What Do You Do When Kids Make Bad Art?

It’s three days before winter break. I look around the room during my fourth-period class and I don’t like what I see. The students in my Art One class seem to be doing everything except what they should be doing, and the work they are making looks… sloppy… lazy… like a waste of materials…

These kids, I think, just don’t care.

It’s easy to blame students for bad artwork or bad behavior. We say they lack effort or talent or that they shouldn’t be in our class. We move on with our tried and true lessons, annoyed they haven’t gotten it together. Some kids just can’t learn, right?

Well, that depends on who you feel is responsible for learning.

When I have moments where I’m blaming my students for their lack of success, I have to stop and examine what I know to be true–that I’m ultimately responsible for what takes place in my classroom. When I get frustrated with what’s going on in my classroom, I take a step back and think introspectively about all the moving parts: my instruction, my lessons, my procedures, and my own actions.

How was my instruction?

If the artwork is not as successful as I envisioned, the first place I look is my instruction. If students are not understanding key concepts I know I need to re-teach them in a way that is clear and provide some time for them to apply new skills and get feedback from me. If just a few students are falling short of mastering content, I work one-on-one with them individually. If they don’t understand, I try teaching it another way.

Does my lesson need to be retooled?

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If kids are apathetic and disengaged, chances are it has something to do with the content of lessons. Good teachers constantly reflect on the success of their lessons and change what isn’t working. Each class is different and has different needs. If you are spending years and years teaching the same lessons, chances are the content is not as relevant or engaging as it once was. Student behavior and work quality will reflect this.

Are my systems working?

One of the first things I look at when I have issues involving procedures are the systems I have in place. I make sure students know the procedures and have access to important information with anchor charts. Sometimes I notice a system that normally works well isn’t the best fit for a specific class and I make changes.

What am I doing?

Thinking about how what we do impacts students can be the hardest thing to do. However, when we identify things we need to change it can be easy to implement changes and make a big impact. I look at what I’m doing as I teach and think about how it might impact my students. Am I available to answer questions? Am I checking in with each student as they work?

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In the situation with my Art One class, there were a few issues I noticed when I took some time to reflect. One was related to my systems. It felt like everyone was wasting supplies, but when I really looked around at was going on, only a few students were having issues. I reviewed procedures with my whole class, which solved many of the problems I was seeing.

Still, I noticed one kid pouring huge piles of paint and leaving his palette, along with whatever else he had used that day, on the counter. I was completely annoyed with him until I realized he had joined the class late in the semester and missed learning about some key procedures. He had also never been assigned a cubby to store his work. Giving him a place to store work, going over the procedures with him again, and checking in with him during cleanup time helped solve many of the issues I was seeing.

The last thing I noticed had to do with my behavior. I realized I was in the habit of taking attendance at my desk while my high school students were getting supplies. This is normally fine to do in my teaching situation, but this particular class really needed my support during that time. Changing my own behavior helped me support the behavior of my students.

It’s human nature to settle into a routine, but it’s often the opposite of what teachers need to do. Teaching isn’t about finding something you like and settling in, it’s about adapting to the needs of the students who are in your room at any given time. If your kids are making bad art, you have work to do. This requires flexibility and empathy. We have to be resilient and foster a “fix-the-problem” mindset because what happens in our classrooms is ultimately our responsibility. When we stop looking at the bigger picture for solutions to problems, we are figuratively asleep at our desks.

What do you do when you see less than excellent art or problem behavior?

How often do you reflect on your own teaching?

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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  • Michelle

    Thought provoking Melissa. I try to be a reflective teacher but sometimes in the moment, I end up being the teacher who just wants a minute to sit down and I miss that window of opportunity to check in with the student whose work could use a little feedback. How do you approach those moments with students when they have reached the point of no return and the work still needs more work/effort/a fresh start (in your teacher opinion)?

    • melissa purtee

      Oh, good question! I’ve certainly experience the missed opportunity of not saying the right thing in the moment and realizing it later. For me, it’s always effective to go to the sidentity the next day and tell them what I realized after we talked. Even if it’s too late they know I care, plus I’m modeling reflection.

  • Caroline

    This is really helpful to me as a first year teacher- thank you. One of the things I do well is reflecting on my teaching and even changing a lesson mid class if I need to. One thing I wanted to mention is that I really feel the classroom environment that I’ve set up has a huge impact on the work my students do. Everything from music to lighting to -especially- the noise level makes a difference. I teach K-5 and find that reminding my younger students to slow down and do their best work can sometimes help.

  • Thank you so much! I am so happy to read this inspirational article since I am starting a new assignment (PreK to 8). In 2015, I was RIFd from my 7 years at a school…It was a mixed blessing, because I was ready for something new. I have been teaching in various long term art teacher positions, and doing freelance design/illustration in the meantime.
    Yesterday I was called back to a school I worked at before. They have been trying to hire me, things have not yet lined up with the central administration. I look forward to the day I find a staff position so that I can set up and have the time to develop my program! However, it’s been really great for my creativity as an art teacher to have the experience of walking in and taking the reins at the spur of the moment and getting a new group of young artists excited and creative.
    At the moment I am planning lessons and envisioning the set up of my new art room. You had me laughing with your photo illustrations. I am sure your classes are filled with such great opportunities for creativity and therefore too much fun for a student to fall ever fall asleep. Thank you again for

  • BossySnowAngel

    So what if it is the second class of the day and the student is in an upper level studio class? I ask this because I am so tired of the responsibility of creating being thrown on the teacher. Are we not supposed to encourage students to seek their own visual solutions to work? And what about those students who are dropped into a class simply to fulfill a credit requirement or because it’s the only open slot for their schedule? I’ve taught for a long time and I adapt my lessons every time I give them. I have moved from paper presentations to powerpoints to document camera videos along with live presentations. I have given students leeway to develop their own voices within the skill or idea I am trying to instill. But in the end, it is the student who decides to work, to not work, to turn in marginal work. I have had students who were in AP courses for every other class who would intentionally pick and choose projects to complete to give them exacting a 70, because electives aren’t included in GPA’s in my district but a Fine Arts credit is still required. Just this term I had a student who demonstrated great skills who simply did not do the work even when given an inordinate amount of freedom. How about, for a change, we ask why counselors insist on putting students who don’t want to be in art, who don’t want to buy the supplies, who don’t want to do the work in our classes? I don’t say this from a point of weakness-I’ve been teaching nearly 20 years and I’ve helped students get into high powered art schools along with good university programs. I know what is necessary to succeed in these programs and at some point the students has to want it more than I want it for them.

    • Jano

      I feel your frustration! I had 2 students wasting time in my class day after day until I found out they were on the basketball team. I informed the teacher who is their coach. The next day they were working as hard as they could to get the project done. Students will say, “its only art.” They don’t use the generous class time given and then when they get an F they ask why. They shouldn’t pass art just because they are present in body.