The 5 worst mistakes I've made as an art teacher

The 5 Worst Mistakes I made as an Art Teacher

The 5 worst mistakes I've made as an art teacher

If you have taught art for any length of time, no doubt you have accumulated a few misses in your teaching strategy. I know I have. Like many of you, when I first began teaching, I had no idea if a project I read about in a book would work with my students. If it looked fun and doable, I would try it.
What I didn't know is that there are some basic strategies that every art teacher should know. And since I didn't know them and learned the hard way, I want to share them with you....

Here are my top 5 art teacher blunders:


My finest memory of creating art as a child was making papier-mâché sculptures in a museum art class. I had never experienced making official 3-D sculptures (apart from the shoe box Barbie doll houses in my closest) before and was thrilled to learn that the gooey mess I created would harden enough to last for years.

Here's the thing. You can make a paste out of flour and water. It's easy, dries to a hard finish and is pretty cheap. What you may not know is that it can be itchy for some kids and absolutely will not come out of carpet.

I was so enraptured with the thought of my fourth grade class making huge dinosaur sculptures that I just assumed the flour-water paste would be fine. I tested it out with my own dino and it work really well. But when I taught the lesson to my students, it was a disaster. The sculptures worked well (as I knew they would) but the MESS! Oh my goodness. That stuff would not come out of the carpet. The school had to get a special cleaner to remove the mess. I felt so bad.

To avoid this, I would highly suggest using Elmers Paste. Mix with a bit of water, let it sit for 15 minutes and you have a clear, sticky gel that not only works well but cleans up beautifully.




By cutting in half many fruits and vegetables, you have a perfect stamp in which to make a glorious painted garden. I had seen these clever stamped prints in many books an online art pictures and wanted to try it with my three classes of first graders.

I bought celery, peppers and potatoes, cut them in half, stopped out any seeds and filled a bowl with the vegetables. As I was prepping for the class, I quickly realized that I just barely had enough veggies to go around. I tried to distribute equal amounts of shapes and textures and proceeded to teach my first group of first graders how to dip and stamp with paint.
Th project turned out fantastic! The kids loved it and so did I.

Then it hit me. I still had two more classes to teach. And one class was coming ten minutes after the first class. I washed the paint off the veggies and noticed that the cut edges were not sharp anymore but rather soggy.

You can see where I'm going with this. By the time my second class ended, the veggies were unrecognizable. I had to come up with another printing lesson for my third class as I wouldn't be able to use the cut veggies anymore.

What I learned: Cut veggie prints are fantastic for small groups only.




Ceramics was a completely new thing to me. By my third year of teaching, I had figured out the basics of ceramics enough to create a few basic projects. Things like pinch pots and how to make a tile. Then by my fourth year of teaching, I got brave and created a figure from a chunk of clay.

Creating any form from clay whether it be a ball or in this case, a dinosaur is easy but it requires one very important element: an air vent. If you don't create a small hole for which the steam to escape, the piece will most likely explode in the kiln.

Most everyone knows this and I did too. It was the first thing I was taught when teaching ceramics. The trick is though is to create the air vent yourself. If you tell the kids to create a vent, they will but through the process of making a form, little kids will often close the vent accidentally. If you don't check and create a tiny hole yourself, you run the risk of mass extinction in the kiln. Which is what happened to me.

What I learned: Always poke a hole in any clay body that is more than a finger thick. And if you have to measure, poke a hole anyway. Better safe than sorry.




I was very enthusiastic during my first year of teaching. I wanted every student to have the ideal art experience. I carrie this desire with me throughout my years, but I got smarter with the delivery.

Way back then, I couldn't figure out the logistics of sharing paints. I figured it was so much easier to prepare 40 palettes of paint per class than to share. I know. I have no idea what I was thinking. But I do remember it taking me about 45 minutes to clean the trays at the end of the day.

One day, I looked at the 60+ palettes in my sink (and no, I didn't use paper plates!) and said that there had to be a better way. I went home that day and looked through an art catalog searching for palettes. I came across plastic muffin-style palettes and decide to try them.

I never looked back.

