The Comparison Trap (Ep. 027)

Art teaching is difficult enough as it is, so why make it more difficult by constantly comparing yourself to other teachers. It’s fair to compare, but make sure that you are doing it in order to inspire! In this episode, Cassie talks about how stressful it can be–for everyone–to put their best foot forward (5:30), tips to avoid falling to the comparison trap (7:30), and how you can get your mind right to celebrate others’ successes (12:00). Full episode transcript below.


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When I was a kid, probably about six or seven years old, my dad loaded up my Big Wheel. If you’re an 80s kid then you know what I’m talking about. They were all the rage. All the kids had them. They had one giant … It’s like a tricycle. It had one giant wheel in the front and two smaller wheels in the back. You sat in this really sweet blue seat. It was super comfy. Then you had these giant bright yellow handlebars with the little plastic doohickeys that hung from them that kind of flew when you pedaled super fast. If you were like me, you loved your Big Wheel so much, that eventually the plastic tires got holes in them, ended up with rocks inside, made this really cool rattle sound as you wheeled yourself around your neighborhood or up and down your driveway like I did.

One day, one evening, my dad loaded up my big wheel in the back of his car and we went to our little tradition of going to see … Basically it was kind of like stock cars, kind of homegrown version. No Talladega Nights up in Indiana where I’m from. During the intermission, they cleared all the cars off the track and they had Big Wheel kids’ competitions. I didn’t know that that’s what my dad had in store for me, but apparently all that going up and down the driveway he had me doing was training me for this moment. He took my Big Wheel down to the track and all of kids we lined up. He said to me, and I don’t know why this stays with me. He said to me, “No matter what you do, I want you to just keep pedaling and do not look back.”

Just keep pedaling. Do not look back. That’s what I did, and I won. I won a really giant trophy. Isn’t that hilarious? I mean this thing was probably half my size. From there, I think that my dad and I were hooked. I did every Big Wheel competition that there was, and it was the 80s, so apparently there were quite a few. I remember his word of advice to me was always the same. Don’t look back. I remember asking him once, “Dad, why not? I need to see where everybody else is. I need to be able to turn around and see so I know where I am in the race.” He said, “No. When you turn around and you look back, it slows you down. You lose your focus, so don’t look back.”

Y’all. That weird little bit of advice, I apply it to so many things in my life. One of them is what I call the comparison trap. So often as an artist or an art teacher, we find ourselves looking over our shoulders. Looking at what other teachers and what other artists, what people are doing and comparing ourselves to those people. Comparing what we’re doing to those people. We lose focus and suddenly we find ourselves not only derailed, but maybe not as far along in the Big Wheel race as we maybe could be. I want to talk about that today. The comparison trap. I’m Cassie Stevens, and this is Everyday Art Room.

I don’t know if I’m a competitive person by nature, but I feel that I am. I also know that I have tendencies to want to be perfect. To want to do the best that I can. It does not apply to things like housekeeping. You should see the disaster of a room I’m currently sitting in. But it does apply to things that I place a lot of importance on, like creating and like teaching. For that reason, I often find myself stressed. Stressing about the lessons that I’m creating or what I’m doing with my students in my room. A lot of times we have feelings like that, I think that we have the idea that we are alone in those thoughts. Y’all I want you to know that that’s not true.

I recently had that reaffirmed to me when I want to an art teacher PD. I teach in a very small school district. I teach with some amazing art teachers, and we are fortunate that we get together about once a month and just kind of share lesson ideas or sometimes we just chat. That’s what we were doing on this particular PD. We found ourselves talking about our upcoming district-wide art show. Each one of us is to select about 10 pieces of art from our students, matte them, frame them really nicely, take them down to the Frist Center for Visual Arts, which is our local big art museum. We do that with other surrounding counties.

