Do Teachers Need To Be Experts?



Nothing feels better than having a student ask how to accomplish a task with which we have a certain expertise. Maybe they ask how draw a city scene and we are well versed in perspective. Perhaps they want to know how to paint a landscape and we can wield a brush like Bob Ross. When we know the subject or the medium, it’s good to be the teacher, but what happens when we don’t know the solution?


Do art teachers need to be experts in order to teach?


Play It Safe


One solution for when a student asks to try something we ourselves are not familiar with is to simply say no. Most likely, our lesson plans and rubrics are well established. We have set guidelines for the project, and we expect the student to follow suit. Although this method is safe, it’s possible that we may inadvertently dismiss an authentic learning opportunity.


It’s OK To Not Know

Learning is messy. Whether it’s clay, glue or (help us all) glitter, art teachers understand mess. The mess, however, is always on the student side. Teachers prefer order in everything we do from stowing our supplies to the lesson plans we write. Being an expert is part of that order. When a student asks a question, we instinctively want to provide the solution. However, the best teachers know that sometimes it’s better to respond with another question. Though it will feel and sound messy, it is even more intellectually honest to say, “I don’t know”. There is value in not knowing. When we surpass our ‘need to be the expert’ mentality, we open the doors for engaged learning.


Figuring It Out Together

Perhaps the best way to respond to a problem when you don’t know the solution is for you and the student to figure it out together. This is where I like to live. If a student asks and I haven’t a clue, I respond, “I don’t know. Let’s find out”. In this situation, the teacher and the student can work together and both contribute to the learning. The two parties merge their talents and form a team. The teacher becomes one of the students, working to accomplish the task at hand.


Student as Teacher

Perhaps the most vulnerable situation is when the teacher admits they don’t know how to accomplish a task but is willing to be taught by the student. In this circumstance, the student becomes the teacher (but don’t worry, you’ll still get paid). The teacher then leaves the research to the student with the expectation that the student will return and demonstrate how to accomplish the task to both the teacher, as well as their fellow classmates.


One More Note About Messy

When we, as the expert, demonstrate a solution, the results are almost guaranteed success. When we admit we don’t know and attempt to discover an explanation without tested results, there is the inherent possibility of failure.  That’s OK. Learning is messy and can occur even if the end result is a complete flop. Learning how not to do something is just as powerful, if not more so, than learning how.

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How do you overcome your fear of not being the expert?

Have you ever worked together with your students to discover something you weren’t sure how to do?

Have you ever learned something entirely new from a student? What was it?


Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Tracy Skeels

    I love to learn from students. As an adult we have more life experience and are “in charge” of the classroom environment, but our students bring a fresh, often honest viewpoint to the equation. Their questions and solutions can be aha moments for us. When I started at a new school and grade level, elementary from high school, I could not figure out how to set up my room, my fifth grade daughter said I know, and proceeded to set up the tables, it worked well for that first year. She was more experienced with that environment and was able to lend her knowledge to me, a newbee to the elementary classroom. I think it is important to listen to what our students ideas, questions, and opinions are, and work together to learn.

  • Jessica Blumer

    You write some of the best articles! I need to track down your blog one of these days.

    • iansands

      Thanks! It’s

  • marilynpeters

    This year I had a small painitng class so I had each of them identify and research an acrylic painting technique. They had to create a work of art featuring that technique and make a presentation featuring a power point presentation, step-by-step how-to poster and demonstration with their painting as an example. Students had to make a chart featuring each painting technique so they had a ready made resource. The results were even better than I had anticipated.

    • iansands

      Student research is something I’m trying to incorporate more and more. I believe the students take ownership in the learning when they do the research. Just as an example, I used to present many examples of art before we would start a project. Now I show very few but ask the students to find their own examples. They find examples that are relevant to them as opposed to me showing the ones I like.

  • Ginger Smith Bate

    Thank you, Ian. I said many times, “Let’s try this.” or “I don’t know why your clay bowl fell apart. Make another one.” or “I don’t like to draw portraits. Not good at it and not interested in spending hours learning. I do portraits with a camera. I like to do other things. Watch this video. You will do more of that in Art 2.” I miss teaching with you!!

    • iansands

      I’m keeping the trailer warm if you ever want to come back :)

  • Nikki R.

    Great post! When I first got out of college, I had no plans to be an art teacher. I felt like I didn’t know enough — wasn’t an “expert” in enough areas — to be able to teach. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that there are SO many areas and materials in art, that there’s no way for me to be an expert in all of them. It’s okay to say a particular area is not my “thing” and help the students research and learn on their own.

  • Amanda Vroman

    I began teaching in the middle of the year, right out of college. Unfortunately I had very little ceramics experience, and 6 sections of ceramics ahead of me. There was a lot of figuring things out together, and advanced students teaching me how they accomplished certain things. I am proud to say that I am a better teacher because of it. I learned to facilitate learning instead of dictate it. I am a firm believer that the most important thing for a teacher to understand is the process. If you can model doing research, studying other artists approach to a problem, and then experimenting with various solutions to find the most effective solution, both functionally and visually, the art room will become your students oyster!

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  • Elizabeth Castor

    I have a pretty easy teach-the-teacher (or be-the-teacher) moment at the end of many projects… I ask the students to write up advice to future students about where the got stuck and how they solved the issue or a list of cheats/hacks for the last project that they did. It creates a great moment for meta-congnition plus when I’ve reviewed these I have discovered problems that I never knew kids were struggling with.