What I learned: Muffin-style palettes don't just ease the prep burden, they teach children how to share. Honesty, sharing and tolerating how others use paints has helped my students be more exploratory with colors, less rigid in their painting process and generally happier with their efforts.




This is a tough one to admit but I think we all try this at some point. When I first began teaching, there was very little in the way of online videos to see how other teachers taught. I had volunteered in my children's classrooms for years so I had some great teaching models and had picked dup on what worked and what didn't.

Then one day I saw a video on YouTube of an art teacher. People had raved about her teaching style. She had just won an award. She was energetic and dynamic but very scripted. She covered more in her 10 minute art history lesson than I could in a week. I was engaged and saw how the children were too. She held up vocab cards, pointed to an art history timeline, incorporated teaching strategies (like repetition and gesturing) and sounded effective and in control.

I love learning by example so the next day I printed up a few posters and cards and decided to use props to help me teach a lesson. I used her strategy when referring to the different posters and charts and tried really hard to implement them.

By the end of the second class, I realized I made a huge mistake. The kids looked at me differently as I was gesturing and pointing to timelines. Almost like they don't know who I was. By the third class, I loosened up a bit and incorporated more of my own style of teaching and by the fourth class, I had abandoned the charts and vocab words and just did it my way.

Little note here: I'm not suggesting you don't try to find ways to teach better and effectively. We all need to do that. But make sure not to sacrifice your authenticity.

What I learned: When improving your effectiveness in the classroom, don't follow scripts or charts if they don't sound like you. Enhance and develop what brings out the best in you--then you'll be able to bring out the best in your students.

Want to Learn More?

I created a podcast episode on how to determine if a project is right for your group of kids or class. You can listen to the podcast episode HERE.

Art Made Easy 006: How to determine if an art project is right for your class with Patty Palmer

Here's a FREE CHECKLIST of grade level art projects to download:


Your Turn:

What was the biggest blunder you have made as an art teacher?


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  • Vicky Siegel

    …transferring clay to another school to be fired when the clay was very fragile before firing. I tried to open the door with the container of too dried clay, dropped the container, broke most of the clay pieces, and had to have the students remake their creations. Luckily I still had more clay! When traveling and you do not have a kiln at all schools, either use air dry clay at the school without the kiln, or transport the clay the same day it is created. Let the clay dry at the school with the kiln!

    • Patty Palmer

      Oh my god…that would’ve been my nightmare! I had to do something similar one year when my school’s kiln broke. I had to transfer all of my 6th grade mural bisque tiles to another school to fire. I packed them in my car with so much cushioning, it took hours to unpack them.

  • Hope Knight

    Once I tossed some older tubes of printing ink into my bin of new inks without really reading the label past “speedball.” On printing day I decided to use up some of those half-empty older tubes, which were red. At clean up time, half the class were complaining that the ink wasn’t washing off their hands, so I looked at the tube to discover in horror it was oil based ink. We walked to the clinic to see if we could find a solution, which we really couldn’t but managed to get most off other than red stains. I typed up a note to parents quickly and reassured them it would wear off soon. Luckily no one complained. Lesson learned!

  • Laura Petrovich-Cheney

    Never paint the day before Christmas or Spring vacation. The children don’t have the focus or the patience the day before we break. Besides the fact at our school we had “Santa” walk the hallways. I was teaching second grade with watercolors when Santa came around the corner – I never saw so many children drop paint brushes and jump up down like that day. It was an epic mess!

  • Michelle East

    Air Dry Clay-Does NOT work for big projects. Before my school got a kiln (about 5 years ago), I had my 7th graders create an animal sculpture using air dry clay. The sculptures had to be larger than 8″ and started with an armature. They spent about 2 weeks sculpting & creating these animals and they looked AMAZING! I had timed it so they they would finish before spring break & we could let them dry over that time, then come back and paint them. When I walked in the door that Monday, my heart sank & tears rolled down my eyes, the kids were devastated-their sculptures had completely cracked & fallen apart! Most were not salvageable, but we did try to glue some back together which did not work (we tried elmers & hot glue). Lesson learned, from that point on I only used plaster wrap or ceramic clay for that project.

