In the US right now we are seeing a record number of job openings. People are quitting or changing positions, reflecting continued strength in the rapidly growing labor market. Employment of high school teachers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2020 to 2030. In some areas, administrators are reporting small applicant pools to hire from, even in art positions. Meanwhile, I am seeing a surge in questions from art teachers who are teaching a new grade. Here is what you need to expect when moving grade levels from my own and other art teachers lived experiences. *Note that My Art Lesson focuses on 5-12th grade art education and so there is an emphasis on moves to and within those grade levels.  

Elementary > Middle School
Teachers who have transitioned from elementary to middle school often sing the praises of fewer preps. In middle school, an art teacher will generally teach fewer grade levels (planning for 3-grade levels rather than 6) and see students on a more frequent basis. For example, When I taught middle school I saw my students every day for a trimester.  Because you see them more frequently, you get to know your students better and develop deeper relationships. You can tackle more complicated projects at this age and hold more sophisticated conversations. Conversely, it may feel like students fly through the projects because you see them so frequently. 

Middle Schoolers are more independent. As one new middle school art teacher commented, “Gone are my days of passing out paint to 700 kids. They get it themselves.” Students come and go with a bell. You are free of being a the mercy of classroom teachers dropping them off! A lot of emphasis in middle school is on developing executive functions to help manage all the new responsibilities that come with independence. 

Anyone who knows middle school will tell you it requires good classroom management. Preteen attitudes can be intense and students can be very social at this age (aka talking). Cell phones are another enemy of the teacher at this age. Hormones are kicking in. Gone are the little kid’s enthusiasm and love for art. You won’t be receiving many homemade gifts or spontaneous hugs. The older students get the less comfortable they get with making art. The enthusiasm students had for art class in elementary school is waning and you can even encounter some negative attitudes.

In middle school, you will need to do more grading. Every project needs to be assessed with a letter or numeric grade. Some students and parents can be surprisingly combative over those grades as well. Attendance is another thing you will spend more time on. 

Middle School > High School
These two levels have more in common than not. I always felt I was most at home with the high school group but enjoyed my limited time in middle school, which was a surprise to me. And, frankly, 9th grade is more middle school than not. The biggest difference is the older the student is the longer they can focus on a task. For high school, you can wade even deeper into art concepts. Older high schoolers can be expected to persevere through any struggles. High schoolers can think more abstractly. Beyond any art requirements your school might have, art classes at the high school level are taken largely by choice so those classes tend to have students who have self-selected art and are genuinely interested in art. Those required classes can be quite a mix- of ability, interest, and maturity. 

High school teachers always talk about developing positive relationships. In high school, you may not only see a student every day for a year but you may have them for multiple years through a sequential curriculum. It’s exciting to see them grow in high school. High Schoolers may be more interested in you as a person and this can be both good and bad. I have many students I still hear from through college and beyond.

High schoolers want you to push and challenge their skills, and can be harder to persuade them that you know what’s best! I have had some students who thought they knew it all and were fully formed artists at the ripe age of 17. I can vividly recall trying to push a student in an advanced art class to develop a more complex composition and it wasn’t until she heard the same advice at a portfolio review that she started to believe that I really knew my stuff. High Schoolers are always a little wary of new teachers and take time to warm up. 

High School students can be under a lot of stress and can be over-committed in their classes and extra curriculum pursuits. Expect students to ask you for college advice and recommendations. High School teachers have that specially added pressure of being expected to churn out recommendations for colleges and scholarships. You may feel pressure from students, family, and administration to win awards and get students into good schools, achieve excellent AP scores, etc.

High School  > Middle School
As one teacher put it, “Middle School is a special calling.” One of my biggest challenges when moving to middle school was 6th grade. You really need to get them out of elementary school mode and teach them routines and responsibilities, like getting their own work and supplies out. Another challenge is the lack of focus. It takes longer to settle this age group. As my husband would say, it’s like “herding cats.” There is more immaturity at this age and they can be very destructive of art supplies, particularly erasers.

As one high school turned middle school teacher summarized nicely, “ Middles need much more structure and guidance than I am used to. They need more incentives and engagement can be a challenge. Calling parents works wonders!” 

Another teacher with experience teaching both levels stated, “Middle school curriculum is small and repetitive, but that means it’s also really easy! If you can deal with discipline like a gangster, I think you’ll like it.” I agree! Typically you teach more general art whereas in high school you may be expected to cover a lot of territory in terms of media. I know high school curricula often kept me on my toes creating new curricula or learning the curricula for classes that I was assigned and less familiar with.

Transitioning Tips
Tips for making a successful transition:

  1. Find a mentor.
  2. Observe that grade level if possible.
  3. Research the physical and emotional development of the age group you will be teaching.
  4. Join teaching groups (Facebook has many for teachers at various levels).
  5. Follow grade-specific teachers on IG/FB as well as bloggers teaching at your assigned grade level.
  6. Develop a strong classroom management plan.
  7. Be kind to yourself and learn right along with your students.
  8. Remember it takes time; time to warm up to your school, students, administration, community, etc. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.  

    Share your experience moving grade levels in the comments!