A Letter to a First Year Art Teacher

By some strange coincidence, I have received about twenty emails in the last ten days from art teachers who are brand new to teaching art and are starting an art program but have no idea where to begin. I hear the utter distress in their voice, their uncertainty and their gracious pleas for help. I am honored that they took the time to write me, to ask my advice, and I want them to know that I completely understand.

This will be my ninth year teaching art. I began when my youngest child started Kindergarten. Now that all my children were in school, I asked myself what I would do with the extra time. I had been a dedicated volunteer for many years so I could have continued down that path, or I could work.

But what would I do? My past life as a fashion designer held little interest for me, but I did enjoy the school environment. I spent a few nights wondering which direction to pursue until a good friend told me that an art specialist position opened up at her children’s school. Within a week I was offered the job. I was ecstatic! I could earn a few extra dollars doing something I loved. Then reality set in: 350 children in seventeen classes. No curriculum and a hodge-podge of art supplies.

I had no idea where to start.

I know the questions you are asking because I asked myself the same ones: do I teach the same lesson to all grade levels? How do I follow the standards and what do they mean? Are the elements of art too sophisticated? How do I set up the classroom? Do I give a paint palette to each student? How do I transition?  Same questions, right? Maybe, except today they are framed within standards and assessment expectations.

So, my dear first year art teacher, I have some advice to help you transition and grow into your second year. Take my advice with a grain of salt. Just like anything, my opinions are just that; opinions. Still, I hope you find that by reading these words, you realize that are not alone….

If you are not a first year art teacher, please help encourage all those who are starting out for the first time. Share your experiences, your favorite books and tried-and-true tips.

Thank you so much!

What do you think?

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  • Linda Bringer

    I used the monochromatic portrait (display looks like a rainbow) last year as an all-school beginning art project – and it was a huge success! Yikes, I need another one to begin this year – any ideas? Thanks!

    • Stephanie

      I started the year off by reading Beautiful Oops! and having students transform “oops” scraps I found in my room (and the teacher work room), into beautiful oops. The last class finished yesterday. Now I’m working on displaying all their projects on the bulletin boards outside my room.

      http://artabroad.blogspot.com/2012/08/beginning-with-beautiful-oops.html

      • Patty

        I think Beautiful Oops just might be the most engaging art book of all time. It’s a prefect read for the first day.

        • Sarah

          Thanks so much for connecting us all! Stephanie’s Beautiful Oops board is fantastic. I will be gone on a long trip for seven days early in the school year. The trip will be incredible but I am anxious about having a sub for so long my first year. Beautiful Oops may be a fun project for the sub. Thanks Stephanie! Any other tips or projects for substitute teachers would be appreciated!

        • heppcatt

          I took your e-course this summer….fabulous. I have told you previously that I am teaching music and art this year and I am creating lessons that intertwine both subjects. Started the year with Beautiful Oops and learned 3 Little Birds (you know….don’t worry, about a thing. Cuz every little thing, is gonna be alright.) Fun beginning. But here is the big question….How do you manage (store) watercolor palettes…the kind in the long rectangular plastic container? I am constantly finding black paint in the bottom of the tub I have the kiddos return them in. The palettes at the bottom are then swimming in goo. AAAHHH!

  • Joanna

    Been there, could write the book on it. The first couple of years are the WORST until you find your groove! You don’t have to do it all…and there is a wealth of knowledge on the blogosphere! Not every lesson works the way you want it too (the kids don’t know the difference!)…be CONFIDENT and it carries through. Best of luck to you!

  • Jennye

    Thank you! I am one of those first year art teachers (our first day was actually today) and this letter was great. It is nice to know there are others out there who we can turn to for great ideas and inspiration as well as support.

    Thanks,
    Jennye

  • Pat

    Patty,

    I had no idea that you didn’t have a BA in Art Ed.! You are one of the most knowledgable, creative and inspiring art teachers that I have ever known! So much for that pesky degree! LOL I really liked your letter to the newbies. It was thoughtful, eye- opening and most importantly, realistic. I hope that those 20 young people create their own blogs ASAP and join all of us veterans in the awesome blogosphere!

    :)Pat

    • Patty

      Pat,
      You always have the nicest things to say. We must meet someday!

    • Sarah

      Pat,

      I may be the oldest of the newbies….just turned 50 and while I feel overwhelmed with the 370 students I will have, I do feel ok with the life experiences and knowledge that I’ve gained over the years. Thanks so much for being out there and supporting us. I was delighted this morning to see all of the veteran’s posts!! Have a great year.

      Sarah

  • josie

    I am in my second year teaching art and loved your letter Patty. I can only say the part about asking other teachers is so true. My prep teachers guided me in so many ways and now I have different activities in groups to rotate which is what they are used to and can cope with. I am also slowly going out of the comfort zone now and love the results. You are so right it cannot go right all the time and if you learn from the mistakes then you are growing. Have fun out there being creative, this site will give you all you need any time you need it! Thanks Patty for keeping me afloat I adore your imagination. Best wishes to all. Josie.

  • Currie Silver

    I never cease to BE amazed at your capacity to encourage. I mean, simply, YOU ARE an Encourager!!! [which I know is NOT a real word, but I BElieve it should and MUST BEcome one]

    You always make me think and reflect and BE encouraged. I love knowing a bit more of your story, too. That is so generous of you to share.

