Classroom Management

How Much of a Mess Do You Tolerate? (Ep. 037)

The fight to keep the art room clean and organized can sometimes seem like a never-ending battle. But is it worth all of the time and effort? Andrew tries to convince Tim about the benefits of letting the mess happen, and Tim takes a shot at convincing Andrew he can actually learn to be organized. They discuss how the right routines can lead to a clean classroom (10:00), and why the projects you teach sometimes force you to keep a mess (12:30). They finish the show with some of their best tips and tricks to keep the mess and the chaos of their worst projects under control (16:30). 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, Andrew McCormick.

Recently, I had an impromptu visitor in my classroom, a fellow teacher, but not an art teacher, that just wanted to stop by and chat about a few things, but as she came in, she made a little joke about how messy my room was. Now, keep in mind, at the time, I’m a week or so into a clay unit where I have about 180 students all working on clay, and I am doing my best to rebuild the ceramic curriculum that’s been a little neglected, to say the least.

I don’t have a lot of tools. I’ve got mountains and mountains of dried up clay and very little storage. Day in and day out, I am busting my hump to keep this room humming, and this joke hit me right square in the eyes at the absolute worst possible time. To say at the time I was feeling a little low and defeated would really be an understatement.

Well, I shot my friend some eye daggers that would have been the envy of every 15 year old girl out there. I may have even rolled my eyes, but I’m not 100% sure. After a few minutes of hashing out some things and apologizing for how sassy and salty I was being, we were all good. We made up. It was actually nice to have a fellow teacher to vent with, even though the initial conversation started about how clean my room was or actually wasn’t.

Now, I think my room is looking pretty all right, all things considered, but this really got me thinking. Art teachers are really different in their approach to how clean their rooms are. I tend to be on the messy and chaotic side, but to be fair and disclose a little bit, I’m much more organized and neat this year, as I’m fighting some supply issues and I’m keeping a way tighter watch on my materials. I also have just a lot more students, better class sizes than I’m used to, so I’m being a lot more organized and a lot tighter just as a matter of survival.

I’ve been that teacher that has piles on top of piles, organized chaos, as I used to like to call it. To me, this is a sign of creativity. Show me a squeaky clean art room or even an organized desk, and I’m wondering what the heck is going on here. To me, real learning through the arts looks a little messy, a little disorganized, right?

Well, I’m not so vain and conceited to think that my way is the only right way out there, so I’m going to bring on our old buddy, Tim Bogatz, as I know he’s way more on the clean and organized side of things to see if we can figure out what exactly the pros and cons are of being really messy or really clean.

I’ve always thought that classroom management is a little bit of a misnomer. When we say classroom management, really what we’re talking about is student management of behavior management. How we organize the room, how we tame the mess, stay organized, really ought to be what we think of when we say the words “classroom management”, but if I’m being totally honest, they aren’t really all that different. In fact, I think they’re connected.

I’d say the more solid we are in how we organize our classroom and stay on top of the mess, wherever we are on that messiness spectrum, our student behavior or what we’ve traditionally thought of as classroom management, will be better. How are you doing this year with your organization and your classroom management? If you’re like me, things could be a little tighter. Some days I’m nailing it, some days my kids seem to be running rough shot over my supplies and even over me.

Have you checked out The Art of Education’s course on managing the art room? Do yourself a favor and check it out. You can learn some new tricks or just rekindle that commitment to be transparent and consistent with your expectations and rules. Reclaim your room and reclaim your sanity. Managing the art room is a two credit class and it starts at the beginning of every month, so head on over to and check it out.

All right, I’m going to bring on Tim and try to convince him that I’m actually not as messy as he thinks I am. We’ll see how I do. All right, Tim, so let’s say I’m Mr. Messy and you’re Mr. Clean. Am I pretty much right in saying that?

Tim: Yes, I think that’s fair. I’m not quite as clean as I’d like to be, but yes, I’ve made a concerted effort after a couple years of having a really messy classroom to try and get things a little more organized and a little more clean, and having seen pictures of your room, I think that’s very accurate to say that you are pretty messy.

Andrew: Well, but I think I’m getting cleaner every single year, and I think there’s an organization and an order to my chaos. Again, we might have to set some parameters on a reasonable level of messiness. I want to ask you, if we are a little bit different, what do you think the pros and cons are of being clean? What do you think the pros are of being a little more on the messy side?

