10 Things I Wish I Had Known 10 Years Ago

Teaching is undoubtedly difficult, but it gets easier with the sort of wisdom that’s learned from experience. When I started my career I had no idea what I was doing – no first-year teacher ever really does! Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve learned many things that have made me better at my job. Had I learned them sooner, I would probably have fewer gray hairs! But these are the 10 pieces of advice I wish someone had given me when I started teaching.

1. Never Send an E-mail When You’re Angry

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This was one of the first mistakes I made as a new teacher. I noticed someone had taken my artwork down from the hallway without letting me know or giving it back to me. I typed out a passionate email about how art work should be valued, not “shoved in a backpack to get it out of the way” and sent it to the whole staff . . . and regretted it the moment I hit send! For the rest of the year, I heard comments like “better not touch her artwork!” The more mature me always waits at least an hour before sending any important emails. What I said was valid, but my hasty response hurt my credibility.

2. Positive Relationships are Key

It’s a fact of teaching that you will have students who drive you crazy. I’ve come to realize that these are often the students who need a positive relationship the most. Now, I try to understand unpleasant behavior as a cry for help and actively develop a relationship with students who exhibit it. Once we get to know each other, the student is always easier to deal with and more successful in my class.

3. Make Cleaning a Habit

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I hate cleaning, but I love a clean art room. Keeping a clean space is easier if you set aside time to pick up and organize every day, instead of waiting until the mess drives you crazy. I’ve learned, after spending years waiting until I had a huge mess on my hands, that daily cleaning is the way to go.

4. Don’t Teach Coil Pots the Same Week as Human Growth and Development

I did this. Twice. The results were not pretty, and I still cringe when I think about all the snickering as I demonstrated rolling a coil…

5. Be Part of the School Community

Art teachers, especially in elementary, are so often set apart. We have to defend our programs from those who treat us like recess or see our supply closet as their personal grab bag. It’s a lonely position to be in, and that’s why I find it so important to find ways to be part of the school community. Things, like setting up a teacher supply cabinet or hosting a tie dye party for staff, go a long way toward building relationships and mutual respect.

6. Advocate for Yourself

There have been times in my career when I’ve allowed my program to be misunderstood or marginalized. I often find it difficult to respond in the moment, especially when I’m surprised. This has caused me to miss chances to promote and champion the learning happening in art class. I know now that while I don’t have to say the perfect thing in the moment, I can take some time to think and follow up with a second conversation if needed to help debunk misconceptions and promote my program.

7. Asking Questions is the Most Important Thing We Do

The role of questioning in teaching cannot be overstated. How we use questions when working with students often can make or break our lesson. It’s how I determine what my students know and how I help guide them to the answers. Coming up with good questions on the fly isn’t always easy – for that reason, years ago, I started to plan questions to use in advance.

8. Think of the Student’s Perspective

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Sometimes we have blinders on when it comes to what reality looks like for our students. We often just see the behavior at the moment, not the context. Is a kid sleeping in class because he’s lazy, or is he working after school until 10 pm, and not getting enough sleep? Did a girl snap at you because she’s disrespectful or is it because she’s dealing with things going on at home and is constantly stressed out? We never know until we ask and, over the years, I’ve learned to ask every time. It’s important information to know.

9. Never Use Grades to Punish

We are at our best as teachers when we are fair and emphatic. We know this, at least most of us do, but it’s not always easy. Students test us, some more than others, and we can become jaded. I’ve seen grading policies that reflect this. The grades I’m talking about take points off for behavior instead of trying to reflect what learning has taken place. When we do this we damage the relationships we have with our students and make our classrooms about enforcing rules instead of building knowledge.

10. Always Start with the Take Away

It’s tempting for art teachers to start instruction by planning the end product. I spent years thinking about what I wanted my kids to make instead of what I wanted them to learn. We are, of course, the visual arts and visual appeal matters. However, it isn’t the only thing or even the most important. If we want society to fund the arts, to think we’re important, we have to make what we teach matter to all students and that means focusing teaching on important concepts.

There is something to be said about learning from experience. Hopefully these pieces of advice can help you learn a little more quickly than I did!

What things do you wish you would have known as a new teacher? Tell us in the comments section!

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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  • Carol Hughes

    Thank you for this article. I love number 10- Always start with the take away. We have such a rich subject with incredible curriculum integration possibilities. Our students can always go home excited about what they learned in art today. Not the process, but the connections they made to a bigger picture.

  • laura ornstein

    ‘ug cleaning the art room it never ends :)