    This letter is exquisite and oh so BEautimously written. I would have LOVED to receive it when I was starting out. Frankly, as I taught everything from nursery school & daycare through adults, I canNOT say enough about how spot on you are. Any teacher will feel braver and more inspired reading and rereading this one. As for ME, looking for a wee gig as an afterschool teacher, I am going to print it out and put it where I will see it often and always.

    Thanks Patty!!

  • Talya

    Thank you for posting this! I am about to start my first year as an art teacher and i gotta admit i’m a little nervous! I loved all of this advice, it’s great!

  • susan

    Thanks for the encouragement, Patty. I think it’s important to find someone that has the same approach/ideas for teaching art .. I found home with you. THANK YOU!!

  • Laura

    What a wonderful, inspiring letter. To all that are starting in this creative profession –
    Welcome to the club & have a super colorful year!

    Laura 🙂

  • Carol

    Patty,

    I wish I had had something like this to read before I started my first year teaching Elementary Art. It is still a learning process, but thanks to websites like yours, I don’t feel as isolated as I could be.

    Here’s a laugh of the day for you though. The Executive Director of my school made a first time ever visit to a K-1 class I was teaching, during the first week of school. Her feedback? “I don’t think you should let them use white glue. It’s too messy”. Groan…it’s going to be a long year!

  • Ashleigh

    I as well am a new art teacher this year! 🙂

  • Carrie

    After teaching 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Exceptional Student Education for 9 years, I was finally offered my dream job of becoming my school’s art teacher! While I was excited beyond belief, I was intimidated (teaching 9 classes each day and seeing 970 kids each week seemed overwhelming). I pored over your site all summer, and the creative lessons, encouraging words, and great tips made me feel like I could do it!
    I’m happy to say, I am one week in and having a blast! I started with “Beautiful Oops” in the primary grades and “Ish” in the intermediate grades – and the projects we tried were a success! (some creative paint splatter interpretations with Beautiful Oops and the Crazy Hair line drawings with Ish) Thank you!

  • Michelle

    I love this letter and wish I had found it 8 years ago! I re-blogged it with links to your page! Thanks for sharing all of your awesome lessons!

  • H

    Remove the black and brown from the palettes! Students over use those dark colors and make mud of too many projects. Have them use the dark colors as accents only and the end of the project if needed maybe to outline!

  • Mary Baum

    I wonder how many applied arts professionals turned art teachers there are? I was an architect, then an art volunteer before I became a certified art educator in TX. Now all I need is a paying job. My youngest will move on to Middle School next year and I think we are both ready to spread our wings. We’ve done several of your projects in our volunteer program. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Gwen Curry

    Hi there. Had a moment to say a huge Thankyou for all the inspiration you’ve shared with me over the last few months. I’m new to teaching at lower key stage one level her in England. ( 5 and 6 and 7 yr olds) and have no art training at all except my own love of colour, mess and fun! We are working our way through weekly projects often from your pages. Managed the “how to draw a cow” last week for ow words in Literacy. The castle with oil pastels and watercolours are all over the school too. Look forward to new ideas and you always seem to have something to fit the topic of the moment. X

  • Claudia Fehr-Levin

    Patty I think you are amazing!!!!Thank you for all your articles of advice and encouragement!!I have been giving art lessons in my studio for the last year (love it!) & in about 10 days I start in a school!(life long dream!) I am both totally excited & nerve wracked!!! I am sooo happy to have found you ! It is so great that you share your knowledge & years of experience with us ! and to read other art teachers comments !
    It really is a treasure box!! and you have incouraged me to share my experiences and play forward!
    many blessings Patty!!!and thank you!!!!

  • Emily

    This has gone completely viral in the online art ed community! It’s everywhere – and for good reason- this is excellent, heartfelt advice! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and ideas! Even though I’ve been teaching art for about 12 years, there are so many great pieces of advice to take from this letter (and from the awesome lessons you post). You’re the bee’s knees!

    For the new art teachers out there- I’ve written my own advice in this post: http://emilyjanevalenza.com/thoughts/2013/8/27/advice-for-new-art-teachers

  • thea.rosenburg@gmail.com

    Oh, thank you! I teach my first class tomorrow (we’re doing “Painted Pigs” from your Teaching Art 101 course), and despite the fact that I have not hundreds of students but twenty, I’m nervous. Your encouraging words are oh-so-welcome today 🙂

  • Amanda

    Crazy or Not???

    It is the END of may and the school year. I am just into the 2nd course of a 6 course program to get my teaching certificate. (of note I can apply for jobs at the end of teh 2nd course because I will earn a probationary certificate). I would like to apply for art teacher jobs and attain one beginning this next school year. This gives me 3 months to finish certificate training and then also setup a room – make beginning lesson plans etc.

    I do not know if this enough time. When you start as an art teacher, is there stuff from the last art teacher still there? Am I starting from scratch? Do districts typically give you a skeleton curriculum and you build your lessons based on that? Should I wait?

    I do not want to give a bad year to my first year of students. I am planning on teaching K-5 in Texas.

    Any advice or warning is greatly appreciated!

  • Linda Tvedt

    This is a great letter. I like the part where you say “stick to the style of art you are good at”! Thank you !
    Linda

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