Why You Should Never Compare Yourself to Other Teachers

The work was stunning – full of bold color and movement. It looked advanced and child-like at the same time, perfectly orchestrated. As if I didn’t already know it was superior to the work I’d entered, the gleaming first place ribbon made it clear. It was my first year teaching and my school’s entry for the state fair just didn’t measure up. I didn’t measure up. Many of us have the same feelings when we see the work of other teachers, at shows or online.

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Comparing ourselves to colleagues is easy to do. The product of our efforts is visual and lends itself to aesthetic evaluation. “How did she do that?” we wonder. “Where did he get that idea?”

It’s easy to look at our students’ work and find it lacking unless we take into account one little fact: the work we show is an illusion.

Teachers often choose to show or share only the projects that were most successful, leaving out the rest. It doesn’t present an accurate picture of what we’ve done or what our kids have achieved.

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Walk into an art classroom on any given day and you’ll see a range of levels of success. Some kids will get it right away, making work that looks effortless and beautiful. Others will need help: reteaching, more explanation. Some will hurry through, careless and sloppy while others will work so slowly that they never finish.

The teacher will work with each of them, or try to – some teachers have more students per class than instructional minutes. Questions will be answered and help given. Students will learn new things, struggle, and improve. None of the individual growth that is integral to successful teaching is visible in the final product, especially in displays that only include the “best” work. This is why you should never compare yourself to the work other teachers display – the final product leaves out all of the journey and the context.

Instead, what if we all shared and celebrated the process of art-making in addition to the end point? How would art education look if we valued effort and growth as much as aesthetics? Of course, we want other teachers to see the best work that comes out of our programs, but we should share the rest too – it’s our reality. I challenge every art teacher to show a range of responses to assignments or to chronicle a student’s art-making process and share it. The teaching of art should be judged by the amount of learning that has taken place as well as its appearance, by us and by anyone else.

Do you only choose to show the best examples of work from your classroom?

How do you document and share your students’ art-making process?

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.

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  • Frances Chapman

    Truth spoke…couldn’t have expressed it better! Well said!

  • Leo Barthelmess

    Art education is a whole different beast than Art. While the product is important and its importance increases as a student progresses, it is school work and school is about learning. With that, I am not a big fan of art contests because it does place value on the product from a situation where product is only one pursued aspect. I do want to laud the exemplary products students have in art class and praise their brilliance and I also have pride that I have helped that gifted student but the truth is that student artist was gifted before I met them and will continue after they leave me. The biggest successes in the art room is usually found not in the gifted student’s work but in that student that truly grew and learned which can end up looking like a hot mess next to the gifted student’s work but genius compared to that student’s preliminary drawings and understanding.

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  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    Leo is dead on. For me that is why I hang everything. Every piece goes up – the work has to be seen and mainly by their peers, to really motivate them to give me their best. I put up in the office work from students of all ability levels chosen on the basis of their significant improvement in skills or focus, or simply going outside their comfort zone. I don’t do the end-of-year shows. Instead I hang a constantly revolving show any place in the building I can. And I’m getting my middles to do the curating of the shows. There is definitely art to that as well! A good show requires the application of aesthetic concepts that go beyond individual art creation. Plus the ownership gives them a real sense of educating the entire student body, parents, and visitors to the important and valuable work we do.
    I see roughly 185 6-8th graders everyday so that’s a snootful of art to hang, but the hanging of everyone’s work is something that has paid immense dividends in the quality of their work that I can’t ignore. I also document the process as work develops and the final pieces by uploading simple google slide shows to our class website. Now I’ve just got to train the beasties to do that part too!