like, oh God! What do I do because there’s no teacher in there. I can’t send this first grader to the nurse without somebody going with him. So I run across the hall real quick and I say to the others, “Can watch both classes really quick so I can take this kid to the nurse?” She’s like, “Okay, I guess.” I pick up the trash can, I’m like, “All right bud, let’s go.” I am running down the hall with this first grader who’s about to throw up and I’m just holding this trash can so that he doesn’t throw up in the hall. We’re running down the hallway and all of a sudden he just turns and pukes and completely misses the trash can. It’s all over me. It’s over my arm. It’s over my stomach, my leg. I am less than two hours into my teaching career and I just got puked on.

It was just like that, that welcome to teaching moment for me. I don’t know, I can’t really think of a more inauspicious start. That was not pleasant. You know what, you get through that stuff and if you can have a sense of humor about it, just realize it’s going to make for a good story later on. I’ll just ask you here. I know we don’t have all the answers but do you have any good piece of advice for first year teachers? If it came down to one or two big things, what would you say to first year teachers?

Andrew: Boy! I’ve always found this to be good advice especially when you’re new. It is so easy to spend every waking hour in the art room because you have so much to learn. The gap from what you learned in college to what you really need is so huge.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: You’ve got to get out of there from time to time. You’ve got to get a hobby. You’ve got to have some friends. Otherwise, I mean, you’re going to be one of those people that come January, February is burnt-out. It’s okay if not everything gets done every single night. I think the kids don’t know what isn’t done and prepared.

Tim: Yes, very true.

Andrew: You can pull one over on them. You’ve got to pace yourself and I know it’s tough. The tough thing about teaching is it’s both a marathon and a sprint. You have to run a really really long distance as hard as you can and you better hold off enough of it so that you don’t just fizzle out and burnout come that rough month of February and March. I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s okay to cry. Just don’t cry in front of your students. I think that that’s probably not a great thing but I’ve had plenty of people tell me they go out to their car after class. That first year can be totally rough but every single person gets through it and that’s the normal experiences. It’s a culture shock that first year.

Tim: Yeah, for sure is. You’re making it sound really depressing though so we’re five minutes into the podcast you’re like, I don’t know if I want to do this. I think, my advice would be kind of similar to that. You talk about not spending every waking hour worrying about school and I think that’s kind of key. You can’t take everything so seriously. When I went through my first year, it seemed like everything was a matter of life and death. You really need to keep it in perspective because you want so badly for everything to go amazingly well but the fact is it’s not going to your first year. Like you said, it’s rough at times but if you enjoy what you do and you really love what you do, you can get through those rough spots. It’s not the end of the world if things don’t go exactly as planned.

Actually, I think that’s a good transition into our first story. This is from Shannon Bell. Like you said, teachers are so worried about everything going perfectly and we have to face it, things are not going to go perfectly. I think this story does a really good job of illustrating that fact.

Shannon: It’s my first year of teaching. It’s my first observation ever as a brand new teacher. I had planned this awesome drawing lesson about monsters. My second graders were going to create these drawings and we were going to talk about adjectives and really descriptive words and really descriptive drawings. My lesson goes really well. We get to the end of class and I’m like, that was awesome closure. All the kids are going to share something about their monsters. My second grader stands up and he goes, “Well, my monster has eight testicles.” It’s like, oh my gosh! They’re tentacles. I said, “No, no, no. He has eight tentacles.” It’s that moment where you look your brand new principal and you’re like, “I don’t even know if we can laugh about this yet.”

Tim: Okay. That’s a good one. I like that. It brings me to a question for you though, how much should people worry about what’s happening when supervisors are in their classroom or when administrators are observing them? Is that something that you have to stress about your first year?

Andrew: I would say no. In my experience, and I can only talk about my teaching experience, I’ve had nothing but awesome administrator and awesome supervisors. When they come and watch me, I know that they’re coming at it from a place of support and empathy and trust. They trusted that I’m the professional and that I know what I’m doing and I’m handling this. I’ve never had an administrator who really had an adversarial approach or I felt like they didn’t have my back. That might change things, might change my answer. I think you’ve got to go into it almost like you pretend they’re not there, like they’re invisible because if you really start thinking about, oh my gosh my administrators here, you’re not going to be yourself, you’re going to be unnatural, you’re going to be nervous, you’re going to screw things up. Whenever I have an administrator there, I do one of two things. I either imagine that they’re not there or I ham it up, hard core or just like, oh it’s dog and pony show, this is going to be really good.I’ve been doing it for a while so I know when I can pull out all the stops and really go for it.

