The Art Teacher’s Self-Defense Card

Art teachers live in a state of perpetual advocacy. No matter how supportive our school districts are, it sometimes feels like we are constantly working to justify our importance as a subject area. We know how vital our programs are to our students’ education, but there seems to be an unspoken need to continuously validate and promote what we do. Honestly, when was the last time you saw the algebra teacher encouraging everyone to participate in the “math fundraiser” to buy the calculators and protractors that are essential to his/her curriculum?

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Even when surrounded by colleagues and parents who support the arts, insensitive comments or questions about our profession can sometimes feel like “death by 1000 cuts.” It seems like a never-ending stream of comments about finger painting, grades, and how easy our job must be. And, if you are anything like me, the right words just won’t come to mind when you are flustered and heartbroken, faced with an “awkward art situation.”

The French have a word for this, l’esprit de l’escalier. It loosely translates to “staircase wit.” We don’t have an English equivalent; but man, we need one! Basically, it describes the frustration of realizing the perfect response to a situation AFTER you leave.

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But how can we, as art teachers, spontaneously generate an intelligent and professional retort in the moment? Sadly, because of the emotion involved, we probably can’t. But what we CAN do, is practice a little bit of verbal self-defense…. and I mean literally practice. Here is a step-by-step guide to helping you avoid a l’esprit de l’escalier moment at work.

1. Reflect

During your down time (I know, I know – I can hear you laughing), think about previous comments that caught you off guard. If you had a l’esprit de l’escalier moment, jot down what you wish you had said. If not, take your time crafting an authentic response that reflects your passion and belief in what you do. What will you say, for example, if someone asks why you need a plan period?

2. Rehearse

Once you have these brief scripts, review them while driving or in the shower. Rehearsing what you “might say” prepares you to respond gracefully when the inevitable happens.

3. Revise

Sometimes, when you are deeply offended by a comment, the gut reaction can be snarky, passive aggressive, or sarcastic sounding (at least my inner voice is!). Try your response out on a loved one. Ask for their feedback on your message and tone. Does it sound sincere and professional? If not, revise!

To help you get started, I asked the AOE team to share questions or comments that have ruffled their feathers in the past, and they gave me a great list. Boy, I have heard more than a few of these! I took a while to let the comments marinate, and then created some potential scripts. To make it more fun, I’ve created an “art teacher’s verbal self-defense wallet card.” Simply download the card, cut it out, and keep it in your wallet.

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Download the Card Now!

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Hopefully, when you see it, you will feel inspired and supported, because we are all in this together and advocacy is our mission! Go practice up, so you can be your own best defense!

What art the comments that drive you nuts?

How do you handle them?

Lindsey Moss

Lindsey Moss is an elementary art teacher in Yorkville, Illinois. She enjoys art history and finding creative and artistic solutions to educational challenges.

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  • Leo Barthelmess

    I just got scary flashbacks from my elementary art teaching days! Actually it doesn’t get much better in HS. One that i think you missed is the constant requests for paint, paper and other art supplies as we as art teachers are trying to save every scrap to get by for the year. My biggest pet peeves seem to be outside of the classroom these days from from creative individuals in art industries that I meet at parties, galleries and gatherings that think that teaching art would be so much more relaxing and stress free then their jobs as Architects and designers etc.

    • Lindsey Moss

      AMEN to the supply requests!!!! I work with a lot of very respectful teachers, so I am able to set pretty clear boundaries with my supplies… but I have the hardest time saying no to my students when they come in from other classes. “Do you have 100 popsicle sticks for math?”… man, do I have fudge-sicle on my face? Why would I have that?? Thanks for reading, Leo.

  • Theresa McGee

    I LOVE this! Hysterical and true. When I interviewed for my first job I was asked the question: “What if a teacher ran out of time in class and begged you to help her finish Valentines cards with the students during art class? What would you do?” My answer was “I would love to help, but I have a curriculum that we need to cover and we won’t have time. However, I would be happy to help you brainstorm some ideas on how to get it done in your class.” At the time, I wasn’t sure if I bombed the question or if I nailed it. Well, fortunately, the administrator who interviewed me wanted someone who was willing to stand up for the art curriculum and as a result, I got the job. If my answer was “wrong” I don’t think I would have wanted to work there anyway.

    • Lindsey Moss

      It is refreshing and wonderful that your admin. values art in that way! I have been in a really supportive situation for most of my career, so I also feel fortunate…but I am SO impressed that was an interview question. Very cool!

  • Amanda Hendershot

    Great article! Thanks for this!

    • Lindsey Moss

      Thanks, Amanda! I appreciate that!

  • Mr. Post

    Little kids call their school days “art day” or “gym day”. My students say art day is the best day of the week. I have had moms tell me that “their kids have tried to get out of their pajamas and go to school on days when they are sick with a fever because it’s art day!” No one does that for fraction day in math. When the kids are your biggest fans it’s easy to ignore adults who don’t get it.

    When someone tells me that teaching art must be fun, I tell that that it’s more like hosting a party all day long where most of the guests drop things on the floor and make a mess of the place.

    • Lindsey Moss

      That is the best analogy! Love it!

  • Lorraine Pulvino Poling

    Yay! True, amusing, AND helpful!!!

    • Lindsey Moss

      Thanks for reading!!!

  • Cara Kingsley

    Couldn’t make it as an artist huh?! Insert mental face palm here!!!

  • Christine Bozzuffi

    when another enrichment teacher started working in my building (they were new to teaching), they asked me “are we always treated like this? is this normal?”…i replied “yup. get used to it.”…..my perspective is to teach for the kids. let their enthusiasm and excitement for your subject carry you. i love seeing them totally engaged and psyched to learn a new material/technique. it makes me love my job; even if everyone else is not on board.

  • Melissa

    Love this self defense card. I have had too many l’esprit de l’escalier moments ( thanks for the phrase to explain!) My biggest issue is the “can you paint the backdrops for the drama/musical/presentation events?” and whilst feeling flattered that they are engaging my artistic side i end up doing the work in my own time at the expense of my art supplies, without reimbursement for either.
    My other big issue is the fact that I only have middle school kids once a week and so regularly the English/Maths teacher uses this time to come and give out notes/books/awards etc during my lesson with them, when this teacher sees the students every day! Its like it doesn’t matter to interrupt the art lesson!