Tim: Oh, that’s a good question. I really like having things clean. More importantly, I like having things organized, because I think it allows for a little more autonomy with your students. If they are able to just know where supplies are, get them themselves, put them away themselves without making too much of a mess, I think that’s huge. I think that makes it easier on the students and it makes it a little easier on the teacher, as well.

As far as being messy, it’s really nice to just see everything, like if literally everything you own in your classroom is out and about, it’s really easy to find stuff, right? What do you think? What are the big things that you like about having a messy room?

Andrew: Well, so I’ve got to say, of course, the pros of being clean are I guess it’s easy to find stuff, but again, reasonably messy or reasonably creative chaos, so I think having a lot of stuff out actually in some ways entices students to use it more than if it was put away. Sometimes I think kids are like, “Out of sight, out of mind.” They don’t even think, “Oh, I could use twine or PVC pipe for this.” I think it’s a balancing act of making sure all of that stuff is visible, accessible, but yet still kind of organized, so it’s not like you’ve got to step over this pile to get to this pile.

I also think that things come and go in kind of an ebb and flow. There might be one project that’s really crazy messy, and then there’s other projects that you can get back on top of things a little bit and put a bunch of stuff away. I always felt like in my former job, I always had one or two assignments per semester where it was just batting down the hatches, man, because it’s about to get weird up in here and we’re going to have piles of crap everywhere, and then we’d calm down after that.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have switched jobs recently and I think I’m trying to get a little bit more clean. Do you think it’s possible for old dogs to learn new tricks, or is that just in my nature to be a little more messy, and it’s in your nature to be a little more clean?

Tim: I don’t know. For me, I think it was possible to switch, because my first couple years, my room was just an absolutely disaster, and I just got tired of that and slowly started working my way toward being a little cleaner and a little more organized.

For me, it just started with, “Oh, hey, we need to get all of these cabinets put together. Oh, let’s organize the paint. Oh, let’s organize the closet,” and just one step at a time, and you can slowly come around to getting things more organized, and I still always found myself lapsing a little bit where try as I might and however good my intentions were, the room still got kind of messy. I think that’s all right, but I think if you work at it, then you can definitely improve, you can definitely get cleaner and more organized if you put some effort into it and if you’re conscious about what you’re trying to do with it.

Andrew: I want to go back to these dark years in the Bogatz history when you had kind of a messy room. Was that unintentional, or was that a byproduct of inheriting a room that was pretty messy and it just took you a while to get on top of things, or did you inherit a clean room and then just mess it up real good?

Tim: It was a little bit of both. I inherited a nightmare, and that’s probably for a different episode, a different podcast. It was a disaster when I came in. Part of that was the cause of me being a little bit messy was just trying to sort through everything that was in the room, and part of it was just my personality.

My studio at home is a mess, and I have to work really hard to keep things clean, because it’s really not in my nature, and so I have to put quite a bit of effort into it. I think that just came with having a little bit more experience as a teacher and knowing a little bit more of what I wanted in order to get to that level where things were organized and things were as clean as I wanted them to be.

Andrew: Tim, I’ve got to ask you, did you notice that your studio at home got cleaner then as your classroom got cleaner, or did those two things go hand in hand?

Tim: Yes. Yes, it definitely did, because like I said, I think it was that mindset where I just said, “Hey, stress levels are down when things are more organized for me and for the kids and at home for my wife.” It makes things a lot easier when you know where everything is, everything has its place, it’s easier to find, it’s easier to clean up, and when you have that mindset, I think it does go hand in hand.

Andrew: Do you think that it’s just in some people’s DNA to be messy? I want to give you my thoughts on it first, and see if maybe you agree with me. I actually think that the notion of routines and rules and structures and then building up those routines over time with your students is actually one of the biggest things for keeping a clean room. You’ve got to enlist them to help you out, and for the students to help you out, you’ve got to have good routines. Do you think that’s maybe the biggest thing that prevents people from getting clean and being clean?

Tim: Yes, I think that’s a big part of it, because I don’t know, with high school especially, kids will only do the minimum amount of work that you make them do. They like to get away with anything they can, like hiding brushes so they don’t have to clean them or just dropping them in the sink, and it really does take some quality classroom management in order to get them doing that clean up routine. You really do need to have kids take some responsibility for it, and I think teaching routines, like you mentioned, is a huge, huge part of that, so yes, I think that’s a big key.

Andrew: If you have a messy room, can you just chalk it up, like, “Oh, these terrible students. It’s all these kids’ fault,” or is it 50/50 on the teacher, is it 100% on the teacher for teaching better routines?

