We all have first-year war stories. For me, I was fresh out of art school, and the ink on my teaching certificate hadn’t even dried yet before I accept my first job in a small regional high school in upstate, NY. It was a relief after a month of hearing my older sister repeating, “And when yoau are unemployed in the fall…” ad nauseam. I was 22 and I had a student who was 21 in one of my classes. The school was replacing a forty-year-old art teacher who failed to earn tenure because of his out-of-control classroom management. I am not sure what made them think 22-year-old me was a good bet but I was thrilled. I could fill a book with stories from my first three years, both good and bad. No doubt though those three years in the trenches helped me become a better teacher. And that journey never stops. 

New teachers today, you have a tool I didn’t have. You have the internet. Lessons, teaching resources, and support groups are just a click away. Use them generously, there s no need to reinvent the wheel. Meanwhile, I have collected some wisdom from art teachers on the front line. Read carefully and refer to this advice frequently. And welcome to teaching, the hardest job you’ll ever love.

Brace Yourself! 

Be prepared to be overwhelmed, stressed out, and question your ability as a teacher. Even the most masterful zen teacher felt stressed during their first year. It gets better, but slowly. I’ve heard the first year compared to a duck. A duck looks graceful above water but is paddling furiously below! I’d love to tell you the second year is better but to be honest, you’ll make different, new mistakes the second year. It’s a slow climb and even experienced teachers have bad classes and bad days.

Conserve energy (and money)

Be flexible, don’t let people take advantage of you. 

Refrain from taking work home. Have everything set up for the next day before you go home, it makes mornings less stressful.

As a new teacher, you may be asked to do many things beyond your teaching work. This might be a mural, a bulletin board, scenery for the school play or dance, etc. Know that you have a right to say no. Set new expectations. If it’s something the art teachers “always” did it’s easier to say no in the beginning than after a year or two. 

If you don’t have it resist buying it with your own money. Just make do with what you have. There is so much you can do with recycled materials and minimal supplies. Wait until you can order with school money. It’s not your job to fund education.

Art Teaching is all about getting better. You definitely won’t be able to do it all your first year. Slow and steady wins the race.


Make connections with fellow teachers and other staff. Sometimes being an art teacher can be lonely.

Art teachers universally agree you should make friends with the office staff and custodians.

Be kind to the custodians and teach the kids to clean up.

Students are NOT your friends. You can be kind and get to know them, but keep your boundaries clear and professional at all times. 

Pay attention to other teachers and observe them in your school if your cooperating teacher will allow it.

Get to know your students. Building relationships with students is the best classroom management. When students genuinely like and respect you, and know you like and respect your classroom will be a place they look forward to coming to every day.

Some students will find a home in the art room. Students who are difficult for other teachers may excel for you. The inverse can happen as well. A student with a stellar reputation might be apathetic in your room. Don’t let others’ opinions of students affect how you see them.

Visit as many classrooms as you can. See how other teachers operate (good and bad). Teaching is an art and craft that can be learned.

Classroom Management

As soon as you can gain access to your room, get organized. Skip making a “Pinterest” beautiful classroom. Create systems to stay organized. Maybe create color-coded supply tubs for each table. Think through project storage. Organize all your supplies and group them together. For example, inks, brayers, linoleum, and Lino cutters should be grouped together as they are all printmaking supplies. This allows you to both know what you have and you will be able to find it when you need it. 

Teach your students to be quiet and respectful. When you want your class’s attention, wait until every student is 100% quiet. You could use a bell, clapping echo games, etc. Train your student to be a respectful audience, reinforce it, and keep using it all year long. Your future self will appreciate it. 

Develop a system when it comes to fellow (not art) teachers requesting art room supplies. Know that it is OK to say “No, these supplies are for the art classes.”

Use locks on your supply cabinets if necessary.

Universal advice that teachers of all subjects say: be clear and consistent with your behavior management. You can always back off with discipline, but once you’ve let go of control it is hard to reel students back in.

Don’t take student behavior personally even when it feels very personal. This can be really hard but you will get better at it. Remember students’ brains are still developing, bodies are changing, social stresses are constant and family problems you don’t even know about may be in play. Be the calm adult to the emotional and/or angry student.

One thing that stuck with me from student teaching (high school), is the cooperating teacher told me to record how long it takes me to make a sample project, then either double or triple that time- that’s how long the students will need. Has been very accurate!

Procedure, Procedure, and Procedure

Establish expectations and stick to them. This includes routines for material distribution and clean-up. Routines will help your art room studio run smoothly.

As one teacher put it, “Start with simple lessons to instill your procedures with the students. Worry less about making art or if they are amazing projects and get the procedures down. It seems counterintuitive but students can’t work as creatively in chaos. Also don’t assume your students know basic things. Just because it was written in the curriculum or seems like that age should know it doesn’t mean the other teachers taught it.”

The Art of Teaching

Always walk through a project before presenting it to students. Troubleshooting processes will help both you and your students be successful.

Always have contingency plans. Even the best-hatched plans can be waylaid by a school emergency, internet outage, power outage, etc. Schools are unpredictable so keep a game or activity in your back pocket at all times. 

Have a substitute folder ready to go with the practical notes about your students and their schedules, plus a host of activities that even a non-art substitute teacher can use in your absence; especially for those unplanned outages.

Take the time to take notes. Students that are sick, students you needed to talk to, basically anything that might be important. You just can’t keep everything in your head. 

Principals and other teachers LOVE when you make connections to other subjects. Plus it grabs the attention of students you might not otherwise get!

Teach with energy and passion, and share your excitement with your students!

Be prepared for students who are just filling a requirement or earning a needed credit. Most students won’t share your passion and interest in art. Meet them where they are and build effort and growth into your grading. 

Books that art teachers recommend include Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, Harry Wong’s The Classroom Management Book, Helen Hume’s The Art Teacher’s Survival Guide for Elementary and Middle Schools, Helen Hume’s The Art Teacher’s Survival Guide for Secondary Schools: Grades 7-12, Fred Jone’s Positive Classroom Discipline and  Michael Linsin’s Classroom Management for Art, Music, and PE Teachers.

A Few More Things…

If you stay teaching long enough, you may experience a student’s death. No matter what the cause, student loss is stressful for both the adults and students in the school. Know that you will grieve with the students but be prepared to support students as well. Grief is shown in many ways, expected and unexpected. Lean on guidance counselors to help you and students who are struggling.

A personal favorite of mine. Please read your contract! When I joined a school I pointed out to my department head that our contract had a suggested cap for art classes. He dialogued with the head of guidance and our class size came down. All because I read the contract.

Join your state Art Education Association. One teacher wrote, “It’s been the best move that I made 20 years ago when I started my job. It’s the best group of people who are there to share ideas and support you.”

Take photos of everything your students work on. This will help you when applying for grants or applying for future jobs. Make your job work for you too.