Tim: Yeah. I think my first year I was super stressed about that but eventually I came to the realization that your administrator, like you said, is supportive, they want you to do well. I think, more importantly, they’ve seen everything before. No matter how good your lesson is they’ve seen better and no matter how bad your lesson is they’ve seen worse.

Andrew: Right.

Tim: The point is they’re going to support you no matter what you do so whether it goes terribly or whether it goes perfectly, it’s not going to affect things one way or the other. What they want to see is that you’re competent which most of us are so that’s not that big of a deal. They want to see that you’re reflecting and thinking about how to get better. Even if your lesson does flop then as long as you can learn from that that’s what they’re going to appreciate it. Yeah, like I said, I don’t think you need to stress all that much. It’s important to keep in mind that not only are things not going to go perfect, you’re going to have a few days that are going to be absolute disasters. Hopefully that’s not a day when you’re getting observed. We have a couple of good disaster stories that are both from Art of Ed writers here. First up, is going to be Abby Schukei and secondly we’re going to hear from Lee Ten Hoeve. Here’s Abby.

Abby: Okay, so my first year of teaching I had a second grader in my room who seriously ate everything. There was one particular day that he started eating the crayons. I saw him doing that so I walked over and said, “Okay, well you’ve lost the privilege to use crayons today since you’re trying to eat them.” Then he continued to eat glue and then followed by paper. I kept going over there and taking them away. Then finally he took a pair of scissors and started cutting his t-shirt. Then he saw me walking over to him and he knew I was going to take them away, so he got up, started running around the room. Luckily, the scissors were left at the table. He started running around the room. He whole grips his shirt open. Then, before he started running down the hallway out of the classroom, he took the bucket of glitter that I had as a naive first year teacher and he literally made it rain glitter. It was like a horror scene of second graders crying and glitter falling on their faces. There’s really no coming back from that. I don’t even know what I did after that. It’s kind of blacked out from my memory.

Tim: Okay. That’s a good one too. Glitter is definitely not my thing but I can see where people might not mind that look in their room of just glitter everywhere. It could be something kind of nice. On the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s hear from Lee.

Lee: My first year I had a study hall of particularly uninterested and difficult students. They would regularly break out in fist fights with one with one another. I focused mainly on keeping things from breaking or devolving into chaos. To that end, I didn’t let them aimlessly roam the halls as they would have wished to do and so I became quite unpopular. One day one of the students actually dropped his pants and intentionally defecated in the hallway outside my door as a little gift.

Tim: Okay. I don’t even know how to react to that. Let me just ask you Andrew, have you ever been in a situation where you thought to yourself, you know what, the appropriate response here is obviously to just poop on the floor?

Andrew: Have I ever felt like that was my go to move … ?

Tim: Who does that?

Andrew: Oh boy! Somebody who’s got some deep, deep issues I guess. Boy, that’s a rough spot to be in, that’s all I can say.

Tim: Oh man, I can’t even imagine. I don’t even know how you deal with that. I guess it does kind of bring up the issue of dealing with those tough kids. Now, I’ve never had a kid that’s pooped on my floor but we have all run into those issues. Let me ask you, what was the toughest thing for you discipline-wise or classroom management-wise in your first year?

Andrew: Boy, that’s a good question. I don’t know that I could point to one thing. I just felt like that first year you’re kind of trying to find yourself a little bit. I think what a lot of new teachers go-to move is going to be, the art teacher that they had in high school or maybe the art education instructors that they had at the college level or maybe they’re cooperating teacher and student teaching. Sometimes I think people think that right off the gate you’ve got to be your own person and have your own voice and do it your own way. I’m here to say there’s a lot to be said for being an amalgam of a lot of different people and borrowing from different people and learning from people. I, still to this day when I teach, I will hear teachers that I had in high school. I will hear their words come out of my mouth because if it’s good teaching and it’s good classroom management, why not borrow that. As you’re finding what works for you, strict, light, fun, just know that it’s okay to search for awhile and also to rely on people that were there before you and influenced you.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s good because you can draw inspiration from a lot of different places. I think that letting that inspiration guide you when you first start is not a bad idea because, like you said, you’re still finding yourself, you’re still finding the best way for you to do things and until you get to that point there’s nothing wrong with imitating from what you’ve learned.