Tim: I think it’s on the teacher, because like I said, kids are going to make a mess if you let them. They will do what they can get away with, and as easy as it is to blame it on the kids, if you don’t teach them the right way to clean up, the right way to organize, the right way to do things, then they are not going to do that, and so I do think it is the responsibility of the teacher to show them how to do that, to give kids the tools so they know how to clean up on their own, how to keep things organized. As much as kids appreciate a clean room, they’re not going to keep it that way unless you show them how to do it, so I really do think it’s on the teacher.

Andrew: Okay. I agree, but let’s play devil’s advocate here. Let’s say that you’re a teacher who is maybe on the choice spectrum, or someone who does really weird, big, outside the box projects, is using really unusual, funky recycled materials that people give you, all of a sudden we’ve got all these old pallets and we’re going to make sculptures out of these old pallets. Do you think that teachers that do that sort of stuff are just inherently set up to have a crazy, messy room?

Tim: Well, I think so. If you’re taking in donations all the time and bringing in recycled materials all the time and you don’t have a place to put them, then yes, it can lend itself to things being a little bit messier, and maybe you like it that way. Like you said, that creative environment can inspire kids sometimes, but I don’t know. It’s really a good question, because I think sometimes the creative aspect of things can keep you from having a clean room, but if you’re okay with that, then I don’t see a problem with it.

Andrew: Yes. I think it’s all a balancing act and knowing that, “Okay, I want to do this super memorable, kooky, crazy, weird project, and in order to pull that off, we’re going to have to have some chaos and some piles of crap hanging over some other piles of crap.”

I told myself at my last gig, I had a really, really tiny room, but I wanted to do big things, and I was like, “I’m never going to let my tiny room be an obstacle for me to do these big projects,” and I think I bit the bullet and just had to deal with a messy room quite a bit. Do you agree it’s a balancing act? Would you ever give up on doing something fun and creative all in the sake of cleanliness?

Tim: No, I don’t think I would ever do that, because I don’t know, why would you let your pension for organization dictate what projects you can do? Have you ever as an art teacher said, “Oh, I can’t do that. That’s too messy”?

Andrew: No.

Tim: We embrace the mess and we embrace the chaos quite a bit, especially when it comes to, like you said, those big, memorable projects. When I taught elementary, I loved having kids paint. I loved having them do clay. I loved having them do printmaking, because you want them to experience those things, and I think you’re short changing your kids if you are giving up on creative projects or memorable projects just because they are too much of a mess or because you need to keep your room clean. I don’t think as an art teacher that is a mindset that you want to or that you should have.

Andrew: Man, I’ve got to ask you, have you ever worked with or met an art teacher that was really ridiculously clean, just a neat freak?

Tim: I never have, to be honest. I’ve met teachers, and one of my really close teacher friends is amazing at keeping her room clean. She lets kids do huge wall tile mural projects. They do these huge paintings, they do incredible work, but yet somehow her room is always spotless, it’s always pristine, and I don’t know exactly how she does that, but I’m always in awe of that.

I’ve never met a teacher that really values the clean, organized room above all else. I feel like those teachers generally don’t go into art teaching. I feel like they’re the terrible science teachers that just pass out worksheets all day and never do labs. That’s the mindset that I think doesn’t really lend itself to teaching art.

Andrew: Yes. It’s funny, because I think you’re more on the clean spectrum, so for someone to be freakishly clean for you, they’ve got to be out of this world clean. I have met people that I’m like, “Man, you are really, really clean and super organized,” and there have been a couple that have given me the heebie jeebies, because I really felt like when I walked into their room, it had sucked all the passion and joy out of it. It’s kind of like in The Wizard of Oz when it’s all black and white and I’m just like, “What the heck is happening in this room?” That’s me having a much higher threshold for mess and chaos.

Man, circling back to what you said about being an elementary teacher, that you’re not afraid and weren’t afraid to use the messy materials, the printmaking, the painting, the ceramics, and really getting into it, did you ever feel like there was a media that is your downfall, where you’re just like, “Man, I try and I try and I try, but whenever this unit comes around, it’s when we get messy, and I can’t do anything about it.” Did you ever have one of those?

Tim: Yes. I feel like printmaking is always just a giant mess. I don’t know. With that, with the brayers, with the ink, especially if you use multiple colors of ink and kids are inking plates and pulling prints and finding space for them to dry, it’s just chaos, and kids are walking around with brayers poking other kids with them and not looking where they’re going when they’re taking their prints to the drying rack, and running smack into the back of the kid in front of them. It is a mess when you do printmaking. I think that’s probably the most difficult one, but painting can be kind of hectic, too, so I don’t know. What is it for you? What do you think really lends itself to being super messy?