    • Patty Palmer

      Oooh. That’s heartbreaking. I’ve tried a few air dry clays and most seem to work well, especially the Laguna brand but I have not tried them on large pieces. Thanks for sharing!

    • J.R. Cooper

      Air dry clay of any brand can be strengthened by dipping it into a bath of water and white glue. Just enough water to make the glue move well so it coats without being thick and gloppy – dip the sculpture and then let it dry (I put them on cookie drying racks I picked up cheap). Once it is dry the sculpture has a better chance of holding together without the crumbling. Laguna is a good brand for this. Crayola Air Dry works decently too – I wouldn’t use anything else.

      • Patty Palmer

        Fantastic tips! I can’t wait to try this. Thank you so much.

      • Katherine

        Thanks for this, I might do this. See my air-dry clay experience below!

    • Katherine

      Yup, air dry clay does not work for big projects! We made mixed-up animals out of air-dry clay which obviously have lots of different parts to them…mermaid tails, rhino horns, dog heads, etc etc. They were quite large, about two hands of clay each, and the joins between the parts of animals all broke. Hot glue did not work! We did what we could (e.g. using tissue paper as squid legs, etc.) and I made it into a ‘make mistakes beautiful’ lesson… lesson learnt! I think next time if I use air-dry clay I will use lolly-sticks between joins. And buy a different glue, maybe some of the ones mentioned here. But this has actually turned me off air-dry clay a bit! I might look for another material….

    • Katherine

      Hello, thanks for sharing that all that, really helpful to read! I’ve put down my ‘biggest blunder’ below but wanted to ask: did the muffin palettes you used have removable little cups or are they just like muffin trays for the oven?
      Thank you!

      • Patty

        Hi Katherine…the muffin-style palettes are plastic and have either 6 or 9 wells. They are super easy to wash. You could use real muffin tins but the plastic is really easy to clean. 🙂

        • Katherine

          Thank you!

  • Susan Huppi

    I remember transporting clay dinosaurs from one school to the next..they droze! Luckily they did thaw and warm up before I fired them.

  • Mary

    yes, I made the mistake of individual paint trays with only 10 mins between classes!
    The next day we used paper pallets!
    Definitely looking into tempera cakes next year.

  • Tina Grimes

    My biggest blunder as a new art teacher was forgetting to watch the time while painting with 1st graders–then running out of time and having to clean all their paintbrushes myself, with only about 5 minutes between classes when I needed to use them again. I’ve made many blunders, but I always learn something from them so they’re kind of a blessing in disguise when they happen.

    P.S. I use Liquid Starch for paper mache. Works just as well and smells good too.

  • Eileen Blodgett

    As an artist-teacher working with children and adults I like using recycled materials when I can. The best part of my job is dreaming up new lessons with what I may have at hand. I decided to do a beautiful Fall Leaf watercolor resist lesson with oil pastels, the bottled vibrant watercolor paint and recycled white semi-glossy cardboard that comes inside folded shirts. I’ve done these resist lessons so often and I was confident! I didn’t test the cardboard. The bright, vibrant color washes to fill i9n the leaf and sky colors all turned various shades of beige- red beige, orange beige…you get the muted picture! Not what I was going for. I was really disappointed. The children were fine with it, though and were very happy with their pieces. Two lessons learned: test your materials and stay positive! One person’s disappointment is another’s delight!

  • Theresa Jarrell

    I can relate to the papier-mache story. When I taught 8th grade middle school art I decided to do a papier-mache project. I used the flour and water method to make my paste. What a mistake that was! Our school had an infestation of mice. The mice attacked the papier-mache project with vigor, coming out to nibble on them during class time! I ended up throwing them all in the trash for fear the kids would contract the plague. Another lesson learned for me the art teacher.lol

  • Carol Wiltse

    After teaching High School art for many years, I moved to an elementary school. I could truly write a book with all of the bad decisions that I made, such as, letting 1st graders sharpen their own colored pencils. They were more interested in the pencil sharpener than drawing and I ended up with stubs. Setting out glue sticks for Kinders to use. Again, they totally destroyed them. And the worst, letting them go as a group to the bathroom to wash paint off of their hands. There was paint everywhere, the sinks overflowed, and most forgot to come back to class. Now, I hand out baby wipes and don’t let them out of the classroom.(no sink in the classroom)

  • Tina Atkinson

    Not telling anyone else in the building that I was doing a burnout!
    One summer I taught a clay class for our onsite extended day program. We made animal piggy banks with newspaper in the center to hold the form…let’s just say it involved the fire department!!