Andrew: Well, one of the things I think about too is a lot of new teachers are going to be joining a department of a couple of other teachers or even if they are a one person department you’re joining a school that has its own cultures. You can take some cues from them on where you need to be on that spectrum of classroom management. There’s a phrase that I learned early on in teaching which is fake it til you make it. Sometimes you have to act a certain way, tougher and stricter than you actually want to be because you’re presenting a unified front. That’s okay, I think as a first year teacher. Then as you’ve been there a little bit longer and built up your chops, you can say, you know what? I don’t think I need to be this mean or this type. That I can loosen up and still have control of my classroom.

One of the things I think that’s rough for a first year teacher and one of the things I’d recommend is, have a little bit of modesty. You might think that you’re God’s gift to art teachers but maybe come in with a little deference and a humble attitude and learn from other people that are already there. If you don’t do that and you know you have all the answers at the age of twenty to twenty three, boy you’re going to rub a lot of people the wrong way that you work with.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. I guess that brings me to my next question or the next story actually. This teacher actually wanted to remain anonymous. It’s a story of, even though she’s trying to do things right, she still was not able to fit in at her school. Let’s take a listen.

Anonymous: I was hired at 8pm the night before school started. I was really excited and nervous of course. I stayed up for a couple of hours trying to get ready. I was hired part-time. My start time was 11:30 but I wanted to come in earlier of course to setup and meet the staff. I’m really glad that I did because when I came into my room it was just a complete mess. I found the most random things in the cabinets, rusty saws, old cameras. It was just a mess. On top of that, there was just shipment everywhere. I had the kids in a few hours so I had to get the room clean. I moved all the shipment off the desks. Tried to clean up a little bit. I was literally wiping off the kids’ tables as they were coming in because it was just filthy. My first week I was asked by the teachers and parents to do various projects which I did because I was trying to fit in and just be liked by everybody. It was so overwhelming. I just remember thinking that this was a lot. Again, I did it because I just wanted to fit in.

Some things that happened in my first year, was teachers would come into my art room whenever they wanted to. They would take anything they wanted, at anytime. Sometimes I would come in and my light would already be on and my door would be unlocked. I recall one time, two teachers came into my room to get bulletin board paper and I was teaching. I remember them being just so noisy and laughing. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. I took it as such a disrespect because I would never do that to another professional. What they didn’t understand is they were taking my instructional materials. It was really tough. I even told administration. Nothing really stopped until my second year. The first day, our principal wrote an email and said that you can’t go into the art teachers room without her permission. It stopped then.

Another incident, my first year, a grade level had sent down an aid to get supplies for the next year as if I was their vendor. I explained that these things were my materials and I would give them some but not everything on their list. They fought it and administration took every box of paper out of my storage room. That was about forty boxes. That was really a pivotal moment for me, in my early career. I was really amazed at how undervalued I was as a professional and that anyone could really do or take anything they wanted. It still upsets me to this day when I think about it. Again, my second year principal was amazing. She helped me a lot.

We went through a different principal it seemed like every single year. I only worked there for three years but we had a different one each of those years. I really bonded though with second year principal. She had called me into her office one day. She said, “Close the door.” Someone, I guess, had complained about me and it was something very trivial and not a big deal but told me and I’ll never forget this. She told me that I need to get out of this school. She had talked to the superintendent and my position was never going to go full-time. That I just needed to get out of here. I just will never, ever forget that.

Tim: Okay, that’s, I don’t know. I don’t want to say terribly depressing but that doesn’t give you a good impression of what things can be like the first year if you’re in the wrong situation. Let me ask you this, how important do you think it is to try and align yourself with the staff at your school? You talked about the importance but how do you do that?

Andrew: Well, I think it’s important within reason. I mean you can’t run contrary to your nature, your beliefs and your morals. I mean, it’s sounds like with that, that was a really really tough situation to be in. That’s one of those things where I’d say no. I think you’ve got to be true to yourself and you’ve got to maybe get yourself out of that situation. If it’s little things.  If it’s, this sounds so silly but going down to eat in the staff lounge even though you’d much rather get caught up on stuff. Especially as a new teacher to show yourself to be willing to be a part of the team. I think that little things like that are important but no one should have to change everything about who they are to have to fit in or not feel like they’re welcome because they’re not you know doing X, Y and Zs. It’s a balancing act.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s some really, really good advice. I actually want to close it out here. I have one last story that I think is worth sharing. Let’s give a listen to this one too from Jessica.