I thought it was just me. I thought perhaps I was the only one who put a lot of stress on the projects I was doing with the kids and the artwork I was choosing because I want to show a really great face for my school, for my students, and honestly, for me. When the conversation of our district-wide art show came up, all of us started commiserating about how stressed we were about this. How stressful it was to pick the artwork, to come up with lessons that we found to be engaging and exciting for our kids, but also create something that we can hang proudly and that our students can be proud of as well. It just made me feel so much better to hear that I was not alone in that anxiety.

We all kind of agreed that we really were kind of losing our footing by having so much focus on that. That is not why we became art teachers. However, there’s the comparison factor. When we go to that art show, we can’t help ourselves to compare what we’re doing with our student in our art room to other teachers. You just think, “Gosh I need to be doing more. I need to be doing this and I need to be doing that.” On a broader scale, I feel like social media really contributes to the comparison trap that many of us find ourselves possibly falling into.

After that PD that night was my live chat that I do, both on Instagram and Facebook, every Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. central standard time. I made mention of that, and the conversation just exploded. So many of us feel the exact same way. Even Patty Palmer, who has the incredible podcast Art Made Easy, and has the incredible website and business all about sharing lessons and creative content. SHe’s even spoken about this on her podcast. About how almost, I don’t want to say crippling. I don’t feel like it’s an appropriate word, but it just makes us feel stressed, this comparison thing. So what can we do about it?

Thing number one for me, when I notice that I am falling into comparing what I’m doing with my students or how my art room looks or just even my management plan. When I find myself falling into that trap, and it usually happens when I’m on social media, I straightaway turn my phone off and I put my phone away. I have to take a break because I’m losing my focus. I’m falling down this little rabbit hole and it’s not a good place to be. I try to turn that focus back to where my focus should always be, which is my students. I look at them and I look at the projects. I look at what we’re doing in my room, and I’m thinking. Always at the top of my thoughts are, “Are we having fun?”

I’m sorry, that’s always at the top of my list. That might not be where you think the top priority should be, but I personally believe that children are learning the most, retaining the most when they are having fun. When they also know that you are having fun. The times that we’re doing something enjoyable but I’m stressed, like let’s be honest, clay in 30 minutes. I’m not exactly kicking me feet up and relaxed. We’re having a good time, but I’m definitely not at complete ease knowing that there’s the time factor.

I know that my stress, because our students are mirrors, they kind of reflect that, and it isn’t as enjoyable as it could be when I have that tension. When I realize that, I just try to take a deep breath and just let it go. But all that to say when I’m constantly comparing myself to others, and beating myself up over all the things that I feel as though I need to be doing in my art room, I really force myself to change my focus. I would encourage you to do the same thing because I think it will help you kind of re-adjust your thought process.

I feel that when art teachers share on Instagram and blogs and social media, there is something really important that you need to keep in mind. We all love to celebrate our successes. One thing that I think that social media has trained us to do is to paint a picture of ourselves. One that we want people to see. So when you’re looking at somebody’s feed or somebody’s blog, just know that they’re usually not sharing the flops. They’re almost always sharing the successes, because that’s what we want to celebrate. That’s our nature.

One blog that I’m a huge fan of, it’s not art teacher related and I’ve followed it for years, is one called A Beautiful Mess. I love it because the girls who run the blog, they share DIYs and recipes, beautiful pictures of their home. She actually addressed this one time, where somebody said that they would feel a whole lot better if she would please share her flops. She said, “Nobody wants to see that.” I thought, “Wow. Do people ever.” I need to be better at doing that, at sharing flops. What I think it does is that it says that we’re all learning. We don’t need to one-up each other. We don’t need to just share pretty pictures. It’s sometimes really wonderful for all of us to see a little peek behind the curtain. The reality. Which is why often when I do share my mishaps, it’s usually images of pictures of my horrendous storage closet.