Andrew: For me, I would say it is printmaking and ceramics and drawing and painting and sculpture.

Tim: Most anything that’s not drawing is a mess.

Andrew: Well, even drawing, because it’s just like, “Hey, Mr. McCormick, can we get out the oil pastels and the denatured alcohol and the cotton swabs?” Like, “Yes, sure, fine, go for it.” I think you’re right though, in all seriousness. I do think it’s printmaking, because there is so much commotion and there’s so many materials.

I also think that ceramics takes a high level of mastery to make sure that you’ve got your stuff where you want it, that kids know where everything has to go to. There’s a lot of dust, and with that one, I really try to preach cleanliness and safety at the same time to try to minimize on clay dust and all of that stuff. Those are the two that I think I have to work the hardest at to keep clean, but it’s totally doable.

Tim: Yes, I think so. Real quick, though, I know we don’t have a lot of time left, but with printmaking, I’m actually teaching the AEO Printmaking Course right now, and we just got done with our discussion board on management and organization, just talking about all the different tips and tricks that people have to keep printmaking kind of clean, and there’s a lot of good ones.

Separate ink stations for different colors if you want to do that, or keeping all the brayers in the tub, how your drying racks go, how you organize all your prints, having kids sign the back of their paper before they print so they don’t have to mess with it afterwards, just a lot of different ideas. That’s always a good discussion to have. Do you have a couple tips and tricks for painting or for printmaking or for ceramics that you like to use when it comes time to keep things clean?

Andrew: That’s a good question. It’s always a work in progress, and it always depends on your schedule, I think.

Tim: Right.

Andrew: Imagine your schedule goes from let’s say a class that’s doing painting, and then graphic design, and then ceramics, and then back to painting, and then back to ceramics. That would be kind of a nightmare. One of the things I’ve realized this year is all of my classes, even though they’re different, so it’s eighth grade art, ninth grade art, a lot of them are doing the exact same thing. They’re all doing acrylic painting at the same time. I didn’t intentionally plan it that way, but it’s just been lining up that way, so we’re all doing acrylic painting, and now we’re all doing ceramics.

I kind of realize we’re all wasting a crap ton of time and we have a ton of commotion and way more opportunities for people to ruin materials when I keep having these stupid clean up times when the very next class is going to use the exact same stuff. I’ve actually been doing a lot of, “You don’t have to clean up your paint brushes because the very next class is going to get them out. Just keep them in a bucket of water at your table, and it will all be good.”

The trade off for that, it’s been an awesome time saver for me, I haven’t had a single brush get ruined, which is amazing for me, because usually, like I said, well, you said, the kids will hide their brushes rather than clean them up. I haven’t lost a single brush. The only downside is the very first hour of the day has to get everything ready, and then the very last period of the day is then cleaning up for everyone, but they use those brushes, anyway.

One last thing about brushes, because someone told me this just recently, and I was really excited. If you soak a brush that you think is dead, been wasted with acrylic paint, in some Windex for two hours in a coffee cup with Windex.

Tim: Oh, I haven’t heard that one before.

Andrew: I’ve heard the Murphy’s oil for 24 hours, but man, Windex, two hours, brand new brush. It’s been awesome.

Tim: Nice. That’s a good one. Let’s go out on that. That seems like the tip to end the day right there. That’s a good one.

Andrew: Yes. Great tips, free podcast. What more can you ask for? That was free. That was a free bit of knowledge right there.

Tim: Perfect.

Andrew: Yes. Hey man, thanks for coming on. I appreciate it.

Tim: All right. Thanks, Andrew.

Andrew: All right. I’m not sure I really convinced Tim that I’m not that messy, but I think I convinced myself I’m doing a pretty good job, right? The big takeaway, though, there’s really no right answer on how messy or clean we should be as art teachers. If it works for you, if it works for your student and your program, that’s awesome.

Just know that for everything we do, there’s probably something out there that we can’t do or aren’t doing well, so would your class benefit if it was a little bit more organized and clean? Maybe. Probably, but if it’s not in your nature and you’re doing things great as is, why worry about it? Would your classroom benefit from a dose of madness and messiness? Well, if that’s the case, you can shoot me an e-mail, and I’m sure I could do a pretty good job of messing it up. I think I’ve still got it in me.

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