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!


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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.

        • Stephanie

          Finished the bulletin board today and took a few pictures!

          http://artabroad.blogspot.com/2012/08/beautiful-oops-bulletin-board.html

        • 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!

          • Sarah Kate

            Stephanie! I saw your first week project on Pinterest and I will definitely do that next year. I am still going to work in the book some how, because I have already have several students make “mistakes.” Thanks for all the inspiration!

          • Stephanie

            I’m really no expert in sub plans—I rarely take my personal day because i can’t imagine a giving the kids over to a sub—but I recently saw this on pinterest and thought it would be a perfect one day lesson for a sub.

            http://pinterest.com/pin/239042692692913843/

            • Patty

              Yes, that looks like a great activity….no mess and easy prep!

        • 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!

          • H

            Just an idea: 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!

          • H

            Forgot to add: Keep the watercolor containers open to “dry out” before you store them away.

            • Patty

              Yes, this is a good one!

  • 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.