I like to share it because it’s comically bad and it cracks me up when people are sometimes commenting to me how organized I am. Yeah. Let me show you what’s behind this door. Then take a look at what’s behind this door. One hot, stinky, flaming mess after another. Now of course I’m losing my train of thought. I think that a lot of times when folks share, and they’re sharing this beautiful image, and we’re sharing what we try to project to the outside world, I don’t think anybody is necessarily doing that to say, “I’m better than you.” I think that people like to celebrate their successes. However some people, including me, I sometimes see a success of others as them saying, “I’m better than you.” That’s my fault. That’s on me, that is not on them.

When I realize that that is happening, I really have to check myself and think, “Why are you having these thoughts?” Because that is not on the person who’s sharing their successes. That’s you looking back, looking over your shoulder, and comparing yourself to others. Like I was giving that little story in the beginning, we really need to, when we find ourselves in these kind of situations, make sure to not compare ourselves to one another. We are our own unique individual in our own special and unique situation with our own amazing, diverse, and unique students. We’re never going to be just like one another, which is an amazing and a beautiful thing. Thank goodness.

It’s vital that we keep our eyes straight ahead while admiring what others are doing and being inspired by them, but just keeping our own eyes on our own goals and knowing that the path that we’re taking is the one that is working for us. Of course there’s always room for improvement. I think sometimes comparing yourself can inspire you to be better. But when it stops inspiring you to be better, when it starts creating a negativity or a gnawing or an anxiety, then maybe turn off the phone and readjust your focus. I think that’s what’s going to help us get past the comparison and start to really appreciate one another and what each one of us does in our own art rooms and help all of us grow.

Like I’ve said so may times before, I feel like there’s so much we can do when teaching art that it can be very, very overwhelming. Art history, all the different media, all the different projects. But I think that we’re all on this journey together, of learning how to teach and to do the best thing for our students. If we can stop comparing ourselves and think of it more as like a team effort, I think that we’ll all be so much better at teaching because of it.

Am I rambling here? I feel like I might be rambling a little bit here. This is just such a weighty thing, and it’s something that I deal with a lot. I know that I’m probably not alone and I just wanted to get it off my chest and share it with y’all today. Thank you for indulging me and letting me share that with you guys.

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Cassie: Let’s take a little dip into the mailbag, shall we? Sorry about that. This first one comes from Mary. Mary has a question about my gallery of gratitude, which is a project that I did initially a couple of years ago, and I’m doing it again this year. I will explain more about that in a moment. Let’s first get to her question. She says, “I was wondering if you had each student choose a different person to write the gratitude note to. I was thinking about doing that to make sure that everyone got at least one gratitude picture and one note. I was wondering how you manage that process.”

Okay, so a couple of years ago around Thanksgiving time, I really wanted my students to do a give thanks kind of project. That’s where the gallery of gratitude idea came to be. What we did was this. My fourth grade students drew portraits of every person who worked in the school. Custodians, lunch ladies friends, all the staff members, teachers, admin, you name it. If they worked in my school, we drew their portrait. My third graders, they created beautiful frames out of metallic papers. They decorated the frames and they also helped with portraits if we had any names left over if they happened to finish early. Then we also drew names and wrote notes expressing our gratitude to that person.

My younger friends in second grade on down to kindergarten, we did something a little bit simpler. My kindergarten kids, I printed their hands. I just put some paint on their hands and printed it on a piece of paper. They told me who in the school they would like to give a high five to. So I wrote that at the top of the note. I think we did that with first grade as well. Then my second grade kids, they drew hearts and they wrote about who had their heart at our school. So it was a school-wide collaborative.

This year I’m going about it a different way. I’m doing it strictly with my fourth grade students. It’s going to be our legacy piece. My fourth grade students always do something that they leave behind, and they are currently creating portraits of everybody who works at our school out of modeling clay. You can find this lesson and this video on my blog and my YouTube channel. They will also be writing those notes of gratitude. The biggest question that I get is what Mary asked. How do the students pick? This is what I have done, and it seems to be working pretty good.

