Dear Subpar Art Teacher, We're Here for You.

Dear Subpar Art Teacher,
This blog is for you. 

Not because I get any pleasure out of calling you out for what is wrong with your lessons or your delivery of them. Believe me, I don’t. It’s quite the opposite. As I see kids leaving school holding their identical collages of turkeys before the Thanksgiving weekend, I cringe. As I listen to you instruct kindergarteners on following steps to create a monster from Where the Wild Things Are, my blood boils. And finally, as I see you pointing to a reproduction of Van Gogh’s sunflowers as older students try to copy it, my heart sinks. And again, please believe me that I get no joy in knowing that you are not a good art teacher. 

I write this to you because I know that the art studio is a place of sheer magic (or can be) for every single one of your students. Let that sink in for a second. 

Magic. 

Is your studio magical?

It can be a place he can learn that his unique approach to drawing his eye in his self-portrait will be celebrated; a place where she can take a risk ripping a piece of paper to realize she’s made the perfect shape of a claw for her creature; a place where he can feel confident in sharing what he discovers with his friends; a place where there are multiple solutions to one problem; a place where the first answer is never the “right one” or the only one; a place where exploration and experimentation are the “work”. 

I write this blog for you because I know this to be true and know that you can be better. It’s not your fault. We teach the way we’ve been taught and unfortunately for most of us, our art education sucked. It consisted of making crafts for holidays, learning art skills in isolation, and copying the masters. A “good artist” to most children is synonymous with a person who can draw realistically or rather, draw like an adult. And this perception is created by and then perpetuated by subpar art teachers. When drawing, cutting, painting, or building like a child is not celebrated, children learn that their own unique perspectives and approaches don’t have value. If you don’t believe that kids can create beautiful artwork in their own aesthetic, you shouldn’t be teaching art. If you do, read on. 

“But the kids kids love my art class.” I hear this all the time from subpar teachers and parents of kids with subpar teachers. Well, of course they do. They don’t know they could have something SO much better. They don’t know they could be making their own incredible and UNIQUE works of art. They are happy making pretty pictures or snowmen paintings. Following simple steps makes them feel successful. Trying something new, looking at a blank page, now that’s scary! Artists are brave.

So, is this blog for you? See questions below: 

  • Do you teach lessons connected to a holiday? 
  • Do you teach skills in isolation?
  • Do you pre-cut shapes and have instructions for students to follow?

If your answer is yes to any of the questions above (and I could probably add dozens), here’s a quick snapshot of the impact of what you’re teaching on your potential future artists: 

Do you teach lessons connected to a holiday?

This is craft, it’s not art. Kids should know the difference. Fine artists are expressing their unique views of the world, not making gifts for their friends. Leave this type of “work” to camp counselors, parents, or classroom teachers during down time. You are an art educator training your kids to be artists: don’t diminish your value or demean the importance of fine arts within culture. 

Do you teach skills in isolation?

This usually takes the form of mixing specific primary colors in a certain order to create a color wheel or learning to make lines by drawing 5 prescribed lines as a class. We learn skills when we need them because that makes sense. Create a situation that necessitates the learning. Only give them primary colors and challenge them to make as many different colors as they can. They will learn through doing. And doing independently. And as a result, the discoveries will be authentic and valuable. 

Do you pre-cut shapes and have instructions for students to follow?

Where do I start on this one? We are not creating sheep. Good artists are not compliant instruction followers.They are instruction creators and challengers. They work to find a different way. If you are pre-cutting shapes for some project, put down your scissors. Artwork should never look the same as another artist’s. This is literally the cardinal rule of an artist: make something original. Otherwise, there is no point and I mean NO POINT in making it. 

Don’t be defensive but this is just the tip of iceberg. I’ll be writing tons on how and what great art teachers teach and I hope you’ll keep reading or at the very least, think about what you are implicitly teaching with your current lessons and then compare that with the larger lessons I hope you want to teach. Start with this simple exercise:

I want my students to understand that artists are people who…

1. 
2. 
3. 

Share your lists with me and I’ll work to help with the more difficult task of HOW we teach those understandings to our students in meaningful ways.