Jessica: I have so many stories from my first year of teaching that would blow anyone’s mind so it’s hard for me to just pick one. I worked at a K through 8 school in the inner city of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was an extremely poor neighborhood. The kind you wouldn’t go through after dark and felt uncomfortable in just stopped at a traffic light. I was the art teacher. Every day I taught every single grade. Forty five minutes each. Kindergarten through eighth grade. I saw a lot. The things I saw would have blown your mind. There was the time I had to confiscate pot from a second grader who was rolling a joint in the middle of my class and she was doing a pretty good job. The time my room was broken into and someone put their own feces all over the walls, board and desks or the time I saw a student light a cigarette in the principal’s office as he was being reprimanded.

One of the stories that sticks out the most is the time I learned not to get in the middle of a fight, even if they were kids in the seventh grade and both girls. Fights broke out every hour in the school so breaking one up was pretty common for a teacher. The bell had rung and the students were leaving to go home when two girls began to fight in the hallway. I had them separated eventually but one girl was angry I had broken up the fight. She turned around and socked me right in the eye. Everyone expected me to quit. I got a black eye that I wore back to school the very next day. It gave me so much respect from both teachers and students it turned out to be a good thing. The student was suspended for ten days saying she accidentally hit me. I never got an apology. In fact her parents were upset she was suspended for that long because they felt it was unfair since she claimed it was an accident.

There is one special thing that happened at that school that got me through the bad days. I had a coffee cup, a big red apple that I used every day. One day during a fight in my class it shattered. A student in the fifth grade secretly swept up all the pieces, took it home and glued it back together. It was totally useless as a cup but I still have it to this day as a symbol that even in the worst of places with the most difficult people there is always a positive and someone there that is trying to make things better. If you focus on the ninety percent of the troubled kids in that school I had cussed me out every day or threaten to shoot me, it sounds like a hell of a year. If you look at the ones who try to do good even despite having a difficult life, it makes you remember hope.

I’ve since left that school and now work in a wonderful new school in Virginia. That cup is still on my desk to remind myself on bad days to focus on the positive.

Tim: I don’t even know how to describe. It sounds like quite the situation. We’ll just say it like that. It really does illustrate a big point. I don’t think most teachers are going to be in a situation that that’s rough. Hopefully, very few teachers deal with what just Jessica’s dealing with. I think for all of us on some level that first year is just so incredibly difficult for a myriad of different reasons. If it is so tough, why do we keep coming back? What makes you come back for year two?

Andrew: Well. I didn’t have anything that extreme or that tough but I had days and moments where it’s like what am I doing? I’m just getting it handed to me here. Everything I’m trying isn’t working. For every one of those moments, I think there’s thirty or forty where kids will come in and say, “I love your class and thank you for being you and this is the my favorite time of day.” You have those things where you know the work that you’re doing is so meaningful and important to the students’ lives. I can’t imagine and I could never imagine doing anything but what I’m doing.

Tim: Yeah. I honestly don’t think I can say it any better than that. I mean, that’s a great way to put it. I think for a lot of us we just have that calling like I was meant to be an art teacher and that’s where we end up. No matter what struggles there are, like you said, the positives are so meaningful that they’re always going to outweigh the negatives. Yeah, I think that’s a good place to end it right there. Andrew, thank you very much. I think this is a good conversation and hopefully some of the things we cover can help some first year teachers out there. Thanks a lot.

Andrew: Yep, my pleasure.

Tim: All right. We’ll talk to you later.

Andrew: Yep

Tim: Andrew said it really well there. For every headache that you have this first year of teaching, hopefully you’re not having kids poop on your floor, hopefully you’re not getting punched in the face, but you are going to have some trials and tribulations. For every one of those, you know there are going to be dozens of moments that really do hit home as to why we do this and really make you happy to be a teacher, really crystallize exactly why we do this. My biggest advice for your first year is just to focus on those moments. Make sure that you’re accentuating the positives because there’s so much affirmation that comes in on a daily basis. These are the stories that we remember, everything that you hear today, those are the stories that you’re going to be telling years from now. If you focus on the smaller things that make your day a little bit better, those are the things that are worthwhile and that’s what’s going to make your first year go well. Make sure you focus on the positive. You’ll get through this year no matter what happens and you’ll be back just as strong and better than ever for that second year. Like we said, this is our calling. This is what we do. Art teachers are what we are supposed to be.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Make sure you check out where we have dedicated this week to first year art teachers. We have advice. we have articles. We have entertainment. Just a big shout out to all the teachers who are going through everything here for the first time. You can see more from this wonderful podcast on where you can sign up for the weekly art at radio e-mail. You know now that you’re back in school, you really want those emails coming in every Tuesday making your day better each time so go sign up. We’ll be back with the next episode on Tuesday so we’ll see you then. Thanks 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.