We have a long chat about what gratitude is. We watch a kid president video on gratitude and how to give thanks. We let the students who have parents that work in our school, because we actually have quite a few, we let them go ahead and call dibs on their parents. We all agree that that would be fair. Then we have a long chat about how we’re going to draw names. They are not allowed to say whose name they have, but after they have drawn the name, if they know who that person is, because a lot of my students are new, or it might be somebody on the staff that they never had to come into contact with, if they know who that person is and they want to create their portrait, they can go straight to the store to gather their supplies, we call it the supply store in my room, and go get started.

If they draw a name and they don’t know who the person is, or they just never had them as a teacher, then they can stay on the floor. We do that silently. After all the names are drawn, I’m left with a couple of kids, probably about five or six kids, sitting on the floor. I say to them, “You guys can talk amongst yourselves quietly. See if anybody here on the floor wants to trade with you. If you get a name that you’re traded and you’re happy with, you may go get started.” For those last couple of kids who are sitting there with a name of somebody who they don’t know who this person is, sometimes I will either explain to them who that person is, or give them the opportunity to re-draw.

That does mean that I’m left with several names, perhaps the night custodian that most people aren’t familiar with, or a woman who works in the cafeteria who doesn’t come out of the kitchen much, so the kids are not familiar with her. What I do with those names is, there’s always those early finishers. I have one kid, we call him Fast Phillip. He is so fast and his stuff he makes is amazing. I know, and he’s already said, “I’ll be able to do a couple of these,” my man Fast Phillip is going to be able to crank through one portrait and then go on to another. That’s a great way to kind of solve that problem, because everybody wants to pick their “favorite teacher.” Well usually the favorite teacher is pretty popular and everybody wants to do that portrait. We really try to talk about how it’s important to show gratitude for everyone in the school because it’s an effort at the school. We’re all working here at the school to make you the best kiddos we can. We need to make sure we keep that in mind when we draw the name.

They’ve had a really positive response to that and a really great attitude about it. I hope that helps. I hope that makes sense. When it comes time to write our message of gratitude which will be underneath the framed modeling clay portrait, which by the way will be framed with plates I found at Hobby Lobby. They had these beautiful plates at Hobby Lobby that look like picture frames. I don’t think that was their intention. Probably made for weddings or something, but they’re gorgeous. We will be writing our message of gratitude.

Probably as a group we will have to talk about why we are so thankful for the people in our school. Sharing about how we can express our gratitude for all the things that they do for us. It was one of those projects that the kids enjoy doing, but the faculty … Y’all there were tears in the hallway. They were taking pictures of their portraits. When I took all the portraits down, they wanted them. When I go into teachers’ rooms, they still have those portraits hanging. It was one of those projects that really touched everyone’s heart, so I can’t recommend it enough.

Thank you Mary for the question on kind of how to hash out passing out the names for the gallery of gratitude. If you guys have a question for me, you should send it my way. You can find me at Everyday Art Room at

So what did you learn today in this podcast? You learned that if you ever find yourself on a Big Wheel on a stock car track and your legs are pumping for their very lives, that you should never, ever look back over your shoulder. That applies to life. I feel like comparing yourselves to others can be healthy. Looking over your shoulder every now and then might not be such a bad thing. There’s always room for improvement. But when you start to turn that feelings of improvement into something that’s not helpful but hurtful especially to you, then maybe it’s time to just keep your eyes focused straight ahead.

What ever happened to Big Wheels anyway? I think we should bring them back. I probably went through about three of those things. Just to continue with my story, I racked up the trophies. I was kind of like the Big Wheel champ. I don’t want to brag, but I’m so going to brag. I had an entire shelf of trophies. My dad took me to those Big Wheel races every weekend. You better believe that by the time I was in fourth grade and I had legs up to my eyeballs, I looked like a praying mantis trying to pedal that thing. Pretty ridiculous. But it taught me such a great lesson. Stay focused. Keep focused on what’s important and what’s important to you. I think that that applies to everything in life.

There ya go. Thank you so much for joining me on Everyday Art Room. I’m Cassie Stevens.

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.