  • Samantha White

    As a new Art teacher I always tried to be super organised… the Art teacher before me was a fantastic teacher so I had a lot to live up to. In an effort to be super organised before a lesson I mixed up some “Sculpt It.” This is part paper machie, part plaster, part clay type stuff. I mixed it all up because it was quite difficult to do and didn’t want to have to do it when the students were there. Well I went to show the students how to make their models, and it was 100% hard as a rock… a very expensive mistake. Luckily I had a little left over and we had to make smaller versions of what I had planned.

  • Riesa

    I gave out the wrong clay at an event and told the kids to go home and bake it! It was supposed to be Sculpey, but I gave them Plasticine! I got phone calls about the melted sculptures and felt sooooo bad!

  • Nicole Herzog

    I had my 5th grade art class make a paper mache solar system true to scale! It was great, until we realized the sun couldn’t fit out the art room door! The 5th grade classroom teacher was going to display them all in her room. The sun had to be sawed in half.

  • Cindy Rahner

    Mayco makes a fantastic product called clay mender that acts as a glue but is really just like strong clay slip. It works miracles to fix broken free ware or even bisque ceramics to avoid the dreaded epoxy gluing later on. Did I mention I loathe epoxying ?!!;)

  • Maria DePasque

    When beading with the children, I did not tape down one end of the lanyard, (not string or yarn) to the table. I picked up beads for weeks.

  • hollyclement@gmail.com

    The air vent hole is an art teacher myth. It can help with drying, but a hole is not necessary. Clay pieces explode because of moisture. You have to let the pieces dry out for a good long while, or do a long, slow pre-heat.

    • Patty

      Yes, you’re right. BUT to be on the safe side, that air vent has really made a difference if complete drying is not obvious. Thank you!


    My mistake was coming in later in the yer to teach K-6 art and had a difficult time organizing to figure out what I had and what I did not have or needed. The next thing was that I did not start off giving children responsibility jobs to take care of art room at end of class. I have learned that part of 5th Grade and all of 6th Grade are not interested in Art and any art project is met with disdain and only bribery will get them to draw or complete an assignment no matter how exciting! I thought paper mache mask designs would be great for 6th grade but once they saw the form of their face they were embarrassed and gave up. I should have done a hand instead. Trial and error and forge on!

  • Margaret Howell

    I was teaching a class on symmetry to K-5 students. I thought that it would be a great idea to let the Kindergarten class create masks using plates. The epic failure occurred when I didn’t realize that tempera paint really dislikes Styrofoam. Before the class was even over (only lasted 20 minutes), the paint was not just peeling off of the plates, it literally jumped off of the plates!

    After eating some humble pie, I ran out during my lunch, bought the cheapest paper plates that I could find, and quickly repainted the base coat for all of the students. The next week when they returned, they didn’t even seem to notice that they had different plates. They were able to paint their facial features on top of the coat from the previous week, and everything stayed on the plate where it belonged!

    • Patty

      OMG…I totally did this! So funny. Love this story 🙂

  • Katherine

    Hello, thanks for sharing that all that, really helpful to read! I’ve put down my ‘biggest blunder’ below but wanted to ask: did the muffin palettes you used have removable little cups or are they just like muffin trays for the oven?
    Thank you!

  • Theresa Dominique

    My biggest blonder was agreeing to participate in a two school combined art night. I glued hundreds of my students art to large bulllitin board paper. And transported the work in my car to the other school and hung it all by myself. Needless to say…. I had to take the next day off to recover!!!! Never again!!!!

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